A bigot at the top: Boris Johnson is no joke

  • Nic Dawes, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jul 16, 2016 21:42 IST
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson reacts as he sings the French national anthem during a reception at the French Ambassador's residence in London on July 14.  (AFP)

New Delhi: You didn't have to look far this week to find criticism of Theresa May's choice of foreign secretary.

The Independent, in a mock-apology to the world said, "[Boris] Johnson has insulted almost as many of you over the years as Prince Philip”; the FT offered “Boris Johnson: an undiplomatic history”, and the BBC “How Britain’s new foreign secretary has insulted the world”.

The list of offences is long. Hilary Clinton looks “like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with whom Johnson must deal in the wake of Saturday's coup attempt, is a “wankerer”, and so on.

No-one in British journalism, or politics, however, been prepared to call Johnson what he really is.  An unblushing racist, whose talk of “piccaninnies”, and the glories of colonialism should have made him unemployable and unelectable long ago.

The Economist’s Bagehot  gets closer than the others to the problem, and inadvertently highlights the reluctance of the British establishment to confront it. 

“Personally he is likeable. But he is also gaffe-prone and the progenitor of a series of undiplomatic comments about other peoples. Much more damning: he is unscrupulous, unserious and poorly organised.”

Why is it not possible to say that by “other peoples” you mean “everyone who isn’t white” and that by “undiplomatic” you mean “evincing a conviction that they are shiftless, stupid, ungrateful cannibals”.

For Johnson Africans aren’t just “piccaninnies” they are clueless cartoon figures, agog at foreigners who arrive in their “big white birds” to deliver lessons in agronomy.

“If left to their own devices, the natives [of Uganda] would rely on nothing but the instant carbohydrate gratification of the plantain ... Though this dish (basically fried banana) was greatly relished by Idi Amin, the colonists correctly saw that the export market was limited”, Johnson wrote in 2002 piece for the Spectator.

There is more. White people, apparently, came to Africa to rescue black people from brown people.

“ Are we guilty of slavery? Pshaw. It was one of the first duties of Frederick Lugard, who colonised Buganda in the 1890s, to take on and defeat the Arab slavers”. 

Britain’s foundational role in the transatlantic trade, is  completely elided .

Not enough? Writing this year in the Sun, Johnson rebuked Barack Obama for his views on Brexit by way of a parable about the removal from the Oval Office of bust of Churchill. “Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender”.

In BoJo’s birther fantasy, it is the racial memory of a not-quite-American black president that must motivate his views on Britain’s place in Europe.

Both surviving documents and witnesses to the suppression of Kenya's Mau Mau insurgency under Churchill record widespread torture and murder by colonial security forces. 

Among those severely tortured, it seems, was the US President’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama. Ancestral dislike indeed.

When Johnson tosses off quips about piccanninies and cannibals, when he reduces Africans to grinning children he is not being undiplomatic. These are not gaffes. They are the revealed structure of a racist worldview.

I am a white South African. I know intimately the social processes that accommodate and sustain racism: the dinner guests who keep chewing, as some casual slur clunks onto the table, the talk of “standards” that covers for structural prejudice at work or university, and above all, the resentful, howl, “its not our fault, it ended years ago, get over it”.

When he first campaigned for elected office Johnson's poshness and shambolic style were in focus, but not his nostalgia for the globalised racism of empire. If Brexit has brought out into the streets some of the viler xenophobic undercurrents of British national life, then he is the grinning mascot for establishment bigotry.

Editors, proprietors, fellow journalists and British voters who paid him, or gave him a pass, made Boris Johnson possible. Their anger now is the rage of Caliban seeing his face in glass.

(The views expressed are personal)

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