Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Diary
4 October 2023

My dinner with Putin

Also this week: party conference dress codes and a troubled peace in the Balkans.

By Catherine Ashton

Autumn is my favourite season. The reds, golds and browns herald the end of summer and the beginning of a new, more serious time of year. And, of course, it brings the party conferences.

I used to spend the first weeks of autumn travelling to all the conferences, most often in one of our seaside towns or cities – Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton. Cold winds and restless seas greeted us band of conference dwellers, as we began our journey at the Trades Union Congress. This year the Labour and Conservative conferences, taking place in reverse order to the norm, are being held equidistant from my birthplace in Lancashire, battling for some northern soul between Liverpool and Manchester.

On my visits, the dress code alone told me which conference I was at. The Liberals, the most relaxed, the Conservatives, the most formal, with Labour sandwiched in between: no ties for men, but jeans frowned upon. Over time the uniforms merged towards business attire, no doubt now replaced with the smart-casual of a post-Covid world.

At the end of Labour conference, we would muse philosophically on the debates, clashes and applause of the week. Our conclusion: “We go to Labour conference and wonder why we vote Labour.” Then we went to Tory conference, and we remembered why.

The process of peace

Albin Kurti, the prime minister of Kosovo, will be at this year’s Labour Party conference. He is an important leader. Recently at a dinner in Pristina, we talked about his admiration for the Beatles and interest in visiting Liverpool. While I hope he sees something of the great city, I am shocked by the reports of violence in the north of Kosovo. I was in Pristina to discuss the Brussels dialogue I led a decade ago between Serbia and Kosovo. It took real leadership from both nations to talk to each other after a history of conflict and horror – and even more to find some level of agreement. Small steps. Ten years later the process is stuck.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Once again, we need courage to respect the past, mourn those lost and focus on the future. The prize of finding solutions is peace and prosperity in Europe. I hope Kurti and Aleksandar Vučić, the president of Serbia, will not let this opportunity pass. We should give them every support.

[See also: The boy who would be Bond]

A bevy of books

Later in the season I will have the joy of visiting some of the extraordinary book festivals that take place all over the UK. Until I wrote a book, I had no idea most of them existed. Yet I find a thriving industry of events, from Derby to Buxton, Appledore to Queen’s Park.

My book, And Then What?, which came out earlier this year, tells seven stories of my time in office as the EU’s foreign policy chief. In each I describe what it was like to be there, whether in Libya after the bombing of Benghazi, negotiating with the Iranians on their nuclear programme, or standing in Maidan, Kyiv, with demonstrators at the beginning of the Ukraine crisis.

At Vladimir’s table

The question I get asked the most is: “What is Vladimir Putin like?” I always start my answer by saying he looks much as he does on TV. But Putin leaves those who spend time with him in no doubt of what matters to him. Spoiler alert: it’s not international norms.

At one of our regular dinners, sitting across the table from the presidents of the EU, he appeared uninterested in what was being said. He chatted a little to his foreign minister, and then looked around the room. His disdain seemed plain to see. Only at the end when he started to ask questions was it clear that he had been putting on an act. His apparent lack of interest hid a fierce determination to challenge every point. For him, relations with other nations are purely transactional.

Things fall apart

Getting to book festivals by train has been a challenge. Trains were so often “not as advertised”. Carriages disappeared, leaving those who had booked seats scrabbling for space. Today, the backdrop of “things falling apart” seems ever more real. Autumn will lead to winter, and pressures will grow on an NHS in desperate straits. Food banks are besieged by hungry people, and homelessness is visible on every street I walk down.

In Kosovo, the third poorest country in Europe, I was asked one question I was not expecting: why are so many people sleeping on Britain’s streets? How sad, they said.

Catherine Ashton will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival on 18 November:

[See also: Why are so many literary prizes closing?]

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action

Topics in this article :

This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power