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A visit to Budapest, 2-4 February 1984


In February 1984 Margaret Thatcher made her first visit as Prime Minister to an Eastern bloc country, descending for a day and a half on a snow-bound and foggy Budapest.

Relatively small, stable and prosperous by the standards of the East, Hungary had not featured prominently on the British political agenda for many years. When MT was told in late 1979 by her outgoing foreign affairs Private Secretary that he hoped to become our next Ambassador there she replied, not very tactfully: "Hungary? How boring!"

But time gave her cause to revise the view.

1979-80: paradoxes & compromises

Shopping for garlic, honey & paprika at the food market in Budapest

When the Private Secretary, Bryan Cartledge, took up his new Embassy in January 1980 - of course, she was more than happy to grant his reward - there was unquestionably a static, backwater-ish feel to the post. His first despatches are superior specimens of the dismal craft of Kremlinology, squeezing insight from the smallest detail in the absence of better evidence, all too often the absence of some expected or accustomed event itself counting as evidence. Even less forgivably, having little to say, Kremlinologists tended to write at some length. "A good deal of hot air", wrote the Foreign Office (FCO) on Cartledge's very full account of a meeting with the Hungarian Prime Minister, Gyorgy Lázár, and that was a highlight.

Translating the subtle idiom of Hungarian politics into British terms, our view of the country at the time stressed its paradoxical qualities, a view that carried an ominous undertone, since paradoxes will work themselves out, sometimes violently. We saw a regime based on "repressive tolerance", loyally Soviet in its foreign policy, but attached to a policy of economic liberalisation, modest by free market standards yet sufficient to buy the government domestic peace - with the help, one must add, of Western credits. (Hungary was acquiring a painful load of external debt, of which more below.) The Communist leader, János Kádár, had grown old in the job and had had a bloody beginning in it, working with the Soviets to suppress the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, a fact never forgotten domestically or internationally. Yet he now presented himself in more benevolent light, with considerable success, as a grandfatherly protector from the Soviets. He was even relatively fit for his age, a powerful asset at a time when the health problems of the Soviet leadership were a major factor in world politics.

Ministerial interest in Hungary was slight. No British Prime Minister had ever visited, as far as anyone could discover (it is telling that no one really seemed to know). The Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, held a meeting with his Hungarian counterpart, Puja, in Vienna in May 1980, intended as a step towards greater engagement, but unlikely to have achieved much in reality: "Mr Puja made a not very good impression on S.of S." [Secretary of State], commented a British diplomat afterwards. By comparison, strangely, the Hungarian Communist Party was a haven of intellect: calling on a senior party official, Cartledge wrote admiringly "his office was more like that of a Harvard Professor than a Communist apparatchik". Stranger still, we believed the Party to be almost the only institution in the entire country not thoroughly penetrated by Soviet agents. One of its leading figures quietly approached Cartledge to help launch an initiative tying Hungary closer to the European Community, warning him not to tell the Hungarian Foreign Ministry or Moscow would find out. We kept his confidence.

Towards the end of his first year in the job, Cartledge summed it all up in a series of despatches he dubbed "The Hungarian Quartet". These received a far warmer welcome at the FCO than those earlier in the year and were given the accolade of being printed for wider circulation. One of their uses was to brief a doubtless groaning Secretary of State, preparing for a second dose of Mr Puja, this time in Budapest. In truth the market for things Hungarian was suddenly and radically improving in London. Poland was falling into crisis, and conventional thinking that all was stable in Eastern Europe beginning to be questioned. How long could the "Hungarian Compromise", as Cartledge called it, possibly prevail?

1981-82: poland, hungary & the banks

There is separate treatment on this site of the West's response to the Polish crisis, especially that of the Reagan Administration. It proved vital to the evolution of British and US policy towards Hungary. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 Kádár had toed the line publicly, but kept his head down and limited the damage to the country's Western ties, particularly economic ones. Poland proved a lot more dangerous and damaging for Hungary.

There were two phases in the Polish crisis - before and after the imposition of martial law on 13 December 1981. During the first, which began in late 1980 under Carter, US policy focussed on deterring Soviet intervention and the West generally managed a united front. During the second the US emphasis was punitive, and Western divisions opened up in spectacular style. US sanctions were announced against the Polish regime and then against the Soviets themselves, with the particular purpose of limiting Soviet access to hard currency. With that goal in mind (though technology transfer was also an issue), top of the target list was the Siberian Gas Pipeline, a huge project designed to bring Soviet energy to sell in Western Europe, construction of which was essentially customer-financed. European politicians, German to the fore, saw the project as easing Cold War tensions through mutually beneficial trade, generating hard currency for the Soviets to purchase Western goods (German included of course). The Reagan Administration pointed out the obvious dangers of relying on Russian gas and believed the Soviets would put the cash to other uses. They sought agreement among the allies to choke off the easy flow of credit to the East, while a nasty transatlantic argument developed as to the exact scope of the pipeline sanctions, which potentially had extraterritorial reach, binding non-US firms acting under contract or as subsidiaries of US ones.

The President himself was personally scornful of the allied responses to martial law, telling the NSC on 22 December 1981 that European leaders were "chicken littles" and warning "... if we really believe that this is the last chance of a lifetime ... a revolution started against this 'damned force', we should let our Allies know that they, too, will pay a price if they don't go along; that we have long memories". For her part, although MT was quite correctly seen as Reagan's closest ally in Europe, she was affronted by this policy, deeply resenting the extraterritorial and retrospective aspects of the sanctions, which affected British firms with pre-existing contracts. She also felt that the sanctions bore down much more heavily on Western Europe than the US. It did not pass unnoticed that the President unilaterally exempted the US firm Caterpillar from their scope and had swiftly ended the US grain embargo imposed against the Soviets by Carter. And there were rumours, which MT took seriously, that the US was considering further measures forcing Poland into default. During the first half of 1982 she worked to find a compromise among the allies that would remove the most difficult extraterritorial aspects in return for common measures on credit to the East. But due to French resistance the negotiation failed, in acrimony, at the Versailles G7 in June 1982, following which the US went ahead unilaterally with pipeline sanctions. In the aftermath MT made one of her strongest ever public criticisms of the President, telling the BBC that she felt "deeply wounded by a friend".

In one sense, the politics of the Polish crisis created no great dilemma for the Hungarian Government. It responded as it always did, loyally taking the Soviet line, and no one can have been surprised at that. But the economic aspect of the crisis was nightmarish for the whole Eastern bloc, with large political implications. Following martial law US pressure quickly began to tell on Soviet finance, which was already straining to cope with the near collapse of the Polish state. There were obvious risks for other client states in the East. On 19 March 1982 No.10 suddenly received warning that there were heavy withdrawals from Hungarian banks, indeed rumours that the Soviets were themselves taking out funds on a vast scale.

The Hungarians immediately sought official support from their friends in Western central banks, fearing that commercial banks would pull credit if confidence could not be quickly restored. A sadly familiar routine now played out, the detail of which is revealed here for the first time using documents newly released by the Bank of England and published in full on this site. Western European central banks put together a rescue package, acting under the umbrella of the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) in Basle, talking it up and twisting arms as best they could to keep the commercial banks from withdrawing their much larger holdings. One hopeful element in the situation was Hungary's well-advanced application to join the IMF and the World Bank: the BIS operation was presented as helping the struggling swimmer find his way to shore. But there was a problem. US approval was needed for the final stages of the IMF application, and in a situation of delicate confidence even the slightest hint from a senior US official that approval might not be forthcoming, or simply be delayed, would likely undermine the whole central bank operation, with horrible results for Hungary. The US was not participating in the BIS scheme, not blocking it but standing noticeably aside.

At issue here was the whole basis of Western policy towards the East. It had been an axiom of détente that the West should practice 'differentiation' towards the Eastern bloc, singling out for gentler treatment the more liberal and pro-Western states. Of course, these were comparative terms, if not deluded altogether, and it is no surprise that 'differentiation' had its critics in the Reagan Administration, especially in the grim circumstances of 1981-82. The counter-case, made most powerfully by Weinberger and Perle, was simple. It was not our job to rescue Hungary. Let the Soviets look after their own, if they cared to, or could; if we did it in their place, the effect would simply be to ease the pressure we were working so hard to put them under. The BIS struggled to sign up support from key members like the Bank of England and the Bundesbank because the view developed that in some fashion the US might very well torpedo the whole rescue, losing the central banks their money. Consulting the British Ambassador in the US, the Bank of England's director of external finance, Anthony Loehnis, warned that the Ambassador was "very pessimistic about the possibilities of muzzling Weinberger ... nobody could be sure that [he] would not sound off in public not only against 'differentiation' but perhaps the actual BIS operation".

Where did MT stand? It is plain that she supported differentiation, although without illusions as to the scope for Eastern bloc states to deviate far from the approved Soviet position or fondness for the satellite regimes. The complex compromise she was attempting to broker over the pipeline issue will surely have influenced her stance on Hungary: well aware that key figures like Weinberger disliked the BIS operation (he was also the strongest enemy of the pipeline), she put a little distance between her government and the BIS by refusing to grant the Bank of England the guarantee it sought, which the UK Treasury would have given had she not stopped them. If the Bank joined the operation, it risked its own capital. Yet one should not suppose that she was trying to block the rescue. Evidence suggests quite the reverse: she was very alarmed by the situation and wanted to see it resolved. The crisis came to a head during a European Council meeting in Brussels on 28-29 March 1982. Notes for her speech at the summit dinner, when the trickier subjects were often discussed, are dark in tone and striking in substance:

Only question is which country in Eastern Europe will default first, and how far collapse will spread. The US must be brought along to an appreciation of the European view on these issues. Community is much more deeply involved than US./ Need for Community to speak with common voice on all these issues so as to make its weight felt.

The outcome was that the Bank of England withdrew its request to the government for a guarantee and joined the BIS rescue on its own authority, as a liquidity operation, contributing one fifth of the $100 million. A second tranche was expected later in the year and every effort meantime was made to smooth Hungary's IMF application. Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve, gave some reassurance on that point in conversation with the Governor of the Bank a week later, telling him that "he had become 99 per cent certain that the US would not block efforts to support Hungary or Hungary's joining the IMF - although nothing positive could be expected either".

In the event Weinberger made no public intervention and commercial bankers largely maintained confidence. After a second and then a third tranche of BIS money, the last extracted with what the central bankers felt was a degree of chicanery, Hungary staggered onto the beach, or rather joined the IMF and World Bank, later in the year, at which point came the fourth and biggest loan. At one point Kádár played an important role in person, speaking for over an hour to assembled bankers in a room at the Hungarian Parliament. He handled them shrewdly, according to the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, not seeking to duck the immediate problems, instead "saying that we had been too polite not to refer to them but we all knew that Hungary was in difficulty on the international monetary markets".

He ended by tackling the thesis that the Soviet Union could be attacked through the pressure on the East European countries. He said it might be possible to liquidate the Soviet satellites ("and perhaps Western Europe") but the USSR would remain.

Kádár well understood the inner nature of this crisis over 'differentiation'.

1982-83: war, hot & cold

In her plane en route to the Brussels European Council at the end of March 1982, where she delivered her gloomy prediction of Eastern European default over dinner, MT was preoccupied by something else entirely. An incident with Argentina in the southern Atlantic was beginning to look serious. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, was with her, the man who thought little of Puja. They talked it through and decided to despatch a nuclear submarine. Five days later the Falklands were invaded and Britain was at war. Carrington resigned.

Britain's victory in the Falklands War transformed MT's international profile. It was the making of her in the US, where she acquired a permanently enhanced standing, in a category separate from just about other foreign leader, the one labelled "true grit". Even in Hungary the "Iron Lady" seemed an altogether more substantial figure. During the war the Deputy Prime Minister, Jozsef Marjai, privately told the British Ambassador that he supported Britain's action. Perhaps he was making a cost-free two-way bet on the outcome and told the Argentinians the same. Sincere or not, his remark paid off, because it featured in her briefing when they met in London in March 1983 for a cordial conversation focussed on economic policy. He thanked her for Britain's help during the financial crisis and made a point of sounding quite Thatcherite, solemnly telling her that "Profit must be the incentive. It was not for the Government to hand out money. The Government did not have money". Delighted, she told him he could have been quoting one of her own speeches, and quite possibly he actually was; flattery is never a thing to neglect in such circumstances.

Marjai also renewed a long-standing invitation to the British Prime Minister to visit Hungary. She made her excuses, telling him she might not get re-elected, perhaps reminding him that in a democracy such things could not be taken for granted. But her visit had come a step closer. "One day", she said.

By this stage the pipeline issue had been resolved. Shortly after the Falklands War, and in some measure because of it, the US acquired a new Secretary of State, George Shultz, who swiftly secured the abandonment of the sanctions policy. Weinberger saw MT in September and there was emollience on both sides: his help to Britain during the war entirely mended any broken fences, and then some. Unsurprisingly MT went on to secure reelection in June 1983 with a majority of 144 seats, following which she sacked Carrington's replacement as Foreign Secretary and gave his job to her former Chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe. She meant, though, to take a bigger part internationally than she had in her first term as Prime Minister.

There was an obvious foreign policy agenda, in her eyes. MT had been an opponent of détente since she became leader of her party in 1975, at a time when almost everyone favoured it - aside from Ronald Reagan, a fact that goes a long way to explain their political bond. His first letter to her was sent on the "dark day" Saigon fell. "The shadows seem to have lengthened", he wrote. Both saw détente as a dangerous slide, the West making a series of one-sided and self-defeating concessions from a position of weakness, real as well as perceived, concessions that carried a disastrous implication of moral equivalence between East and West. They shared a strategy: to rebuild the West's defences, military and moral, and assert its interests and values as forcefully as they could.

But the goal was security rather than supremacy, certainly not conflict in any form. In summer 1983, beginning her second term, MT triggered a review of British policy towards East/West relations. US and British rearmament programmes were well underway and NATO was in the last stages of its agonising struggle to deploy Cruise and Pershing missiles, due to be completed by the end of 1983. Domestic resistance to missile deployment had proved substantial, while arms control negotiations at Geneva were stalling. The Soviet leadership had fallen into such physical decay that questions of succession came ahead of everything else in the USSR and the US was entering an election year. She enjoyed a higher international profile than any British Prime Minister for many years and had far greater experience and self-confidence in foreign policy than when she took office. All told, time was ripe for policy to evolve. One might reasonably speculate that quite apart from the dangers of the situation, she sensed a moment to make her mark.

What she chose to do in a series of speeches in autumn 1983 was carefully to open the door to conversations with the Soviet leadership. Interestingly, she had to say it several times because the press wasn’t expecting a move like that from the Iron Lady and misread the speeches. To that degree, she was becoming a prisoner of her own reputation, although not for long and with the helpful side-effect that her point was heard more loudly when finally understood.

The most important of these statements came in her speech accepting the Winston Churchill Award in Washington on 29 September 1983, pointedly delivered in front of an audience that included numerous senior members of the Administration - Shultz, Kirkpatrick, Deaver, Eagleburger, Burt and Regan. Senator Tower had the speech read into the Senate Record, for good measure. The key passage read:

We have to deal with the Soviet Union. But we must deal with it not as we would like it to be, but as it is.

We live on the same planet and we have to go on sharing it.

We stand ready therefore, if and when the circumstances are right, to talk to the Soviet leadership.

There was probably something else involved in her new stance, still too highly classified for the files to be released. MT was influenced by the intelligence she was receiving from the KBG double agent, Oleg Gordievsky, who told his British handlers that the Soviets genuinely feared a Western first strike and had invested large resources in an intelligence gathering programme focused entirely on that possibility, codenamed RYAN. This was an insight she probably put to Reagan when they met in Washington at the end of September 1983, and the CIA’s own historians have suggested the President was influenced by the British view. It does seem that preparations for the NATO exercise ABLE ARCHER in November were scaled back to reduce the role of political leaders, although the simulated release of nuclear weapons remained in the programme. Coming to believe that the Soviet leadership genuinely feared the West was probably the most significant shift in his and her thinking about foreign affairs since 1975, a departure big enough to require policy to adjust, quite apart from other factors.

With Andropov out of sight, and reckoned to be seriously ill, perhaps the time had come for a visit to Hungary.

1983 spt-dec: clinching the visit

The British were not the only people to reach this conclusion: as with many good ideas, everyone had it at the same time. The Hungarian government itself saw the moment and began issuing or reviving invitations as fast as the Foreign Ministry could crank them out.

One of the first to arrive was the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe. His visit came only a week after the Soviets show down a South Korean airliner that had strayed into its airspace, KAL-007, and acquired significance principally from the fact that it wasn't cancelled in protest. Howe met Kádár, Lázár and the new Hungarian Foreign Minister, Várkonyi, who had recently replaced the Gromyko-like figure of Puja, itself a sign that Budapest was looking West.

Next to call was Vice-President George Bush, who met Kádár on 19 September 1983. The record of their meeting is published for the first time on this site. The two men mainly talked of KAL-007, and of Andropov, with whom of course Kádár had close connections from 1956, an asset of a sort, though a wasting one as Andropov's health declined. But the visit became a cautionary tale. Bush comprehensively spoiled any positive effect by going on to Vienna to deliver a speech bracketing Hungary with Romania, which he had also just visited, an assumption offensive to Kádár and many Hungarians who saw their own regime as very different from that of Ceausescu. Bush made things worse by extolling the benefits of 'differentiation' in a way almost guaranteed to embarrass the Hungarian government in its relationship with the Soviets. It was useful perhaps to have such a senior US official talk of 'differentiation' positively at all, but from the British point of view the main value of Bush's visit was to remind us what to avoid.

MT ordered her officials to accept the Hungarian invitation through its Ambassador to Britain, Dr Banyasz, on 4 November. Files from the Hungarian National Archive supply his telegrams and the files of the Foreign Ministry, so that we can trace both sides of the story. Banyasz "expressed our great joy", but some reserve quickly became apparent when the British side sought commitment sufficiently strong for MT to announce the visit publicly, which she finally did in her closely-watched annual speech to the Lord Mayor's Banquet on 14 November, a follow-up to the one in Washington.

And the question arose: who would come first? Having waited half a century for high-level Western attention, the Hungarians had now lined up three heads of government all at once - British, West German and Italian. In practice the choice was "Thatcher or Kohl?" Germany is now a more important factor in Hungarian foreign policy than Britain or any other European power. But in 1984 the Cold War supplied a different context. MT was closer to Reagan than Kohl ever became, with far greater access to the US Administration. She had what you might call greater star appeal too - iconic status was beginning to be granted her, with the domestic political payoff from a visit correspondingly greater.

The Hungarian files hint at a further intriguing factor. Kádár seems not to have sought or received Andropov's approval before showering the West with invitations, but taking the initiative in this way left him a little isolated. Perhaps for that reason he seems quietly to have lined up East German support for the visit in advance. His briefing paper for the meeting with MT was shown to Willi Stoph, the East German PM, and after the event the East Germans provided support when the Czech party press attacked the Hungarian government for "turning somersaults on Reagan's trampoline". It is reasonable to doubt whether the East Germans would have been inclined to be helpful if Kohl had been the first guest.

1984 jan: final preparations

Once the date of the visit was finalised - in early January, Kohl being put off just before Christmas - serious planning began. Both sides prepared their briefing documents, which we publish online. Kádár was warned that MT was "shrewdly anti-communist", his advisers showing a kind of wary admiration for MT, as had the East German STASI in a secret report on her visit to Berlin in November 1982: apparatchiks saw that she understood the way their system worked.

Only part of the British briefing is available. It shows that a meeting with Kádár was built into the schedule from the first and that the serious business of the trip was MT's private conversation with him, the only chance she would have to speak to the Hungarians without Moscow automatically hearing every word. Amazingly the FCO suggested she might want to raise the topic of German reunification, telling Kádár that it "seems to us that the rest of the world would be no more able to prevent German reunification, if the Russians decided to permit it, than we can bring it about now, when the Russians are implacably opposed". Unsurprisingly, she forcefully rejected this suggestion - how could the diplomats have thought she would have wanted to give such a hostage to fortune, in conversation with a far from trusted interlocutor? The incident shows perhaps how remote the possibility of reunification seemed at this point. She also objected to FCO suggestions on press briefing, which began with the words: "The Hungarian Revolution took place over 27 years ago", pointing out that "such a statement might create the impression that we were seeking to play down the significance of that event". The 1956 revolution and its brutal suppression by the Soviets were not going to be brushed aside, however diplomatically tempting that might have been on a visit designed to launch a rapprochement.

The visit was compressed to two days, leaving only time for one speech. We publish drafts which show MT's determination not to slide into détente-style language implying moral equivalence: "I think that at some point we must make clear how much we value our way of life and that there could be no retreat from it". Equally she was seeking to do more than repeat entrenched positions. The final speech handled this delicate point as follows:

We in Britain believe passionately in certain fundamental values - in peace with freedom, justice and social democracy. We shall always be true to them, always argue our cause, and defend it with vigour. The Hungarian experience and system differ from ours and you will speak of your own beliefs. But we have common interests that we can pursue. To work for a world where we can live together without conflict and to mutual advantage is neither to abandon our beliefs nor to relax our vigil. And the membership of our respective alliances does not exclude bilateral co-operation.

1984 feb: visit

Furs against snow at the Solymar Military Cemetery

MT flew to Hungary after PM's Questions, a regular House of Commons ritual every Tuesday and Thursday at which her opponents did their best to badger, confuse, intimidate and outmanoeuvre her, for the edification of the British press and public. Through years of experience she had learned to handle these occasions without minding over much, often to her own advantage. Although the extraordinary Hungarian Parliament building had been inspired by the Palace of Westminster, it no longer saw scenes like that. It had been famous once for a fight in which deputies threw inkpots at each other. The inkpots now stayed on their desks, if they hadn't been removed or screwed down. There was something missing too in the meetings MT held with her supposed opposite number, whose guest she formally was, Prime Minister Gyorgy Lázár. Aside from her speech, no real business was done. We publish the Hungarian records.

The ceremonial and public side went much better. While fog and snow made out of doors engagements less enjoyable, if anything they enhanced the photographs. The Hungarian government provided appropriate pomp - the laying of a wreath at Heroes' Square, another at the British Military Cemetery at Solymar - and there was an excellent visit to one of Budapest's grand covered markets, where MT was nearly mobbed by the excited crowd, a scene so novel to Hungarian TV viewers that it fixed her in their minds in a way no speech could ever have done. She bought honey, garlic and paprika, an indigestable but somehow appropriate mix. Offered them as a gift, she insisted she must pay, using money handed her by the Ambassador in a brown envelope, notes cascading out when she opened it. She visited a complex of flats built by a British construction firm and discovered that their owners had no real title in Communist Hungary, for all the talk of free market reforms. She was shown around a ceramics museum by an impoverished member of the pre-war elite - elegant, proud and dispossessed, so symbolic as to be almost a character from fiction.

But what of Kádár? She was due to meet him at noon on 3 February, but at the last minute the Hungarians sent their regrets. Unfortunately she would not be able to see him after all. Such a pity. A Prime Ministerial explosion followed, and a way was found; their talk does not seem to have been adversely affected by this little pas de deux. Kádár politely asked her permission to smoke, which presumably was granted.

We have only the Hungarian record of the meeting, at present, but it is a credible account (except in one respect perhaps, of which more below). An exchange of courtesies about Britain's helpful role in the 1982 financial crisis provided the starting point, but safe ground was swiftly left behind: the conversation was striking for its directness, on both sides. MT deployed something similar to the formula quoted from her speech above, real clashes of values and views not requiring relations to lapse or conflict to break out. She told the story of Reagan's early letter to Brezhnev, designed to foster better relations but drawing only a formal empty reply, a response the President took to heart. She gave an account of her visit to see Reagan in September 1983, saying she had made the case that each side had to make agreements with the other side as it was, not conditional on internal change. Reagan, she said, had been convinced, and began making steps to improve relations - a process interrupted but not aborted by KAL-007. But the 1984 election, she implied, would limit future movement in the US, as would the leadership crisis in the Soviet Union. She saw a role for smaller countries like Britain and Hungary.

Kádár cleverly thanked her for generously treating Hungary and Britain as equals. He questioned though whether Reagan was quite as described: "from here it does not look like this", and he laid into Bush for his inept speech, a point to which MT responded sympathetically, saying that she had seen the Vice-President the weekend following and expressed her own reservations about it. Kádár put the familiar argument that the Soviet Union had to be understood as seeing itself under threat - to which her response was to question whether fear in fact explained its aggressive actions, no trace of Gordievsky's revelations being permitted to show of course. But the conversation did not fall into ritual exchange. MT moved quickly on to ask whether the role of the military had increased in the USSR, as the political leadership faltered? In reply Kádár gave a survey of Soviet leaders back to Khrushchev, from personal knowledge, doubtless fascinating to hear. He acknowledged Andropov's illness, but claimed he was still mentally alert. Candour had its limits: in fact the Soviet leader was only days away from death.

MT closed by thanking him for the meeting. Then seemingly as an afterthought, perhaps impromptu, she made a striking request of Kádár, a mark that from her point of view the conversation had made some kind of connection. If the international situation became very dangerous, could she send him a message? The implications of such a request might reasonably have given Kádár pause, but equally he had little choice but to agree. He noted this exchange in his report to the Hungarian Cabinet a few days later.

The British records of her conversations in Budapest are not yet available, but the account in MT's memoirs was based closely on them and her book mentions one other topic from her talks with Kádár, which one can entirely understand the Hungarian notetaker omitting if it came up in this meeting. At some point, surely at her instance, they discussed the death of Imre Nagy, leader of the 1956 revolution. Nagy was Kádár's Banquo, the comrade and friend he had betrayed then executed two years later. For his ghost to be summoned in this way, during face-to-face conversation between the British Prime Minister and the man who killed him, was not at all what the FCO had in mind when it advised No.10 to treat the Revolution as something that happened a long time ago.

aftermath & conclusions

Nagy chooses people over party: his statue, looking towards the Hungarian Parliament (2014)

One can fairly say then that in her opening to the East MT went out of her way to avoid the language of détente. Lines were not going to be blurred with her: if anything, they were going to be drawn more emphatically, and with care. The point was to do business across the divide, not to ignore its existence or talk it away, and very definitely not to do anything that played to the corrosive but common view in the West that the two sides were much the same really - converging, even starting off from similar positions, Great Powers playing their cynical game.

MT's trip to Budapest amounted to a successful road-test of this post-détente approach, and showed that it could work for both sides too, as effective diplomacy must. Hungarian ministers seem to have been delighted with the visit. They took some criticism from the Czechs, but had prepared for that, as already noted. If Kádár resented the discussion of Nagy, he gave no sign: although Nagy genuinely haunted him, he was wily and tough enough to handle conversation like this. (He simply denied responsibility for the execution, untruthfully blaming the Soviets.) On the British side, there was equal satisfaction. The press corps had travelled in strength to Budapest, there was extensive tv coverage, the effect good enough to tempt even MT's cautious Yorkshire Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham, to talk of her returning home "in some triumph". The photos of MT in furs are reminiscent of a later and more famous visit, the one she made to Moscow, on the eve of the 1987 General Election. These two days in Budapest demonstrated that the Communist bloc knew how to put on a show, when it wanted to, and that the British public would register the fact, likely with approval. The lesson was not lost.

One should close with 1956. Britain had its own crisis that year, of course - Suez, which became a potent emblem of decline. Many believed the West's divisions over the Anglo-French intervention in Egypt had given the Soviets a freer hand to crush the Hungarian Revolution, the two events interacting with particular malignancy. Curiously, unexpectedly, it fell to MT to move Britain beyond that trauma, the 1982 Falklands War dramatically overturning post-Suez assumptions in Britain, and overseas, an ancient wound healing at last. She would not have had the opportunity to visit Budapest as Prime Minister if she had failed in the attempt.

The wound inflicted on Hungary in 1956 was surely deeper than the British, and to a visitor in 1984 the prospect of healing more remote. Who would have guessed that only five years later Nagy would be reburied in triumph following a ceremonial funeral in Heroes' Square, while Kádár, now powerless, wandered his home asking "Is today the day? Is the funeral really today?" But MT's visit bore fruit sooner than that, in a new British emphasis on Eastern Europe, which she pressed powerfully on Britain's Western allies. There were further trips East, deeper interest, engagement, and understanding at all levels. Her famous speech at Bruges in September 1988, now remembered as the founding event of British Eurospecticism, contained an important passage in which she reproached people who talked about 'Europe' and "the European identity" as a kind of careless shorthand for the European Community (as it then was), reminding them that the words held a deeper meaning. This was not a sudden, late insight on her part, nor some shallow tactic to obstruct European integration. She took to heart the fact that there was a public in the East as well as in the West, people like those in the Budapest market hall, harder to reach but all the more deserving of attention. As we have seen, she had always done everything she could to ensure that Britain and its allies did not to fall into talking and thinking of the East/West divide as a thing one had to learn to live with and accept, a permanent if regrettable feature:

The European Community is one manifestation of that European identity.

It is not the only one.

We must never forget that East of the Iron Curtain peoples who once enjoyed a full share of European culture, freedom and identity have been cut off from their roots.

We shall always look on Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as great European cities.


Documents on Hungary 1979-84