Ambassador Nick Archer: Czechs’ knowledge of UK “disconcertingly deep”
After five years, British ambassador Nick Archer’s time in Prague is now coming to an end. In an interview on the eve of his departure, the career diplomat discusses a wide range of subjects. These include the joys of having exclusive use of a Malá Strana palace during lockdown, lobbying for the expulsion of Russian diplomats and how his teenage sons discovered Prague as a “city of the night”.
You’ve been the British ambassador to Prague since 2018. What have been some of the most enjoyable aspects or moments of your time here in Prague?
“I think the most enjoyable thing in the end is meeting the people.
“I arrived in Central Europe really not knowing what to expect, in any regard, but I’d been to Prague once and seen the architecture.
“What I hadn’t done really was to begin to get to know anybody.
“And it is a perpetual source of pleasure to me that I meet so many people who are both interesting and intelligent and making change, but who are also just terrifically nice; very generous, very welcoming.
“Maybe as the ambassador people treat me better, I’ll probably never know, but I would certainly say that I get treated incredibly warmly.
“And then that brings up these moments.”
I met you quite recently at a classical music event and you told me that you had made efforts when you first came here to make connections with the Czech music world.
“Yes, I did. Because I love it – and I kind of suspected that it might be one of the great aspects of life here.
“Going back to your question about moments, it was just last week in the end actually that I sat down, after a concert, with Simon Rattle sitting next to me and Magdalena Kožená on the other side of the table.
“I’ve picked up a lot of a certain kind of Czech from having that dog.
“And I thought, This is just amazing and this is actually something that, first of all, would never have happened to me in Britain and second is one of the huge privileges of ambassadoring – which is that you can stick your fingers into any number of different pies.
“So that would be a good example.”
During your time here you got a shelter dog. How has having him or her affected your experience of living here?
“Again it’s a bridge to people, actually. I go out for walks and I get into conversations.
“I’ve picked up a lot of a certain kind of Czech from having that dog.
“You start off with the entry-level question ‘Is it a dog or a bitch?’ and you sort of take it from there.
“So it’s a kind of a bond.
“It’s very evident in the streets of Prague now that he’s more famous than I am [from social media].
“There was one marvelous moment at the Castle where somebody said, Good morning Ambassador.
“I said, Do I know you? And she said, No you don’t and I don’t know you either – but I do know your dog.”
You have two teenage sons. Have they spent much time here during your years in Prague?
“Well, because I’m a brutal Englishman of a traditional kind, I sent them away to boarding schools.
“Actually, that delivers the kind of educational continuity that you need in my line of business.
“But, strangely, we stayed on an extra year for various reasons: Covid, EU presidency.
“And it is in this last year, which they never should have had, that they’ve suddenly discovered Prague as a city of the night.
“All summer, with all kinds of friends and kids of friends of ours, they were doing all-nighter after all-nighter.
“So I guess that in the end – because they were too young before – they got the point of Prague and are now rather resentful of the fact that there isn’t going to be another summer.”
What have been some of the most challenging tasks you’ve had? I presume explaining Brexit, probably over a longer period, can’t have been that easy?
“I would describe my time here as really having been all about Brexit and about having kind of brought the relationship through from one that was constructed and existed within the framework of being members of the European Union to a relationship that is much more traditional in a way.
“It’s, in diplomatic jargon, bilateral. And we’ve had to effect that change.
“On your point about explaining, I think it’s very simple in the end: I’ve always said that this was what people for and the government had committed to giving people what they voted for.
“I would describe my time here as really having been all about Brexit.”
“And what’s been quite funny, interesting, in the Czech Republic is that quite often – not by any means all of the time – that question about Brexit will be accompanied by a ‘Wish we could have had that choice’, from an extraordinary range of people.
“Not people who would have necessarily voted to leave, but I think that people understand that we had a particular freedom, maybe as an island on the periphery of Europe to make the decision we did – and that there are advantages associated with it.”
I expect you must communicate a lot with London about the situation here in Czechia. What are the things that concern you about this country? For example, I’ve seen you speaking about the spread of disinformation here.
“I have to be very clear: There’s very little about the Czech Republic itself that would concern us.
“I personally think this is a successful, in my experience a happy, country.
“Disinformation is a virtual phenomenon, it exists in cyberspace. Yet the Czech Republic’s geography still seems to make a difference.”
“It’s certainly a country that went into Covid with a very strong economic position.
“I think it understands where it is in the world: in the European Union, in NATO, staunchly pro-Western and so on and so forth.
“But, yes, there are these global threats, essentially, that affect all of us and disinformation is a massive one.
“For me the really curious thing about disinformation is we could agree that this is a virtual phenomenon, it exists in cyberspace.
“And yet the Czech Republic’s geography still seems to make a difference: the proximity to Russia, the even greater proximity to Ukraine and I guess the history of being a subjugated part of the Soviet empire for so long.”
Three years ago the British Embassy in the Thun Palace in Malá Strana celebrated its centenary. How have you found living and working there?
“I have found it completely fantastic.
“Whilst Covid was in all kinds of ways a complete disaster, most of us who didn’t lose relations or friends – and that’s a very important qualifier – most of us who got through it OK are nostalgic about some aspects of that quiet period of our lives.
“And it gave us an opportunity to inhabit the Thun Palace, forbidden from having anyone from outside to visit us, in a way that I don’t think anyone had ever done, frankly, as ambassador.
“So we lived in it and got to know it in a very different way as our unchallenged, exclusive-use home for 18 months actually, which was a huge privilege.”
During the communist period it must have been a building of great interest to the local authorities. Is there any kind of sign today of the Cold War years?
“Do you know, the only sign is something you would never see, which is that actually the grand rooms, that some of our listeners I’m sure will have visited, were formerly a floor down.
“So that whole public entertaining space was lifted up a floor.
“And the reason for that, very briefly, was that we needed to bring offices into the centre which were formerly up against the outer wall.
“Because the Communists were able to listen to people in those outer offices.
“So in the end we were thinking, Where shall we put the Defence Section? I think particularly the defence attaché and his people.
“And the only answer was to squeeze the house and increase the office space.
“So that’s the only consequence I can think of from 40 years of communism.”
From your interactions with Czechs, what is your sense of how they tend to see the UK?
“I’ve said that I didn’t know Central Europe really at all.
“I had lived in Northern Europe, I’d lived in the Mediterranean and of course I come from Western Europe, so this was a new area.
“And I did not expect very much awareness of the UK at all.
“Because we don’t have some of those strong bonds that I’d experienced in Malta, where we’d been the colonial power, or indeed in Denmark, where Montgomery had liberated them in 1945 and we had a queen who was the cousin of the queen.
“So you come here and you think, Do they know us at all?
“And of course you discover that actually they know us very well indeed [laughs].
“Whilst there’s this huge stain on our reputation in the shape of the Munich Agreement, that doesn’t seem to compromise an overall affection.”
“And whilst there’s this huge stain on our reputation in the shape of the Munich Agreement, that doesn’t seem to compromise an overall affection.
“Maybe that’s naive of me. Again, maybe people are saying something to me as ambassador.
“But actually I think the affection here is genuine and really deep-seated.
“And the knowledge of Britain is disconcertingly deep also.
“So that’s been another one of those pleasant surprises that you were asking about at the beginning.”
In my experience, many Czechs have a lot of affection for the British royal family. In the late 1990s you worked as assistant private secretary to the then Prince Charles for three years. What were you actually doing with Prince Charles?
“The support team basically divides up his various interests, or divided I should say now.
“Because as Prince of Wales he obviously had extraordinary freedom to pursue campaigns and interests that he thought were important.
“Such was the level of activity that there were four or five of us, I think, sometimes, just ensuring that he was able to do what he wanted in particular areas.
“My areas were twofold. First of all as the ‘Foreign Office man’ on the team I did all the foreign tours and foreign contacts.
“But then I had a domestic side to my life, which was arts and culture, particular loves of mine.
“And also, linked to the foreigner thing I suppose, I looked after our relationships with non-Christian communities, with immigrant communities, across an amazing spectrum.”
I’m sure many people ask you this, but what is the now King Charles like at the personal level?
“He’s great. And you would expect me to say that, but you couldn’t do that job if you didn’t, basically, buy in.
“I’m a huge admirer of his. I admire his stamina, his single-mindedness.
“There’s a huge amount of self-discipline doing that job day after day, year after year, until death.
“It’s not, I think, a secret, that the Prince of Wales hardly drinks, he doesn’t smoke, he keeps himself fit.
“He works incredibly hard on those public days, in particular, where every encounter with a human being has to be right – because he could never afford to get impatient, or so tired that that person came away feeling disappointed.
“Particularly on a tour or on a day in Britain he would meet hundreds of people and he would leave each one of them feeling like they had had a special moment.”
Queen Elizabeth was on the throne for seven decades. How difficult do you think it’ll be for King Charles to succeed her, this monarch who basically is all any of us have known?
“I think it’s kind of happened very well. I think the succession is now a fact, an uncontroversial one.
“Which is not to way to set aside the colossal affection that we saw for the Queen at the moment of her death, but it is to say that almost immediately, looking back, one saw that there was maybe a rightness to the timing of her disappearing and the Prince of Wales taking over: still young enough to do the job, but with a colossal amount of experience and wisdom derived from – whatever it was – 73 years of more or less direct preparation.”
I follow you on Twitter, many people do. I presume most of your followers speak English, or understand English at least. Why do you tweet in Czech?
“Because I don’t think that most of my followers do, actually.
“We talk about this quite a lot and it’s very speculative, but I think I simply get access to more people if I’m mixing quite a lot of Czech in.
“You’ll see that if I’m deliberately pointing at an English-speaking audience I’ll tweet in English. God knows it’s a lot easier.
“But, no, I want to be talking to Czechs and I don’t want them to be having to regard my tweets as hard work, a kind of a bit of the English lesson.”
Do you have somebody you check the Czech with? Or who translates? I’m just curious how that works.
“I check the Czech.
“I’m happy to admit that I use artificial translation mechanisms, but as any English-speaker in this country knows, they are an absolute nightmare.
“Because they can’t, for example, distinguish genders, at the most straightforward level.
“So my Czech is absolutely good enough to look at a Google Translate or whatever and think, That’s not right.
“And then I will try and rephrase what I want to say in a way that gives me Czech that I’m happy with.
“So I take absolute responsibility.
“When I get my Czech wrong sometimes, that’s not kind of deliberate – that’s just because [laughs] clearly my system has let me down for a moment.”
This is a kind of an indulgence, if I may. I’ve often wondered about diplomats. How do you go to so many receptions where there is and food and drink – every evening you go to a few, or that’s how it seems from the outside – and manage to do so without gaining weight or developing a drink problem?
“Do you know, when I was a very young man in London I shared a house with a diplomat’s daughter; we were in our early 20s.
“And he, as they said, had laid down his liver in service of his country.
“So I guess I was aware – I mean, he was not a happy chap – of the risk from the start.
“But I think it’s a risk that exists in your profession of journalism, it’s a risk that exists in my wife’s profession of barristering; lawyers, that is, for Czechs listening – not a barista.
“And we all exercise some self-control.”
My final question: In 30 or 35 years when you’re sitting in your rocking chair back in the UK, what do you think you will remember of Prague?
“I will remember the Thun Palace, certainly.
“I will remember the utter joy of empty Prague when Covid first hit.
“I will remember some diplomatic moments.
“I presented my credentials one spring afternoon and the next morning, first thing, I was lobbying across the Czech government – having only just been allowed to talk to ministers at the credentials ceremony – to try and encourage the Czech government to expel Russian diplomats because of Skripal.
“And there are these moments.”