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I had to win Portuguese hearts, said ambassador Alex Ellis

Special Report by Chris Graeme

“An absolute joy” among a people whose “virtues are profound and immense” was how the British Ambassador to Portugal described his three year tenure in Portugal.

Alex Ellis was addressing around 300 guests and friends at a farewell cocktail party held at the British Ambassador’s residence in Lisbon last Thursday.

“I absolutely love this job because of the people it puts you in touch with and the things you learn,” he said. “You realise as you do this particular job how small Government is in comparison with you. We have the enormous advantage of coming from two countries that truly understand each other and many problems are resolved through understanding,” he said.  

The outgoing ambassador, who leaves his post at the end of this month when he will become Director of Strategy at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London from January, said he had been given excellent advice on his arrival in Portugal in that he needed to “win Portuguese hearts” and that the Portuguese had big hearts – the “most important muscle in their bodies”.

He also described the success of Portugal’s “strong institutions” and added that they were “essential” in the midst of subjectivity and a media-driven society which could be “a dangerous thing”.

“If I was to give a lecture about the last decade, I would say we started with 10 men and four knives and we ended it with one man and one pen drive. If you think hard about that and what can happen with very few people, the way you deal with that is by having great institutions which are capable of absorbing subjectivity and immediacy while ‘perspective’  was also needed.”  

Alex Ellis told his guests an anecdote about his first day in Lisbon as newly-appointed ambassador at a dinner with his in-laws at the Order of Economists when an economist was informed that he was the new United Kingdom ambassador to Portugal.

The man asked, “but where are you going to work at the Embassy?” to which Alex Ellis replied: “As the ambassador!”

“Are you going to work in the political section of the embassy?” asked the economist.

“No, as ambassador!” replied Ellis. “Are you going to be working in the Consular section?” asked the man.  “Ambassadooooor!!” replied Ellis insistently.

“Ah, so in the Commercial section?” asked the bewildered guest. “OK, yes, I’m going to work in the Commercial section,” said Ellis giving up.

Thanking the embassy team, some of whom were at the party, he called them “outstanding” and said that what had been achieved was really “their achievement” and that he was the lucky guy who had got to enjoy the fruits of that success.

“In the last three years, the team has won one or another Foreign & Commonwealth Office embassy award such as ‘Best Trade Team’ in the world two years ago, while its ‘Green Team’ was one of the best last year worldwide and this year the entire embassy won the ‘Most Innovative and Efficient Embassy Award’ in the world.

Alex Ellis also thanked his wife Teresa. “This is one of the weird jobs where you really do it as a couple and to have Teresa with me has been an absolute pure joy,” he said.

But the ambassador said that he really wanted to thank the Portuguese. “You get to meet a lot of people as an ambassador and there’s a great line by the poet Auden: ‘Private faces in public places are usually wiser and nicer than public faces in private places,’ he said.

“I want to thank you, every single one of you, for what you do to deal with the world we have and in a way which makes it better,” he concluded.