“Hungary! Hungary? How Boring!” - PM Margaret Thatcher, cited by Sir Bryan Cartledge
Updated: Mar 26
Continuing our look at Sir Bryan's diplomatic memories in his webinar on March 10 (see post March 18) - hosted by Bradford University and entitled: ‘Dealing with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: Reflections of an ex-practitioner.'
From 1978 to 1980, Sir Bryan served two British prime ministers, Jim Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher, as overseas private secretary. As per tradition, when it came to the end of this stint, the Iron Lady asked for his preference for his next posting, he replied “Budapest.” As he recounted: “I said that because I'd been to Budapest, with [PM] Jim Callaghan, just 18 months before. I thought it was an absolutely marvellous city, I liked the people, the country, so I didn't have any hesitation.” She was shocked. “Hungary! Hungary? How Boring!,” she replied. “I tried to persuade her that Hungary was not at all boring, with no success. But she did find out for herself on an official visit. She liked it just as much as I had.”
Photo: Sir Bryan's acclaimed history of Hungary,
chosen after he realised his first idea, to write
about Lenin's New Economic Mechanism, would
prove beyond his finanicial means to research.
But before we delve into his musings on Hungary, let's look at the answers to two questions on post-Soviet Russia's policies today. First off, the moderator asked: how credible is the threat that Russia poses to the west today?
BC: "I think in military terms, the threat is clearly smaller, thanks to the various arms control agreements which have been reached, and largely adhered to, since Gorbachov first came into office.
"However, I don't think Putin has changed, or is even perhaps capable of changing, the traditional Russian fear of being ganged up on by the rest of the world, not least the western world.
"I think in many ways, Putin's gone out of his way to ensure that that fear remains, or even enhanced, because that provides the rationale for an authoritarian regime, as his is.
"However, although the military threat is much less obvious, Russia's interest in keeping its potential enemies or rivals divided is as great as ever. What has changed is the means, and the main means being employed now is the use of the internet and electronic warfare.
"As I'm sure you know, there is, in St Petersburg, a large building in which as many as 1,000 trolls are employed full time to use social media and other internet sites, to spread lies, disturbing rumours, libels about the west, western statesmen, political parties, western governments.
"And that, it seems to be, in some cases quite effective. Whether western democracies are capable of mobilising the same effort into countering this trolling warfare remains to be seen, but we haven't so far. I think there are glimmers of hope that maybe we are finally becoming more cognisant of the threat, and as the experience of the US Democratic Party has shown, the evidence of what the Russians are up to is mounting, steadily.
Qn: Are we in a new Cold War in your view?
BC: "To call this, what the Russians are doing, a 'cold war' … I think is probably a slight exaggeration. It's .. I'd call it a massive attempt at subversion, which is slightly different from what you'd call war, either hot or cold.
"The objective is to weaken the west by undermining it's institutions, and to make the west less capable of concerted action [perceived as] hostile to Russia. That's the objective, and the means being employed are largely electronic.
Qn: Steven Fisher, the current British ambassador to Moldova: Sir Bryan, as HM ambassador Moscow, did you visit Moldova and how do you assess the risk of further Russian aggression in the near abroad, including Transnistria? BC: "I'm ashamed to say I didn't have the opportunity to visit Moldova. It was a very popular destination for other members of my staff, largely because, at that time, the wine was excellent and there was plenty of it, ... but I could never muster sufficient political reasons for making the journey there. "As to Russian policy towards Moldova, I don't think Putin will be in any hurry to try and, by any kind of radical action, change the way things are going at the moment. "But there I must be very careful, because I'm not entirely sure which direction things are going in at the moment! I know at one time, ... it looked as if Russian control would be more or less permanent, and not only of Transnistria, but by influence, Moldova itself. "I know that since then things have changed an awful lot, ... but as a general rule of thumb, I think Putin will be concerned to contain and if necessary repress any independence of action on the part of all or any of the peripheral national republics if they show signs of straining at the leash. "But he won't got out of his way to rock the boat, he's got other and more pressing concerns. But if the Moldovans, for example, were suddenly to strike out and declare themselves for a bilateral relationship with Hungary or Poland or any central-east European country, then I think they'd be clobbered very quickly. Qn: From Natalia Telepneva, University of Strathclyde: Do you believe that Britain made any mistakes in it's policies towards Russia shortly after the collapse of the USSR? BC: A very good question. In brief, I think the major mistakes were made in Washington, and the mistake that we made was to go along with it. I think the degree of triumphalism which the GHW Bush administration allowed to take hold in Washington at that time was lamentable, and I think we should have tried to distance ourselves more than we did from that. And the fact that we didn't makes us to some extent responsible for the developments which ensued in Russia, and the persisting sense of victimhood and bitterness at the way in which, as they saw it, the west just spat on the outstretched hand.
And so to Hungary, which, when plain H E Bryan Cartledge arrived as ambassador in 1980, was already known as “the happiest barracks in the bloc” because of its swing away from the more repressive measures practiced elsewhere in the Soviet-dominated countries of what was then ominously termed 'Eastern Europe'.
As he put it, Hungary “was way ahead of the other members of Comecon in the way its economy was developing”. The country had, unlike any other behind the Iron Curtain at that time, joined the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and was “very obviously preparing to become ... a country like any other Europe. It was just a matter of waiting, [even if] at that time it looked like it would be a very long wait indeed, for the Russians to go," he said. In fact, the Soviets pulled out “much earlier than seemed likely, and Hungary duly did take a place among the countries of Europe”. Sir Bryan admitted that, while he hoped he'd be alive to see this, “I certainly didn't think I would still be in diplomacy.” Inter alia, he confirmed (and chuckled at) the tale posted on this blog last June, when he, together with his then number 2, John Birch, were summoned to meet “a little known apparatchik called Gyula Horn” who was clandestinely, and seemingly exclusively, asking the UK to put a good word in for Hungary over a trade deal with Brussels. (See very first blog post The Apparatchik in a Smoke-Filled Room, dated as May 20.) But, as with Russia, the retired Sir Bryan expressed sadness at developments in Hungary after the heady hopes of the 1990s. In answer to a question from Bradford University's Owen Greene to “comment on the current political trajectory of today's Hungarian government and the prospects for this changing in a more democratic direction,” he responded: “Yes, I was afraid this was going to come up. Let me say straight away that I deplore the direction which the Orbán regime has taken the politics of Hungary. The politicisation of the judiciary, of the media and of the constitution. "None of it is irreversible, I think that although the support for Fidesz has been sustained for many years by quite significant improvements in the daily lives of Hungarians – the economy has been doing quite well, FDI has been flowing in, and the other aspects of daily life, education and so on, have been certainly maintained at a decent level, if not improved. “I mean, I think in the case of education, the answer is that it's not been improved because of the whole business of vetting text books and inculcating the philosophy of Fidesz, if you can call it that, into secondary and higher education is very much to be regretted. That is where I stand. .... “The reason why the opposition haven't been able to lay a glove on them really, so far, is that the opposition has been lamentably divided, and now that they are showing the first signs of being able to get together, and unite behind a common programme, although that's still on the wish list, it hasn't happened yet and may not even happen before the next election, although I hope it does, “I think once that happens, then I think and hope that Orbanism will be brought to an end, and Hungary will revert to the working democracy that it certainly was prior to 2010.”
Postscript: 1) Apologies for any name mispellings.
2) I'm afraid, despite writing to the contact address at Bradford University asking if the entire talk is available online, I've yet to receive an answer. However, a TV report on Sir Bryan's views on Hungarian history, produced for Hungarian state television in 2016, is available here in English: