Hughes Hall is one of three mature Cambridge collegesHughes Hall with permission for Varsity

Sir Laurie Bristow’s diplomatic career is unparalleled in the amount of forefronts he has been at: the end of the Cold War, the Skripal poisonings, the fall of Kabul, and more. As we start the recording, Sir Laurie begins to tell me about his life and career, and how his didn't always follow the trajectory he expected: “For a long while I thought I might become an academic”, he professes.

I ask him why he decided not to pursue this after his PhD in English, and he tells me there were “all sorts of reasons”. “I don’t think there’s ever one particular reason we choose to do anything”, Sir Laurie says. “I was coming towards the end of the PhD [...] my wife by that stage was working in international development travelling a lot”. Among these reasons, the most salient one to me was his pure intrigue: “A lot of dramatic change was starting to happen in Eastern Europe as I looked into it, and it looked really interesting! I thought, give it a go, and to my amazement, you know, I got through the selection process to the Foreign Office.”

“Unless you understand what happens outside the capital, you don’t really understand the country at all”

We quickly get back on track to discussing his fascinating career, initially focusing on Sir Laurie’s first posting in Romania as a Junior Diplomat. Sir Laurie starts by outlining a misconception that a diplomat’s career is focused on capital cities: “Obviously, the capital is the decision making centre of most countries [...] but unless you understand what happens outside the capital, you don’t really understand the country at all”, he posits, discussing how in post-communist transitions work often involved finding out “whether the county was actually stable [...] Where is this country going?”. “Unless you actually get out and talk to people, you get the smell of the place, what you’re getting is a version that’s filtered through a very narrow circle of people.”

Focusing on this post-communist transition a bit more, I ask Sir Laurie what it was like as a first role: “You need to have a bit of empathy about what the population were getting through – absolutely enormous upheaval and overturning of everything that they’d grown up with”, he informs me. “The other side of it though was just this incredible possibility [following] growing up under a particularly repressive form of communism [...] and suddenly, almost overnight, it wasn’t what they were gonna get.”

Russia is another ex-communist nation Sir Laurie is extremely familiar with. “I’m afraid it’s in the nature of dealing with Russia that you’re quite often on different sides of very, very big arguments”, Sir Laurie shares. “I was in Moscow in 2008 when they invaded Georgia, and dealt with the aftermath of the Litvinenko killing”. I ask how you keep that diplomatic channel open in such high profile, especially during the Skripal poisonings which occurred when he was ambassador to Russia: “I was the channel for delivering the response, and the response essentially was to the Russian government, ‘You need to explain what happened here in 24 hours, or consequences will start to follow’ [...] It’s important there is no misunderstanding whatsoever on what we’re saying to them. It has to be perfectly clear [...] the other thing is you’ve got to think to be useful you’ve got to keep that channel of conversation open.”

“You have to realise that all your assumptions up to that point are gone”

I ask Sir Laurie whether he feels an assessment of his career as being ‘diplomacy in the face of large scale violence’ is fair. “I would describe it a bit more broadly”, he begins. “There were two really big features of the three decades I worked”. The first of these was “the end of the Cold War” and the “massive upheavals” that came with this. The second was “the consequences of that”, such as the “EU and NATO enlargement”. He does concede however, that “I tend to, as you say, gravitate quite a lot towards conflict or post-conflict”. On whether or not diplomacy changes in the face of huge-scale threat and conflict, Sir Laurie pauses to consider for a moment, “You have to think really clearly about what the national interest actually is.”

“You also need to think beyond tomorrow, after this week, trying to think where you want to be 50 years down the line - and by definition where you don’t want to be”. It feels only appropriate here to bring in his role as ambassador to Afghanistan during the fall of Kabul. “My private, personal view at the time was, we would almost certainly end up having to close that embassy on my watch”, Sir Laurie tells me gravely, “which is why it was important that I did the planning for it”. Every day, Sir Laurie and his team were “reporting back to London on the sort of size and scale of the collapse that we were seeing.”

“At the end of the day that’s the job, and yeah, we get on with it”

“The collapse came very, very fast – nine days from the loss of the first provincial capital to the fall of Kabul”. I cannot even begin to imagine what this is like to deal with, but Sir Laurie doesn’t hesitate to try and explain: “There comes a moment where you have to realise that all your assumptions up to that point are gone. The government is gone, the embassy is gone; you’re in a wholly different phase and it's making sure you understand that turning point that is a really critical thing”. Sir Laurie proceeded to stay in Kabul airport to process the evacuation himself with a small group of staff. “The soldiers did an amazing job getting control of the airfield”, before “civilian staff were brought in to run an evacuation and we got out over 15,000 people in two weeks.”

After all these incredible stories from his career, I wonder what he’d tell a budding student about entering this sort of work. “Only you can work out what you want”, he emphasises. “Understanding the downsides as well as the benefits is very important because, for example, being internationally mobile sounds great when you’re young, but when you have a spouse or partner with a career, maybe kids, the calculation may change”. Being more specific, Sir Laurie points out: “Why would you do it? One of the privileges of the job is you often get a bit of a ringside seat at the making of history. The person I’m most glad I met more than once was Mikhail Gorbachev [...] you’re talking with the man who had overseen the end of the Soviet Union, of the Cold War. The other end of the spectrum is [...] every day I would go up on the walls in the airfield of Kabul, and on the containers that we’ve used for crowd control there would be Taliban a couple of metres away. We fought these people for 20 years [...] but at the end of the day that’s the job, and yeah, we get on with it.”


Mountain View

Master of Christ’s: ‘I had a one-to-one meeting inside a tent with Colonel Gaddafi’

“Perhaps I’ve just been lucky, but I always find I have the most interesting job of anyone I know.”

Why did you take the job of President at Hughes Hall?

Back in the 1980s I was an undergrad and postgrad here at Cambridge. I always had an idea that I might come back to academia, and after 32 years being a diplomat, the opportunity came up and it coincided with the time I thought I should be moving on. So, yeah, that kind of answered the question for me!

What is your favourite part about the college?

Hughes Hall looks quite a bit different from some of the old mediaeval colleges down on the backs – I think that’s a good thing! There’s the gardens and particularly the cricket ground, of course – watching cricket being played there can be quite a good distraction sometimes. The location in town is great, adjacent to Mill Road with its own particular atmosphere and vibrancy I think which is very attractive to our very international student body. And it’s close to the station, which is convenient.

The best and worst thing about being a head of college?

You have a lot more freedom working in the university than you do in government to do the things that interest you. A big part of it is just how interesting it is being surrounded by bright people who have interesting ideas, including things that I know nothing about honestly!

One thing that is very different from Whitehall is the pace of work. In Whitehall typically, or at least certainly in the jobs I’ve worked in, you have a problem that you need to resolve and you need to address it pretty quickly – sometimes in hours, never mind days or weeks. Institutions like Cambridge work to a different timescale, and that can be frustrating sometimes but you need to understand the difference of the environment rather than pushing against it.

If you had to be the master of another college, which would you choose?

I’m very happy where I am. The college did a pretty good job of understanding who I was, and I spent a lot of time understanding who the college was.

What would you say to your successor in this role?

What I aim to do is transform this college. My predecessors did a great job; my take is Hughes Hall is a very very big college amongst the Cambridge colleges, it’s huge by comparison of when I was an undergrad here. It wants to have a global reputation and impact, and if it’s close to achieving that goal by the time I leave then I think I’ll have done what I came here to do.