The four-year posting of outgoing British Ambassador Iain Lindsay has been bookended by two unrelated events that have had profound effects: Brexit and COVID-19.
Since he took up post in Budapest in March 2016, Lindsay has built a reputation as a highly vocal and visible promoter of British business interests in Hungary. But almost all of that has been done against the backdrop of the United Kingdom’s historic (and, to many, surprise) decision to leave the European Union.
The vote itself took place in June 2016, just months after Lindsay’s arrival. He had originally applied for the post in the late summer of 2014, when a referendum was not even on the agenda, far less Brexit.
“I applied for the job with a manifesto based on strengthening the bilateral relationship, particularly the economic side, and then suddenly the ‘Jolly Joker’ was thrown into the pack with the referendum result,” he recalls during an exclusive interview at the magnificent ambassador’s residence, the former Scitovszky villa in Lórántffy Zsuzsanna út.
He stops short of saying Brexit hindered his mission, but agrees that it became a “dominant” theme. “It took up time that could have been spent, objectively speaking, on constructive work on the bilateral relationship. It took up a lot of time in trying to understand what it would mean.”
Not that it seems to have got in the way of Anglo-Hungarian relations. Lindsay says the link is robust and in excellent health, built in part on the rapport between David Cameron, when he was British Prime Minister (from 2010 to 2016), and his Hungarian counterpart.
Lindsay recalls briefing the then British leader ahead of President János Áder’s trip to London in the summer of 2016, and saying that Orbán himself wanted to visit.
“David Cameron turned to me with this intensity in his eyes and said ‘Viktor Orbán can visit anytime he likes. He is a good friend of mine and a man of his word’,” Lindsay says.
That trust was built during the 2014 election of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, which the British had opposed. The ambassador says that although many had backed this position in private, when it came to the vote, only two countries stood against the candidate: Britain and Hungary.
The faith has been repaid. Lindsay says there has been no stauncher supporter of the British over Brexit that Hungary. “Prime Minister Orbán said at the time, and has said since, that he is sad to see us go, but he respects the decision. He isn’t worried for the British. He is worried for the EU.”
COVID-19 has affected all organizations, but for the British Embassy it has been very direct, very personal, and very raw. Among the first to die in Hungary was Deputy Head of Mission (effectively the deputy ambassador) Steven Dick, a 37-year-old diplomat who had only moved to Budapest in November 2019.
Lindsay describes it as “an absolute body blow” for the embassy’s 50-strong team, not helped by the fact it happened just a week after lockdown, with staff, including the ambassador, isolated in their own homes. The technology required for home office is very good for communication, Lindsay says, but not so much for empathy.
“Clearly it has had a huge impact on us personally with regard to moral: it hit us. But we have, I think, come back fairly well. This is not the final six months I would have wanted. I am not thinking so much personally as in terms of what we wanted to achieve with the bilateral relationship. I had already started to see that Steven Dick was an excellent diplomat, had taken to Hungarian, spoke it pretty damn well. It was such an awful tragedy, his passing […] What might have been?”
The embassy has a lively social media presence, often featuring Lindsay himself, frequently speaking in Hungarian, sometimes reciting Hungarian poetry. The ambassador believes accessing the language, mistakes and all, gives the British an advantage when it comes to building the bilateral relationship. He says the United Kingdom is the only European country to insist its staff learn to speak Hungarian before they take up post.
Not only do Hungarians appreciate the effort, but it also gives diplomats a unique window into understanding the Hungarian soul as well as the culture, the ties to the land and the communities beyond the present day borders. However big and beautiful the capital may be, “Budapest is not Hungary, and Hungary is not Budapest”, Lindsay says.
There is a relatively small British community, the ambassador estimates it at 5,000-10,000, but it is not restricted to what he calls “the Budapest elites”. Many live out in the countryside. Social media means the embassy can keep in touch with everyone, both here and among the Hungarian community in Britain.
When the process of Britain leaving the EU began to speed up, for example, the embassy organized a series of townhall meetings that were also live streamed for those not in Budapest (since COVID came along, they have moved fully online).
While the ambassador says his communications team is regarded as one of the best in Europe, he insists the embrace of social media is not unique to Hungary, but is “part of the DNA of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.”
He officially leaves Hungary on September 15 and soon after will be replaced as ambassador by a man he has known for 20 years, Paul Fox (currently in Hungary making sure his Hungarian is up to speed).
In October he leaves the diplomatic corps after a 40 year career, and will return to Bahrain, where he was ambassador before moving to Hungary, to work as a consultant. He admits to having deep feelings for Hungary, and says he will certainly return from time to time.
He will take “so many” memories with him, not least carrying the flag for the British Team at the European Maccabi Games for Jewish athletes in Budapest last year, and leading the “March of the Living” commemorating the Holocaust in April 2019, which was dedicated last year to Jane Haining, the leader of the Scottish Mission school in Budapest from 1932, who protected her Jewish charges from deportation until she was arrested in 1944. She died in Auschwitz aged 47.
But his happiest memory, he says, will be his Hungarian rescue dog, Juno, who will join Lindsay and his wife Bridget in their travels.
“I am optimistic for the future, both for Britain and Hungary.”