Johnson’s shameful stint as Foreign Secretary will cast a shadow over British diplomacy for years to comeby Arthur Snell / July 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
I can date the first time I became really aware of Boris Johnson with reasonable accuracy. It would have to be the first quarter of 2002. I was a junior diplomat on a posting in Abuja, Nigeria’s strangely artificial capital, and the Ministry of Finance was my regular beat. There, I would attempt to cultivate Nigerian officials to get a fuller understanding of their attitude to debt repayment negotiations that seemed important at the time. One such contact, like many Nigerian senior officials a graduate of Britain’s finest universities, expressed a liking for the sharp wit of the British press and thus we developed a little system wherein I picked up old copies of the UK newspapers—valuable currency in those pre-Internet days—that reached us easily at the High Commission but were hard to come by in Abuja and dropped them off at his office.
It must have been early February: I had not seen Ben for a few days and dropped into his office. The usual smiles and warmth that greeted my arrival were replaced with a certain froideur. The little sheaf of scavenged Guardiansand Daily Telegraphs met with a grunt, rather than gratitude. Ben pulled out a recent TelegraphI’d given him and waved a page in front of me.
“What do you make of this?” he asked, clearly angry.
“This” was Boris Johnson’s take on Tony Blair, at that time at the height of his post-9/11, pre-Iraq popularity. “This” included talk of “flag-waving piccaninnies” and “tribal warriors” with “watermelon smiles.” It didn’t do much for British diplomacy to find this in the pages of a major newspaper. It would have been easy to dismiss him as a fringe figure except he was already editor of the Spectator and MP for Henley: a more establishment combination being hard to imagine. Boris’s relaxed attitude towards racially charged language was on further display exactly a year later when his magazine published an article about “black thugs, sons of black thugs and grandsons of black thugs.” This to describe British West Indians who “multiply like flies.” That would be the Windrush generation.
Race was not the only way in which this establishment figure made his mark. More than anything, it is Boris’s tricky relationship with the truth that became his brand. Decades before his mendacious fronting of the Leave campaign, which led the normally courteous French foreign minister to respond that he had “lied a lot,” Boris appeared comfortable bending the truth. A revealing post from a fellow Brussels correspondent remarked on Boris’s time reporting for the Telegraphon European matters: “He seized every chance to mock or denigrate the EU, filing stories that were undoubtedly colourful but also grotesquely exaggerated or completely untrue.” Many times as a diplomat I would talk to European colleagues who would ask why they had to expend energy defending the European Union against completely pointless accusations in the British press that had no basis in fact. Often we would be having these conversations in countries where the press would be owned by prominent businessmen, printing largely what was in that proprietor’s interests. Not like the proud traditions of Fleet Street.
Boris knows how to make people laugh. The only problem being, diplomacy isn’t very funny. Boris’s idea of funny usually would fit neatly into his comfort zone—an after-dinner speech at a provincial Conservative Association. International summits, not so much. When Boris quipped at a meeting to discuss the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis in Yemen, “with friends like these, who needs Yemenis,” it’s not very surprising the joke fell flat in a room full of people worrying about mass starvation and cholera. Similarly, his line about clearing dead bodies in Libya to allow a new Dubaito be built amidst the chaos, not to mention the loose talkthat led to new charges against a British mother imprisoned in Iran were both painful reminders that the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom speaks with consequence, even when that person is a noted clown.
Consequences appear to be something Boris isn’t very familiar with, whether in his private life, his journalistic efforts or his political campaigns. But international relations is boring, full of consequence and people with long memories. His shameful stint as Foreign Secretary will cast a shadow over British diplomacy for years to come.
Arthur Snell served in the Foreign Office from 1998—2014