The Apparatchik in a Smoke-filled Room
Updated: Jul 3
A tribute to Sir John Birch, British Diplomat, who died last month in the UK.
John was a good man if ever there was one, who put his heart and soul into trying to help the peoples of eastern Europe create better, safer, fairer lives.
Here's a story that I wrote in April 2004 for Business Hungary, one of four short commentaries by people who had made contributions to Hungary's accession to the European Union, which occurred in May of that year. It has been edited for better historical context.
The Apparatchik in a Smoke-filled Room
One bleak December day in 1982, John Birch paid his first visit to the 'White House', the headquarters of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party.
Birch, a life-long diplomat then aged 47, was counsellor at the British embassy in Budapest, the number two.
“My ambassador had been summoned to meet a little-known Party apparatchik working in the international department and I went along to keep him company. We were led, wondering what it was all about, down the silent corridors and into a smoke-filled room,” he related to me, years later.
That little-known Party apparatchik was Gyula Horn, a man who, just 12 years later, would become prime minister of Hungary in the country's second set of democratic elections. But that was for the future, and was unimaginable at the time.
“Gyula Horn greeted us with more warmth than was customary towards Western diplomats. So we knew something was cooking,” Birch continued. “Hungary, he said, wanted to be part of Europe. Britain had a special understanding of Hungary and was her firm friend. We purred. Could we, therefore, make a special arrangement for the European Union to take more Hungarian agricultural exports and to co-operate more closely?”
This was not, he insisted, "some crazy idea of Gyula Horn" but had "the blessing from above".
“As he jabbed his finger at the ceiling, I realised he was referring not to the Almightybut to János Kádár.”
What's more, Horn added, all this “was to be our little secret. 'The cousins', indicated by another jab of the finger eastwards, would be very cross if they knew.”
He was, of course, referring to the Russians.
As if this was not enough intrigue for one day, this conversation was “just for British ears” he stressed, because "you can never trust the Germans or the French".
It was exciting stuff, but not quite the scoop it seemed. “We learned soon afterwards that their ambassadors had also been treated to the same exclusive privilege of relaying Hungary’s aspirations to Brussels,” Birch recalled.
Thus began a 20 year sparring relationship “with the old fox”, a relationship “which I hope was marked by mutual respect,” Birch said with a certain fondness.
Yet, when he returned to Budapest as British Ambassador in 1989, Horn seemed to fear things were going too far, too fast, and issued a warning to Birch “not to take up with my old friends in the opposition,” who were “bent on the destruction of Hungary.”
It was too late. The old order was fading fast, and it was the opposition that, after the elections of 1990, laid the foundation for Hungary’s future in the EU.
Britain fought hard to promote Hungary’s case for a place in Europe, Birch said. “We had two special, if not secret, weapons: Queen Elizabeth and Mrs Thatcher. At the height of her unpopularity in Britain in 1984, Thatcher made a spectacular visit to Hungary. In Britain she was the target for rotten eggs and tomatoes. In Budapest she was feted in the Nagy Csarnok and garlanded with paprika and garlic.”
Birch's stay as ambassador to Budapest was prolonged because of the visit of Queen Elizabeth in May, 1993. As he reasoned, the Queen is above politics, but when she travels abroad her words and deeds express the wishes of her government.
“Her visit to Hungary in May 1993 was no accident. Her message was clear. Britain wanted Hungary in the EU. The mention of her own Hungarian great grandmother, Countess Rhedey, in her speech to Parliament underlined the closeness of our countries.”
“It's been a long, hard road from Budapest to Brussels,” said Birch, ever a staunch European, “Britain joins Hungary in celebrating this historic event.”