Ministerial resignations: Charles Clarke, Lord Carrington and the Falklands [1]

In the past few days, many commentators and bloggers have been saying, apropos the debate over whether Charles Clarke ought to resign as home secretary, that the last example of a minister resigning to take responsibility for the failings of his departmental officials, and not because of any personal responsibility for them, was Lord Carrington's resignation as Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary over the Falklands war in April 1982.   Sadly, this misinterprets what really happened.  Although I like, respect and admire Lord Carrington, one of the best and funniest ministers I ever worked for, I’m afraid it’s not the case, however widely the myth is believed, that in resigning over the Falklands he was accepting responsibility for the failings of his department’s officials while himself bearing no personal responsibility for the failure of British government policy represented by the Argentine invasion of a British territory. 

The Franks report (Cmnd 8787) on the events leading up to the Argentine invasion and the question of who was responsible for them demonstrates very clearly (not in its summary or conclusions but in the evidence that forms the body of the report) that officials repeatedly warned ministers of the mounting danger of an Argentine attack, and tried to persuade Lord Carrington to initiate a meeting of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet to agree on preventive action, but that Lord Carrington had resisted such action and delayed passing on officials’ warnings to the prime minister (Mrs Thatcher) with recommendations for urgent action to head off the attack, probably because he was already embroiled in tense controversies with her on other matters and was not prepared to add to them.  Lord CarringtonBecause of this, Carrington did carry a degree of personal responsibility for what happened, and it is a reasonable inference from the narrative in Franks that this was the principal reason for his decision to resign.  The likeliest explanation of the almost universal misinterpretation of the Franks Committee's account of these events is that while the body of the report contains ample evidence of the personal responsibility of he Secretary of State and his junior ministerial colleagues (who resigned with him) for their failure to alert the Cabinet's Defence Committee and the prime minister and to get their agreement to timely action to forestall the disaster, this evidence is almost entirely ignored in the summary published separately and in advance of the main body of the report.  In consequence, almost all media analysis of the report and comment on it were based not on the detailed evidence, but on the quite different summary and conclusions, described by James Callaghan, the Labour shadow Foreign Secretary at the time, as 'a bucket of whitewash'.  

A few years ago I wrote a letter to the Guardian (text below) to try to correct widespread misunderstandings on this point.  After it was published (on 23 February 1996) I received a personal letter from one of the senior FCO officials intimately involved at the time, confirming the accuracy of my account (which is anyway confirmed by Franks, if anyone takes the trouble to read the whole thing).  I was not myself involved in any way at the time and relied for my version of what happened exclusively on published sources.

My Guardian letter read as follows:   

I admire Richard Shepherd’s courageous article (The rusty sword, February 21) asserting ministers’ responsibility for their own and their departments’ actions. But his account of Lord Carrington’s (and his ministerial colleagues’) resignation over the Falklands does less than justice to the Foreign Office.    The Franks report somewhat resembled the Scott report in producing a good deal of largely inculpatory evidence, while half-fudging its verdict on ministers’ responsibility.

Franks expressly acquitted the FCO of pursuing a policy of its own. He made it clear that it was the ministers of successive governments who chose the policy of seeking a negotiated settlement, and that it was FCO ministers who decided not to pursue a policy of public education in favour of the "lease-back" proposal because of noisy opposition to it in Parliament and the initial opposition of the Falklanders; and it was FCO ministers who decided to postpone the tabling of a paper on the Falklands situation, as advocated by FCO officials, at the meeting of the Cabinet Defence Committee on March 16, 1982, arguably the last moment action might have been taken to deter invasion.    Franks’s evidence does not support Shepherd’s suggestion that Lord Carrington was carrying the can for "a significant error of policy" by the FCO.   

I declare an indirect interest: I was a member of HM Diplomatic Service at the relevant time, serving in the FCO for some of it, though not personally involved.

[1] This is an edited and somewhat fuller version of a comment on a comment on an earlier post in Ephems.