The French philosopher Voltaire is reputed to have said ‘We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.’ Presumably, he was talking about the French. Some three centuries later, the British in Hungary are looking in that direction, too, this time for ideas on how to revamp the long-established British Chamber of Commerce in Hungary (BCCH). Enter Duncan Graham, one of the city’s best-known Scotsmen, and recently appointed Chair of the BCCH, the first non-Hungarian to hold the position in 15 years.
His mandate is to breathe new life into what has traditionally been a network of British multinationals operating in the country, whose primary objective is to foster trade and investment flows between the UK and Hungary. Make no mistake, they’ve done their job well. But their focus has been exclusively on business and business-related events for those businesses already pretty well established. Graham’s vision is to make the BCCH more inviting, more inclusive, and more interactive. He wants to attract more small and medium enterprises (SMEs), start-ups, and individual members. He wants the BCCH to be the first port of call for British expats relocating to Hungary. And for that, he has to come up with an offer.
Scotland and Wales are already well-represented on the social calendar with St Andrew’s Day, Burns’ Night, and St David’s Day celebrations, but England has been remarkably quiet. Until now. Graham’s opening volley will be a ticketed event on 13 July on the terrace of the Marriott where those present will enjoy the best of the season’s tennis with the Ladies Wimbledon Final televised on a big screen and served with strawberries and cream. Those new to the game will find it easier to network after a glass or two of the quintessential English summer drink – Pimm’s. Open to members, prospective members, and guests from other chambers, the event will be the first Graham will host as chair of the BCCH in an effort to make the chamber a little more social.
An art exhibition of British artists in Hungary in on the cards for September and no doubt the balance of the BCCH calendar of events for the next couple of years will tilt towards inviting other chambers to join them rather than simply attending events organised by others.
The BCCH board of seven is made up of three Scots and four Hungarians – hardly reflective of British expansiveness – but all are seasoned players with an impressive list of contacts and a vast networking circle to call on. Going on past form, the BCCH would appear to be in good hands.
Graham himself first came to Budapest in early 2007 to visit one of his biggest clients, a Vienna-based rail works with offices in Herceghalom. In early 2008, he began visiting every couple of months or so, staying a week each time, before finally tethering the thistle and moving over for good in 2011. Introduced to the Irish Hungarian Business Circle (IHBC) by a good friend and current IHBC Vice-President, Tim O’Sullivan, Graham’s organisational talent and social energy were soon spotted by then IHBC President Gerard Lucey, who was quick to draft him onto the IHBC board. Under his able direction, the IHBC’s St Patrick’s Day Gala dinner has grown from strength to strength.
When the news broke that Graham was crossing over to the BCCH, I’ll admit to being a tad upset. I saw it as a defection of sorts. Here was I, an Irish woman, bemoaning the fact that our VP, a Scottish man, was moving over to take charge of the British chamber. It took a while for the absurdity of the situation to dawn on me. I can be rather slow at times.
When it comes to being English, Scottish, Welsh, British, or Irish, semantic confusion abounds here in Hungary. I have English friends who rightly say they’re British and Welsh friends who never claim to be anything but Welsh, and Scots friends who are Scottish first and British second. Each to their own, I say, especially when it comes being British. Some Hungarians get themselves in knots over it all. At an event one night, a Hungarian friend offered me a lift home. They also said they’d take my friend, who happened to be Irish, too, even though it was out of their way.
‘We don’t want to read in the paper tomorrow of how an English woman went missing on her way home’, they said jokingly.
‘She’s not English’, I muttered.
‘Okay, then. A British woman…’
And those living outside the British Isles don’t have a monopoly on this confusion.
Explaining to a London gal who was thinking of buying a house at the Balaton that she might consider joining a Facebook group called Balaton Brits, she asked me if I was a member.
‘No’, I said. ‘I’m not British.’
‘But you’re Irish’, she said.
‘Yes’, I said, ‘I am. I’m Irish. Not British.’
‘But you’re from Ireland… from the Republic of Ireland.’
‘I’m from Ireland’, I said. ‘The Republic of Ireland is our football team. And I’m not British.’
It took a while and I’m still not convinced she got it.
The Lord only knows what confusion will reign post-Brexit. As Britain faces huge challenges abroad in the coming months, international networking will become even more important. Graham’s well-established links with the London-based Irish International Business Chamber (IIBN), the Budapest-based IHBC, and myriad other groups and networks will stand him in good stead.
His generosity of spirit defies the Scottish stereotype and is mirrored in the energy and enthusiasm he has for bringing people together, to help each other, to learn from each other, to support each other. It’s not a question of the IHBC’s loss being the BCCH’s gain. With Graham at the helm, the two chambers and others around them will continue to work towards developing international relations. Didn’t British PM Arthur Balfour say: ‘Every country has need of Scotchmen…’
First published in the Budapest Times12 July 2019