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The Diplomatic Dispatch

The British Ambassador to Sweden blogs on The Local

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A summer of change; a summer of beauty

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

You would have had to try hard to miss the political upheavals in the UK after the referendum decision to leave the EU on 23 June.  There was a period when political commentators were proved wrong on a daily basis. But one month on, my new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has a full new Ministerial team, who have hit the ground running.

For the Embassy team here in Sweden all this has shown the changes, and some of the constants, of diplomatic life. In the coming period we will have a big job to work with Sweden to create a new relationship between the UK and the EU. That will dominate for many, but at the same time much of our bilateral relationship will carry. Vattenfall have just announced that they will invest SEK3bn into the UK’s renewable energy market. Our two Defence Ministers met at the NATO summit in Warsaw in June, and our bilateral military cooperation with Sweden will continue. The Mary Rose museum in the UK, which celebrated 20 years of cooperation with the Vasa museum last year, reopens its doors this week. International cricket is coming to Stockholm in August. And if football is you’re thing, you’ll be interested in the new signing by Manchester United.  We have had an Ambassador here since 1535. Oliver Cromwell signed a treaty with Sweden in 1654. When our Queen, whose 90th birthday we have just celebrated, came to power, there was no EU, but there was friendship and family ties between our two royal families.

This has also been our first summer in Sweden, and how extraordinarily beautiful it has been. We leave at the end of this week for a week’s sailing round the Stockholm archipelago, then a week in Gotland. It is a holiday plan which seems to have met with approval from most of our Swedish friends. Wish us luck with the weather.  In the meantime, here is a souvenir photo after our now daily swim in Stockholm’s Djurgårdsviken.


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A message for British expats in Sweden

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

The people of the United Kingdom have voted to leave the European Union. As Prime Minister David Cameron said on Friday 24 June, we would like to reassure Swedish citizens living in Britain, and British citizens living in Sweden, that there will be no immediate changes in their circumstances. Now, and during the negotiations to create a new relationship between the UK and the EU, there will be no change to people’s rights to travel and work, and to the way our goods and services are traded, or to the way our economy and financial system is regulated. These negotiations could take a long time.

As George Osborne, the British Chancellor, said on 27 June, Britain’s economy is going to have to adjust to the new situation. We were prepared for the unexpected, we are equipped for whatever happens, and we are determined that Britain’s financial system will help Britain deal with any shocks. We will ensure that Britain is able to agree a long-term economic relationship with the rest of Europe that provides for the best possible terms of trade in goods and services. We want to put in place the strongest possible economic links with Sweden and our European neighbours, with our close friends in North America and the Commonwealth, and our important partners like China and India.

Finally, as the Prime Minister also said, while Britain is not perfect, we believe that we can be a model of a multi-racial, multi-faith democracy, where people can come and make a contribution and rise to the very highest that their talent allows.

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Queen’s Birthday Stockholm 2016: 9th June. 90th Birthday. 900 Guests!

Friday, June 17th, 2016

What do you do when you read that the Queen’s 90th Birthday in London will be celebrated with a picnic for 10,000 people on The Mall? Get inspired.

This was us on 9th June, after just three months of preparation.

David & Sharon church JLR guests

With support from sponsors such as Lloyds, RBS, Jaguar Land Rover and Dyson, we laid on a 1920’s garden party for 900 from politics, business, media, and culture in the grounds of the Residence and English Church next door.

Multicultural and multi age. Children from the British School ran the games. The Servicemen and Women’s Association the tea tent. Cricket. Indian, highland sword and morris dancing. Music. A Swedish 1920s Fire engine. Fish and chips, sausages, cakes, and scones. Tea, Pims, G&T, beer and more tea. We planted a Queen Elizabeth Rose to mark the day. Scottish pipers piped the close.

.sword dancing rose planting dancers cricket treats fish and chips spitfire

Multicultural and multi age. Children from the British School ran the games. The Servicemen and Women’s Association the tea tent. Cricket. Indian, highland sword and morris dancing. Music. A Swedish 1920s Fire engine. Fish and chips, sausages, cakes, and scones. Tea, Pimms, G&T, beer and more tea. We planted a Queen Elizabeth Rose to mark the day. Scottish pipers piped the close.

Reflections? What a huge team effort, both in the Embassy and with the UK-Swedish organisations here, and a great bonding experience for all of us. We were definitely lucky with the weather. And what did our guests think? Here is what one said: “As one of my friends remarked to me during the party; it’s not difficult to work out what all the Swedish guests are thinking – on a day like this they wish they were English.”

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A day as a guard

Monday, April 18th, 2016

Life as an Ambassador. Driven around in the Jaguar. Visits all planned so you go straight in. Most of the people you meet invited or screened. A diplomatic bubble.

But what about those who work on the front line? What is their day to day life like? How are they treated, by visitors, and by other staff? I decided to find out by volunteering to join our guard team for a morning in April.

In the run up all was exciting. Would I get a gun, asked my son? No. But handcuffs and a walkie-talkie yes. Was the uniform cool? Yes, and a reminder to watch the waistline.

On the morning itself, I was nervous. Would I do something stupid? What if we had a security incident, and I was hopeless? My boss for the day, the head of security, sent me instructions, and there was a lot to learn. I almost overslept the 0700 start. That would have been bad.

In the end, fortunately, all went well. It was also quite an eye opener. Our guards have to be bi-lingual, and answer any call that comes, as they also operate the telephone reception. The post room had pictures of some of the nasty things that people send to Embassies, and that was sobering as I went through the day’s mail. You get to know all the Embassy regulars, from the garbage guys to the regular police checks, and these relationships are important. Something can happen at any time, and that means you, and your stuff, has to be ready. Our guards are young, but much more mature than I was at that age. For our own colleagues most say hello; others are lost in their own world and don’t (and I realised I’ve been guilty of that).

HMA with Rickard and Stefanos

Thanks to Rickard and Stefanos (pictured here), and Tobias for looking after me.  It was fun, with a great team, who are an excellent front line for us here in Stockholm.

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Voting in Britain

Monday, March 21st, 2016

There are about 3.5–5.5 million UK citizens living overseas, and about 30,000 in Sweden. In the future, British people are likely to get a “vote for life” although that is not possible today. But if you have been registered to vote in the UK in the last 15 years you can vote.

You can register online to vote – it takes less than five minutes and once that’s done you can choose to vote via one of three methods. You can vote either by post; by proxy (you designate someone you trust to vote on your behalf in the UK); or in person at a polling station in your constituency. If you can’t or don’t want to register online, you can still download and post back paper forms.

To register to vote you will need to know your National Insurance number and your passport details. If you don’t have a National Insurance number you can still register, but you may have to supply more information to show who you are. If you were too young when you left the UK to have been registered, then you can register as an overseas voter if your parents (or guardians) were registered in the UK in the last 15 years.

Do spread the word. #ovrd, #yourvotematters, and #expat.

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City Runs

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

Since moving to Stockholm I’ve been blessed to live next to the Djurgården, and to be able to run around Djurgårdsviken a few times a week.

I always try and go for a run when I travel. I like how you get to know a city or country a little bit more, and it’s a good antidote to work breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.  In my time as a diplomat I’ve managed to visit around 80 countries. So I thought I’d share my top 10 city runs, and maybe a couple to avoid. Here goes:

Top 10

1. Tokyo. The loop around the Imperial Palace. Yes, I’m biased as it was my last posting, but this favourite of Tyler Brule (of FT and Monocle fame) is a great, green, 5km circuit in the heart of the city. Best time of year? Early April, when the spectacular cherry blossom is out.

2. New York. Around Central Park with fantastic skyline views. Best time of year? Fall, with those amazing colours.

3. Sydney.  Around the harbour and parks, then look back onto the Opera House. A total wow.  Lots and lots of superfit people everywhere which was a bit intimidating….

4. Geneva. From the UN down around the lake to the famous fountain. Spectacular views of Mont Blanc. Best time of year? January can be fun, with the natural ice sculptures by the lake. Summer also good and you can swim. Or waterski.

5. Pretoria. The Pretoria city game park. Bit of a cheat this, because you have to drive to get there. But an early morning run when you meet giraffe, zebra and ostrich. How cool is that? Anytime.

6. Moscow. Around the Kremlin. Not long, but a definite power buzz. Summer.

7. Rome. Yes it’s polluted, but around the Coliseum and Circus Maximus, there is a certain wow factor, especially if you pass Lamborghini’s 75th anniversary car event, as I did.

8. Hong Kong. Along Bowden Road, then up to The Peak, and back. A great (long) run, with amazing views from the top. But as the pollution has got worse, it’s much less fun than it used to be.

9. London. Saving the best for (second)last? I don’t know, but the run through St James Park, Green Park, and Hyde Park, and round the Serpentine, is one of the best. Best time? June, at the peak of England’s green.

10. And Stockholm. Every season good so far, even in the snow.

Runners up

Paris. Along the Seine, around Eiffel Tower. Vancouver. A little known entry. Along the sound. Lovely views of the mountains. Washington. Along the river from Georgetown to the Lincoln Memorial, then stop and look up towards Capital Hill. Ottawa. From the centre, over the bridge into Quebec and back. Interesting geography and history. Brussels. From the EU institutions through the Leopold arches and on up to the parks. Helps you cope with EU business. Sometimes. The Hague. Small city, nice park. Boston. Over the “Make way for ducklings” pond. Oslo and Helsinki. Around the harbours. Rangoon. A bit polluted, but interesting route past temples and parks. Vilnius. Good castle climb.

Also rans

Delhi (too dusty), Singapore and KL (too sweaty), Port Stanley and Reykjavik (too windy), Erbil (actually quite nice in spring when I went – there was a certain Tuscan look to the hills. But basically it was around a hotel compound). Lisbon, Istanbul, Canberra, Riga (not memorable)

Exotic but disappointing:  Antarctica. Rothera Base. The run is around the airstrip, so basically dull. Good bragging rights though. Probably best to avoid in winter.

To avoid? Sadly, it’s probably all about pollution and security, so I’m afraid Kabul, Baghdad, Islamabad, Jakarta, Kathmandu, Lagos and Bangkok put me off.

And finally. Best swim? Cayman Islands, from the British Governor’s House along 7 mile beach.

Any tips for even better runs gratefully received.

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Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

As we return to work, a few reflections on our first Christmas and New Year here in Sweden, a look ahead to this year, and information on how to vote.

Nobel celebrations are amazing. We had two(ish) British winners in December: Angus Deaton the Economist, and Tomas Lindahl the Physicist (who has done much of his work in the UK. I agree, it feels like a cheat to claim him, but the Nobel Foundation decides these things, not me). A cosy supper for 1,350 at the Stadshuset? Even now I can’t quite get my head around how they manage that.

It wasn’t that dark. Well maybe it was, but it was frosty and white, and by Cambridge standards it snowed in Stockholm. So my kids got the white Christmas holiday we’d promised.

Pepparkakor and blue cheese is lethal. To the waistline. But how yummy. And how addictive. A deathly combination of sweet and salty.

How many julbord before you overdose? 2? 3? Janssons frestelse is the best bit. Discuss.

Glögg is too sweet. And that’s not (just) because I saw the news programme showing just how much sugar goes into it.

Stockholm Christmas markets. The one at The Royal Stables was lovely. The kids were a bit dubious about dancing to Små Grodorna in Skansen. Fantastic candle shops, which brings me to …

Candles in the windows. We are totally converted.

Skiing. Having been spoilt by the Swiss Alps we were ready to be disappointed. But Åre was a lovely town, in beautiful scenery, and a great drive to get there. There wasn’t enough snow for proper off-piste, but we’d definitely go back for some powder. Lots of good skiers. My first try at cross-country was very humbling.

The Cairns on the slopes in Åre

And of course Christmas 2015 was especially special because of … the new Star Wars movie. With Max von Sydow! And we went to the opening! My children were blown away by the whole thing. But, Stockholmers – why do you leave such a mess in your cinemas? It was gross.

Meeting Darth Vader


2016 will be a big year for celebrations. 400th anniversary of Shakespeare (check out Statford-upon-Avon in April). 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth (Howarth in April), 150th of Beatrix Potter (Hilltop in Cumbria in July) and 100th of Roald Dahl (Great Missenden in September).  It will be the Queen’s 90th birthday (and the Swedish King’s 70th).

And the EU referendum

There are about 3.5–5.5 million UK citizens living overseas, and about 30,000 in Sweden. Expats will be able to vote in the UK’s EU referendum due to take place by 31 December 2017.

To register as an overseas elector you must have been registered to vote in the UK in the last 15 years. You will need to know your National Insurance number, and have your passport to hand if you have one. If you don’t have a National Insurance number you can still register, but you may have to supply more information to show who you are. If you were too young when you left the UK to have been registered, then you can register as an overseas voter if your parents (or guardians) were registered in the UK in the last 15 years.

You can now register online to vote at www.gov.uk/register-to-vote – it takes less than five minutes and once that’s done you can choose to vote via one of three methods. You can vote either by post; by proxy (you designate someone you trust to vote on your behalf in the UK); or in person at a polling station in your constituency, but of course if you live overseas you’re unlikely to be able to able to do this. If you can’t or don’t want to register online, you can still download and post back paper forms. Remember to return your completed form as far in advance of the deadline as possible. The actual deadlines for registering to vote and applying for an absent vote will be set once the date of the referendum is known.

Do spread the word. #ovrd,  #yourvotematters, and #expat.

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Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

I know that my mum is super proud that I’m an Ambassador. But if you asked her what I actually do, she’d probably say: “I’m not sure”. She’s not alone. Lots of people like the idea of Embassies and Ambassadors, but lots of people ask: “what do you actually do?” So, just to explain a little, here are my top priorities whilst I’m here as Ambassador to Sweden and Director for the Nordic Baltic region.

The EU. The UK Government has a clear plan. It wants to improve the way the EU works. It wants to renegotiate some elements of our relationship with the EU. And when it has done that it wants the British people to vote in a referendum to remain as members of a reformed union. The negotiation comes first; the referendum second. Sweden is one of our closest allies in the EU. My job is to get the Swedish Government to agree with the changes we want to make, and to help secure agreement by all 28 members of the EU.

Visiting the English School in Gothenburg

Prosperity. My Prime Minister is clear on what he wants from me: to help British business in Sweden; to support Swedish investors in the UK so they grow their business there; to help deliver multinational trade agreements, such as between the EU and the US, that will help businesses and consumers; to champion science and innovation collaboration; and to encourage tourism to the UK. So in my Residence in Stockholm we will have about 4,000 visitors in the coming year, most of which will be business related, coming to what I hope will be fun, and useful, events.

Security. When I was at school I visited East Berlin, going through Checkpoint Charlie. By the time I was at university the Berlin Wall had fallen, and I remember visiting the first McDonalds in Moscow in 1991. As a diplomat I’ve seen countries of the Former Soviet Union join the EU, and it’s been amazing to think that my children can grow up thinking of Europe as united. Sadly, Russia’s actions in Ukraine last year have put some fear back in the air. So across this region we will support our EU and NATO allies to give them the reassurance they deserve. Further afield, it is five years since the Arab Spring, and the hopes of many young people in that region are far from being realised. My job here is to work with countries such as Sweden who, like the UK, are large aid donors, to try and help bring peace, prosperity, and democracy to the countries of the Middle East.

And last, but not least,

Serving British citizens. At the end of the day, the most important job an Embassy does is to help British Citizens who get in trouble. More than 60 million Brits travel overseas each year and Embassies help around 20,000 British nationals. Sweden is, I’m happy to say, a safe place. But if there were to be, say, a plane crash, a terrorist attack, or a tsunami (unlikely, I know) then I and the Embassy would do everything we could to help any British people caught up in such an incident.

Visiting Stockholm's Vasa Museum with staff from the UK's Mary Rose Museum

And then there is lots of other amazing stuff. We hosted an event for designer Efva Attling last week as she launched her new Beatles jewellery collection. The Thursday before were invited to an evening with the Vasa and Mary Rose Museums, who were celebrating 20 years of partnership.  The Sunday before that was Remembrance Sunday, so I gave a reading at the English Church, and we held a lunchtime reception for the British community afterwards.  And in October I helped open an extension to the fantastic Goteborg English School.  It is a great job.

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My First Impressions of Sweden

Friday, October 9th, 2015

There is a tradition in the British Foreign Ministry that when Ambassadors arrive at their new post, they write a “First Impressions” telegram back to the Foreign Minister in London. Later, on departure, they write a farewell “Valedictory” dispatch. I will send my First Impressions at some point before Christmas. So this blog is perhaps a “First First Impressions” piece.

What to say about Sweden after a month? Some things I heard in the briefing I was given before I arrived I can really see. Some things I’m not so sure.

A beautiful country? Absolutely. One of the first things we did on arrival was to take a boat to Grinda Island in Stockholm’s archipelago and spend the day swimming off the rocks. How amazing that was. Our house is on Djurgårdsbrunnsviken and every morning we wake up to the patter of feet of the trendiest joggers I have ever seen. We had to make an emergency trip to Asics for my daughter to get kitted out properly.

An equal society? Yes and no. As Maddy Savage wrote in The Local we’ve also been struck by the equality between men and women. More women in leadership positions, and men taking equal parental leave. All very impressive and something for the UK to learn from. In money terms we’ve certainly seen the smart end. As a Swedish friend said to us as we watched the boats: “when the sun comes out the toys come out.” We will explore the rural ends of the country and tougher ends of the city, but with beggars in most supermarket doorways there’s inequality somewhere.

A consensus society? I’ve read debates on migration, NATO, business corruption, education, and the arguments between political parties. All healthy stuff. I watched Stockholm’s football hooligans on TV. There wasn’t much consensus there.

Traditional or modern? Both. Like the UK. The ceremony The King holds for new Ambassadors is an amazing, and moving, traditional event. But meeting Hans Vestberg of Ericsson and hearing his future vision is something very 22nd century. When you live Asia, you hear people talk of Europe as a museum. But I don’t think Sweden is, nor the UK.

What else?
People worry more about the weather than even the British do. At home we’re so pleased to have a sunny day we just enjoy it. Here I’ve heard countless times: “it may be sunny, but just wait for the real Swedish weather to come.” Nej.

Next time I’ll write a little more about what it is that Ambassadors and Embassies do…

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Tuesday, August 18th, 2015
Four years after arriving here, I leave Stockholm at the end of this week for a new posting at the UK delegation to NATO in Brussels. I’m looking forward to the new job and new city. But it will be hard to leave Stockholm, and I will carry with me many memories of this wonderful city, beautiful country and the friendly, fun and fascinating people I’ve had the privilege to meet from Luleå to Lund, Gothenburg to Gotland. Here are nine reasons our years in Stockholm have been so memorable.

S is for Science: I had heard about the Nobel ceremony, but nothing prepares you for the real thing. It was a privilege to sit in the Konserthus three years running to see a succession of British laureates – John Gurdon, Peter Higgs, Michael Levitt and John O’Keefe – receiving the greatest accolade in their profession. It was also a great honour to be a guest at the Nobel Banquet in the City Hall, and wonderful to witness a nation elevating and celebrating science, and admiration for scientific discovery, to a genuinely national event.

T is for Tack för Maten: I love the Swedish custom of the guest sitting next to the hostess proposing a toast to thank the host and hostess for the dinner. I’ve been the recipient of many lovely “Tacks” at our Residence, from ministers, industrialists, scientists, authors and many others. I’ve also had the pleasure of delivering quite a few “Tacks” myself. One I will always remember was at City Hall in front of about 1000 people at a graduation ceremony for the Karolinska Institute. Speaking to a Nobel Laureate, dozens of professors, and hundreds of PHD graduates and medical doctors, I tried to sum up why, as a mere political scientist, I admired and envied those gifted with the skills to do “real” science.

O is for Olympics: I would have loved to be a scientist, but I would also love to have been an athlete. The next best thing was the events we had here to celebrate the London Olympics. We held the British International Primary School’s annual Sports Day in the Stockholm 1912 Olympic stadium and in the same stadium I received on behalf of the Embassy a good luck vase for London 2012 at a special commemoration event marking the centenary of the Stockholm games.

Ambassador Johnston with school children

C is for City: I said when I was appointed that my wife and I looked forward to living in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Every day as we take our morning walk along Djurgårdsbrunnsviken, we remind ourselves of what a joy it is to live in a city of islands, of water, trees, clean air and light. Even in a less than perfect summer, this remains a very nearly perfect capital city.


K is for King: there are historic links between the British and Swedish Royal Families. Indeed, there’s a beautiful stained glass window in the English church, celebrating the life of Crown Princess Margaret, grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, who married King Gustav VI Adolf. In my four years here, I had the privilege of a visit to Stockholm by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, as well as the honour of attending the wedding of Princess Madeleine and another British national, Christopher O’Neill.

H is for Home: anyone whose job involves moving house every few years, will tell you how important it is to feel at home. We’ve been privileged to live in a beautiful house, in an exceptional setting and to share it with many guests, coming for receptions, meals and other events, to promote UK business, encourage investment, and support cultural, scientific and other links between the UK and Sweden. But feeling at home is about more than that, and it’s thanks to our colleagues and friends in Stockholm, and to the friendly and helpful people we’ve met in shops, cafes, restaurants, on the phone and elsewhere, across this city and country that we’ve felt so much at home.

The British Residence

O is for Officials: one of the reasons I applied for this job was that I’d always enjoyed working with Swedish colleagues, in various jobs at the Foreign Office in London and at the United Nations in New York. All the officials I’ve worked with, in the Prime Minister’s office, Foreign, Finance, Business, and Defence Ministries, and elsewhere, have been unfailingly helpful, professional and co-operative. The same is true of the Swedish politicians and business leaders I’ve met. Our close political and commercial relationship is built on, and depends on, these ties and on the work done by all my colleagues in the Embassy team. I’m grateful to them all.

L is for Princess Lilian, who was born in Britain, met Prince Bertil during the Second World War, married him in her sixties, and died in 2013. We had the privilege of organising a memorial service for her at the English church, which was attended by the whole of the Swedish Royal family, and by her friends in the British community. Getting to know my fellow UK nationals in Stockholm, and their friends and families, not least through the congregation of the English church, has been another delight.

Memorial Service for Princess Lilian at the English Church

M, finally, is for Music: my wife’s first introduction to the beauty of Sweden was listening to a Lucia at the Swedish Consulate-General in New York. Our first event at City Hall was for the award of the Birgit Nilsson Prize. We’ve been to wonderful concerts at Berwaldhallen and the Konserthus and we’ve had some beautiful music in our house and in the English church. Above all, I’ll remember the Lucia concerts at Oscarskyrkan. Sitting in the dark with the sounds of the choristers old and young converging from across the church bearing candles. The beauty of the music, the promise of light in the darkness, the essence of the Swedish spirit. I’ll never forget it.

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Blog updates

26 July

A summer of change; a summer of beauty (The Diplomatic Dispatch) »

"You would have had to try hard to miss the political upheavals in the UK after…" READ »


22 July

After the horror, carry on regardless (Globally Local) »

"This time last week, we were just digesting the horror of the Nice killings, in which…" READ »

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