Winston Churchill once harrumphed that he had not become his majesty's prime minister to preside over the dissolution of the British empire.

It dissolved quite nicely, anyhow.

History can't say the same for Hugh Foot, Lord Caradon, who moved from Jordan to Nigeria to Cyprus to Jamaica in all the sword-bearing, polo-playing splendor of the raj, but always just a step ahead of the sun, which was setting on empires British and American. He was "a colonial governor who ran out of colonies," said Prime Minister Harold MacMillan.

Right now, Lord Caradon is limping briskly through Georgetown, outraged to discover that Virginia taxis can't pick up passengers in the District.

"It's so disconcerting," he snaps, milky blue eyes scouring out from under black tufts of eyebrows. "Here, we'll find one down this block," he announces, stepping off the curb to let a woman pass, and all the while expounding his solution to the Rhodesia problem, a problem which might not have existed he seems to say, if the colonial office had been running things.

"We were never in charge there, you see. It was always a white settler government," he explains with a small delighted off-the-hook smile, a peculiar figure-eight shape of the mouth, actually: the Jamaicans caught it perfectly in an effigy of him during a friendly parade while he was governor general.

Caradon is a visiting scholar at Georgetown University's center for Contemporary Arab Studies. He speaks Arabic, having begun his colonial career in 1929 in Palestine.

"I'd asked for Sudan," he says, once the taxi has been found, ridden in, people seen and a few moments found for recollections.

"That was traditionally an athlete's administration. I'd rowed for my college at Cambridge but I didn't have a blue - the jibe was, the blues ruling the blacks. It had just happened that way, Sudan and the athletes. When you went, you went for life - no one could imagine the end of the British empire, then. But they called me and offered me Palestine. I needed a job, it sounded like a bit of an adventure . . .."

And now, at 71, first knighted as Sir Hugh Foot, then made Baron Caradon of St. Cleer, he is proudest, strangely enough, of having it all fall apart, of "having achieved an orderly transfer of power in 80 percent of something like 40 territories. One day at the United Nations, the Soviet ambassador said to me that this was impossible, for us to be on such good terms with our colonies. He said: 'Some of them running these countries were your prisoners!' This was just after they'd moved into Czechoslovakia, so I said: 'Better to make prime ministers out of prisoners than prisoners out of prime ministers'."

The figure-eight smile shines anew. He is reminded, in fact, of an even better bon mot, based on the little speech British pilots used to make to passengers about the lowering of the landing gear.

"I wanted to say in the Security Council: 'There is no cause for alarm. The rumbling sound that you hear is the normal noise of the Soviet ambassador being lowered and locked into a fixed position.' But I never got to say it, the time was never quite right."

And that, to judge from his face, is a far greater loss than Nigeria or India or Trans-Jordan of Malaya. He still savors the game.

In fact, Lord Caradon may be the last of a British civilization that knew just how serious the duke of Wellington was when he said (reputedly) that Waterloo had been won on the playing fields of Eton.

As Foot wrote in his memoir, "A Start in Freedom," "a fair fight in the hills was one thing. What I hated was cruelty." He attacks one Englishman "who had many successes, but he forfeited our reputation for fair play."

Fair play: In the world of Cambodia, and Gulags and South Aficas and Ugandas, the notion is so quaint as to be puzzling.

"I like to think we played reasonably fair, not like the French in Algeria," he says. "But nowadays, I think you can take it on the whole that any political prisoner is tortured. You can't be surprised it happens. They have information which is needed - it's a very powerful argument."

Nor has Caradon assumed the mantle of guilt so fashionable among some American liberals who boast of our empire by flogging themselves as imperialists.

"On the contrary," he says brightly. "I was a liberator."

Any suspicion that Nigerians or Arabs or Cypriots might not see it that way gets short shrift as Caradon shifts in his chair, impeccable and tropical in double-breasted blue blazer, poplin trousers, blue necktie with polka dots, very tightly knotted.

He is not immune to ironies, however.

"During the student rebellions in Palestine I was the British officer in charge of Nablus. I exiled one student leader named Akram Zuatar to a tiny desert town, way to the south of us, named Auja Al Hafir, a major punishment. One day at the United Nations a man came toward me, arms outstretched to embrace me. It was him. Later on I sent him a little rhyme I'd written: 'The youthful Akram did not fear exile in Auja Al Hafir . . .'"

And all attempts to be modest about British successes in retreating from world dominion are betrayed by a delightfully ghastly grimace when he rolls his eyes to heaven and says: "The Belgians . . ."

Nowadays, he makes yearly visits to friends in Jamaica and Arabia, touching down now and then in Africa, lecturing at American colleges - he has just visited two old favorities, he says: St. Olaf's in Minnesota, and Centenary College in Shreveport, La.He's done stints at Harvard and Princeton, lecturing and persuading in his touch of a West Country accent.

And there's his new campaign on Rhodesia, he being a Laborite and the new Tory government leaning toward accepting the recent elections, "when we have this splendid opportunity to deal with it at the meeting of the Commonwealth this August."

The Commonwealth? It would be easy, just now, to dismiss the clout of the British Commonwealth as a convenient political fiction, except that Lord Caradon's exuberance will not be brooked, he's already got his political strategy mapped out. He's going to go to the Foreign minister of the Tories, the party of Churchill, and raise that very ghost. The existence of the Commonwealth depends on it.

"I'll ask him if he's going to be the conservative minister who presides over the dissolution of the British Commonwealth!"

Having been a man who has spent his life laughing last, he may well laugh best. CAPTION: Picture, Lord Caradon, by James A. Parcell - The Washington Post