The moral leader of Europe

Havel has the breadth of vision and skill with words to remind us of the larger issues
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The Independent Culture
SO, ONCE again: never believe what you read in the newspapers.

From the press reports, I gather that President Havel is pale, sick, exhausted, almost at death's door. Yet on the evening of the first day of his visit to Britain, I find him looking as well as I have seen him for a long time: lightly tanned, relaxed, smiling. The stream of anecdote and wry commentary still flows, the hands still rotate like the propellers on a small twin-prop plane, just as they used to when he was dodging the police as a dissident, or leading the velvet revolution in 1989.

Remarkably, after eight years as a president - first of Czechoslovakia, now of the Czech Republic - he still maintains an ironic distance from the role that was so unexpectedly thrust upon a man who considered himself, first and foremost, a playwright.

Particularly when sitting with fellow writers and theatre people, as he was on this particular evening (hosted by his friend and fellow playwright Tom Stoppard), he still talks as a writer who happens to find himself - compelled by extraordinary circumstances and a sense of duty - a political leader.

A Czech theatre director nicely described him as an Ichspieler: a solo actor called upon to play himself. Havel once compared his situation to something from Kafka. Nonetheless, it's a role that he now plays with practised aplomb, whether lunching with the Queen on Monday, visiting Northern Ireland to encourage the peace process yesterday, in Scotland today, or at Oxford to receive an honorary degree tomorrow.

This, his second official visit to Britain, comes in a mnemonic year for Czechs, because Czech history in the 20th century has famously turned on the "years of eight". Czechoslovakia was created in 1918. It was betrayed to Nazi Germany at Munich in 1938. The Communist coup in 1948 turned it into a Soviet-dominated Communist state. The "Prague Spring" of 1968, which attempted to transform that Communism into "socialism with a human face", was crushed by Soviet tanks later in the same year.

Then, admittedly, the clock went slightly out of sync. Charter 77, the dissident movement in which Vaclav Havel played such a prominent part, was founded in 1977 and not, as the law of eights would dictate, in 1978. The velvet revolution happened a year late, in 1989. The "velvet divorce", which saw Czechoslovakia divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, was made final on 1 January 1993. It will not be in this current year of eight, only in spring 1999, that the Czech Republic joins us in Nato.

I can only hope that the clock keeps mis-striking, so that the Czechs will also join us soon in the European Union. Yet, given the pace at which negotiations seem to be proceeding - the pace of a fat Belgian snail - it feels as though they may almost last until 2008.

Now, Britain has something to do with all these historic years. We assisted at the birth of Czechoslovakia after the First World War. The historian RW Seton-Watson collaborated closely with Havel's most distinguished predecessor, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, in working towards a new state of Czechs and Slovaks. It was Britain, alas, together with France, that 60 years ago sold democratic Czechoslovakia to Hitler, for the sake of Neville Chamberlain's illusory "peace in our time". When President Havel today warns against the "appeasement" of Slobodan Milosevic over Kosovo, he knows whereof he speaks.

We couldn't do much about the Communist coup in 1948, although we were instrumental in stepping up the Cold War against the Soviet Union from then on.

Nor could we do much to stop Soviet tanks rolling into Prague in 1968; but we did at least welcome a brave and colourful band of Czechoslovak exiles, including the present Czech foreign minister, Jan Kavan.

Britain was not the last among those in the West who supported the democratic opposition inside Czechoslavakia. This support came first through independent initiatives, such as that of the British philosophers who spoke to unofficial seminars in Prague, and the Oxford-based Central and East European Publishing Project. From the mid-Eighties, it was also part of government policy. Since 1989, Britain has been, next to Germany, the West European power arguing most persistently for the inclusion of the Czech Republic in Nato and the European Union.

So there is much to celebrate, as well as one big thing to apologise for. At the beginning of the next century, the United Kingdom (if Scotland has not pushed through its own "velvet divorce" from England) and the Czech Republic will find themselves, for the first time ever, fellow democracies in the same Western alliance and the same European community.

But how much do we know about our new ally and partner? Isn't the Czech Republic still "a far-away country of which we know little"? (In fact, like so many famous quotations, this one turns out to be inaccurate. What Neville Chamberlain really said was: "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing".)

Well, we know a little more now. For a start, we know golden Prague. Every time I go there, the plane seems to be full of middle-class British tourists. We know about Czech beer. Then - ha, ha - we know about Skoda cars. Independent readers, being an uncommonly cultivated lot, will also know about the Good Soldier Svejk and Franz Kafka, have read a novel or two by Milan Kundera and seen the marvellous recent Czech film Kolya. And then there is Havel.

Not everything he has done as President has met acclaim in his own country. There have been mistakes; how could there not be? I have a long-running, friendly argument with him about his claim that it is possible to remain fully an intellectual while being actively engaged in politics. (The discussion has partly been conducted, on his side, as he conducts many such discussions these days, through the medium of presidential speeches to audiences as far away as Japan.) But there is no question that the Czech Republic is exceptionally fortunate still to have him as its President.

Havel consistently holds up moral standards and larger goals in public life, which are so easily lost sight of in the materialist and often corrupt post-Communist world. He urges fellow-citizens to show civic responsibility and tolerance, not least towards the Gypsies, some of whom have sought refuge in Britain because they still have such a raw deal at home.

He adds importance, gravity and glamour to a small country which might otherwise, frankly, sink rather from view. For the ironical achievement of the successful new Central European democracies has been to become a little, well, boring, by comparison with such interesting places as Bosnia and Kosovo.

More than this, though, it matters for Europe as a whole that the continent still has a leader with the moral authority, the breadth of vision and, not least, the skill with words, to remind us of the larger issues that concern us at the end of the millennium. The Czech Republic is set fair to enter both Nato and the European Union. If his health allows, Havel will see it safely into port.

But there's another country now belatedly setting course for the same harbour. It's called Slovakia and it was, until 1993, the other half of a Czechoslovakia that Havel fought to keep together. It has just got rid of a wayward, authoritarian leader called Vladimir Meciar, who showed us how important individual leaders are: showed it for the worst, as Havel has for the best.

Knowing Vaclav Havel, I am sure that he will quietly be reminding the British Government that our historical duty is not done just by embracing the Czech Republic, while urging it to erect a new Iron Curtain on its eastern frontier.

Sauce for the Czech goose should not mean arsenic for the Slovak gander.