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PM Orbán Mk1, Justifying the Iraq War, Handling a Pompous Brit and Jamming with Jet Harris

A Diplomatic Memoir: Nigel Thorpe, British Ambassador to Hungary recalls the trials and tribulations of life either side of the dawn of the Millennium in his new book "An Accidental Diplomat". The following is excerpt from his chapter on Budapest

Photo: (Just to remain politically neutral, and balance the headline) Nigel Thorpe talking to Hungarian Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy at the Queen's Birthday Party, 2002. This would have been in June, with Medgyessy barely a month in office. One wonders what HE Thorpe is saying, perhaps along the lines of: "Could Hungary just increase its military spending just a tiny bit more, closer to the Nato target, Péter?"

When I arrived in Budapest in April 1998 I did not know that this was to be my last job and last posting with the Foreign Office. I probably didn’t think very much about it at the time as there were plenty of other things to tackle. I had a large staff, mainly locally engaged Hungarians but also about twenty UK- based British staff. I had several different roles to perform: representative of the British government, political observer and reporter, commercial salesman for UK Limited, guardian of the local and visiting British community, finance officer (I had to sign off the account every month) and personnel manager. I also had to run a small hotel and restaurant, otherwise known as the Ambassador’s Residence.

Of course I knew almost nobody and needed to know just about everyone who mattered. It was a busy life and I threw myself into it with all the energy I had.

My time in Hungary was dominated by three things: two elections, both involving a change of government; two wars, in Kosovo and Iraq; and the end of my second marriage. I also ended my diplomatic career there, but more of that later.

My arrival was well timed, as there was an election a month later in which the government, in the hands of the Socialist Party, changed to the Young Liberal Democrats (Fidesz) under Viktor Orbán. These fierce anti-Communists seemed a breath of fresh air after the Socialists, many of whom had been in the Communist regime. I bent my energy to the task of getting to know the key players.

I was helped in this by already knowing, from a meeting in London, the woman who was to be Orbán’s foreign affairs private secretary. She proved a huge benefit to me throughout the next four years of this first Orbán premiership. Any time I needed to get a message to Orbán, or learn something about his thinking, or arrange a meeting for a visitor, she opened the door for me.

Orbán started promisingly but quite quickly lost his shine and showed the underlying intolerance and ultra-nationalism which has tarnished his government since then. As for me, in learning how to be an effective ambassador I got some things right and some wrong.

The first four years passed quickly. In 2002 another election loomed. By then Hungary had joined NATO and begun its painful integration into the major Western institutions. The economy had not done well and there were signs of corruption in the government. A few weeks before the election I was told by 10 Downing Street that Peter Mandelson, now Lord Mandelson, would be coming to see the opposition Socialist party. He wanted to discuss the election with them. I therefore rang another good contact who was Socialist leader Péter Medgyessy’s close adviser, and arranged a dinner for the three of us with Mandelson at my Residence.

It proved a frank, entertaining and instructive lesson in how to get elected, with Mandelson doing the teaching. Mandelson himself was a delight to have as a guest—easy, interesting and good fun. Medgyessy went on to win the election and that dinner sealed my place in his esteem. I was able to work closely with him thereafter and deliver everything that London asked for. The most important of these was to persuade Medgyessy to sign a public letter, along with Tony Blair and other European leaders, supporting the political objectives of the Iraq war.

That war was not my first but it certainly took up my time and energy. It was controversial even in Hungary and I found myself in demand on TV, radio and the press to explain the case for war and to defend what the British and Americans were doing.

My US colleague Nancy Brinker, an associate of the then president George W Bush and his wife, did not like the public profile and kept her head down, so I took the flak. I cannot say I was comfortable doing this but it was my job. We had a thick briefing folder full of arguments to justify the coalition’s actions but the case for war rested on evidence that I was never entrusted with and which we now know was bogus. I was glad when it was all over and the media interest waned.

My first war had been the Kosovo war, the final stage in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the end of ethnic cleansing. Hungary had just joined NATO when NATO forces began to bomb Serbia, many overflying Hungary to do so. As with Iraq I promoted the legality of the war and defended our objectives in public, often with my US counterpart, at that time a Democrat appointee called Peter Tufo, who was able and confident. We worked well together. Public opinion was sympathetic, though the Hungarian government, which did not take defence very seriously and was of course a novice in NATO, was rather nonplussed by it all.

George Robertson, the UK defence secretary, paid a visit during the war. The Hungarian minister of defence had just been to London and I had sent a warning message to London not to put too much trust in him. When I met Robertson at the airport on arrival, he lost no time in upbraiding me for this, saying that I had missed a trick by not suggesting he and the Hungarian stand together before the press in public and show the unity of the alliance against the Serbs. A difficult start. At the end of a busy day we met with the Hungarian. He almost immediately suggested a pause in the bombing to allow the Serbs to talk to us. Robertson dismissed this. When we got in the car to go to the airport he looked at me and said, ‘I know what you are thinking—don’t say a thing!’ And laughed. I had been right after all.

As a head of post you get lots of visitors—all sorts, from members of the Royal Family to ministers like Robertson, top businessmen (the CEO of Tesco was a regular visitor as Tesco has large interests in Hungary) and VIPs like Lady Solti, widow of the great Hungarian-born conductor Georg Solti, as well as friends and family. I enjoyed most of their visits but not all.

One very senior legal figure in the Blair government came. I set off to meet him at the airport as usual. Unfortunately the plane was very early and when I reached the VIP lounge it was empty as the greeting party, which included the Hungarian ambassador to Britain, had gone out to greet him. When I eventually caught up with our visitor, he was plainly furious with me. I apologised but there was no forgiving this apparently serious sin of protocol and manners.

We struggled through the first day of appointments and meals. The next day, after a rather liquid lunch with the Hungarian minister of justice (an attractive woman), our guest staggered to his feet, complimented the minister and Hungary, and then said how grateful he was to the Hungarian ambassador to London for having had the courtesy to greet him at the aircraft steps. I still cannot understand the pomposity and rudeness which led a senior figure of the Blair government to behave like this.

It was a big contrast with most other visitors, for instance Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, who came in 2003. He was a delight and such a nice man. We sat up talking till 2 am on his last night, playing 50s rock music, about which he was quite an expert. Cherie Blair, Tony’s wife, also came, in her role as a European Human Rights law specialist. She was charming, nice and good to have as a house guest.

Photo: Not a bad pad - British Ambassador's residence up in the Buda Hills, home to Nigel Thorpe for four years. You'd have to be an Arab Sheik or Russian Oligarch to get this kind of place in London or Paris.

I enjoyed a visit by William Hague, then leader of the Conservative Party, not least because he was accompanied by one of my heroes, the wonderful Olympian Sebastian Coe, who was his special adviser. We did the rounds which included a call on Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán. Orbán greeted Hague cordially and then turned to Coe and said, with admiration in his voice, ‘And you are the great Coe?’ I suppose Hague was used to it but it did rather put him in his place.

Another visitor was Prince Charles. He came for a day in 2000—literally a flying visit. I had already met him in 1999 at a dinner in Britain. He was miserable on that occasion and did not seem any happier in Budapest a year later. Funnily enough, I ran into him at a National Trust house in South Wales a few years later, long after I had retired. He was attending an event there and did a walk-about to say hello to the general visitors. I shook his hand and chatted to him, without reminding him that we had met before. What was striking was that with Camilla by his side, he was happy and relaxed. His earlier misery was after the divorce and then of course Diana’s tragic death. It must have been hell for him.

Perhaps the most fun guest was rock guitarist Jet Harris, who came with a replica group of his former band the Shadows. I held a reception for him, having first bought all the Shadows records I could find. I played their music all evening. At one time I found myself playing the Residence grand piano with the band’s keyboard player. At the end Jet signed one of my records with the motif: ‘to my mate Nige, yours Jet’. I still have it.

That was a busy weekend in the year 2000. Hungary was celebrating its own millennium, as it was a thousand years since the establishment of the Hungarian kingdom. I had to go the US ambassador’s after the Jet Harris do for his reception marking the millennium and then the next day to Sopron in Western Hungary for an EU event, then back to Budapest to attend Jet’s concert. I think the band was pleased when I went backstage to talk to them, and perhaps even surprised. Jet had told me that never in his career had a British ambassador invited him to a party.

The next day was the day of the millennium, and very hot too. There was a formal event in the morning, That was followed by fireworks in the evening. The bridges across the Danube were closed, which made it difficult to get to the government reception at the parliament building but we made it in the end. The next day I wrote a report to London, detailing my activities of the preceding 48 hours. I wondered if UK taxpayers would think this was time well spent and concluded that they might appreciate my party for Jet Harris but not much else.

Editorial note: Hells' Bells, Thorpe – I didn't get an invitation to the the Jet Harris reception - that's your last guest post you're getting on Perspectives Budapest!

OK, only joking, this once. Nigel's book is available on Amazon at what he claims to be the bargain price of £7.99.

It might be available at English language bookshops too, I suppose - try Atlantisz books, Király u. 2, 1061, Budapest for one.

[To be continued.]

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