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.