Boris Johnson's 'English lion' is an imperial embarrassment

Boris Johnson's 'English lion' is an imperial embarrassment
Comment: The UK foreign secretary is not the only one who should be reassessing his imperialist outlook, writes Tom Charles.
6 min read
05 Oct, 2017
Boris Johnson has made more than one gaffe in his political career [Getty]
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's most recent offensive remarks have triggered fresh calls for his dismissal. But Johnson's attitude is not exceptional. His callous comments on Libya are indicative of a mendacity towards the Middle East and North Africa that runs deep in the Conservative party and the UK's wider political establishment.

At a fringe event for business people at the Conservative party's annual conference, Johnson outlined his belief that Libyan city Sirte has the potential to emulate Dubai. He claimed to have met of "a group of UK business people, some wonderful guys who want to invest in Sirte… all they have to do is clear the bodies away". Johnson chuckled at his own wit.

His Sirte comments came just days after the foreign secretary was caught on mic reciting an offensive colonial-era Rudyard Kipling poem in a Myanmar temple.


The reaction to Johnson's Libya remarks was predictable. Labour's shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, who voted in favour of the UK's war in Libya, said: "For Boris Johnson to treat those deaths as a joke - a mere inconvenience before UK business people can turn the city into a beach resort - is unbelievably crass, callous and cruel.

Johnson's call to "let the British lion roar" at conference this week is typical of an absurdly simplified approach to relationships with the rest of the world

"If these words came from the business people themselves, it would be considered offensive enough, but for them to come from the foreign secretary is simply a disgrace".

The Liberal Democrats, in coalition government with the Conservatives at the time of the UK's intervention in Libya, immediately said in a statement that Johnson should be sacked.

Even some of Johnson's own colleagues called for him to lose his job. Only one Conservative MP voted against David Cameron's disastrous 2011 invasion.

A total of 557 MPs voted in favour of the Libya invasion, while only 13 (two percent) voted against. Eleven Labour MPs voted against Cameron's disastrous policy, a figure that reflected the party's post-Blair hangover; that number included current leader Jeremy Corbyn, and senior shadow cabinet members John McDonnell and Barry Gardiner.

Racist foreign secretary

The foreign secretary's disdain for Sirte's dead is the latest in a long list of Prince Philip-style remarks made by Johnson, a man many see as the heir to Theresa May as Conservative party leader. In 2006 he was forced to apologise to the population of Papua New Guinea after accusing them of "cannibalism and chief-killing". In 2002 he referred to "piccaninnies" in the commonwealth and "watermelon smiles" in the Congo.

Johnson was angered by President Obama's intervention for the Remain EU campaign, and retorted that Obama is "part-Kenyan" with an "ancestral dislike" of Britain. Johnson's track record of racism also includes his infamous use of the phrase "witch-hunt" in 2003 to describe the campaign to achieve justice in the case of the racist murder of Londoner Stephen Lawrence.

The Conservative party of 2017 is a direct descendant of the British colonial establishment of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries


A politician with such a tarnished public record would appear to be an inappropriate choice as Foreign Secretary. A man with naked ambitions to be prime minister, and without a distinguished background in foreign affairs, Johnson was named Foreign Secretary by prime minister Theresa May in 2016.

Boris Johnson with renegade East Libyan General Khalifa Haftar [Facebook]

May was motivated to keep Johnson close, preempting any post-referendum challenge to her leadership. But it is impossible to imagine any other major British political party appointing a person harbouring such discredited views to represent the UK on the world stage.

The Conservative party of 2017 is a direct descendant of the British colonial establishment of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dominated as it is by a worldview in which Britain has the right to carve up the world map in the interests of its own elite and in the pursuit of profit.

Johnson's call to "let the British lion roar" at conference this week is typical of an absurdly simplified approach to relationships with the rest of the world. The symbol of the indomitable lion, itself stolen from Africa, is used to sell a brand of "Britishness" to a domestic audience, very few of whom gain from the country's obsession with imperial adventurism.


The Labour party's record is scarcely better, as shown in the 2011 Libya vote, in which Johnson's Eton school friend David Cameron was given a blank cheque by parliament to devastate a country, leading to its virtual collapse as a modern state.

The collapse was precipitated by the UK-French led NATO invasion, which in London was called an "intervention" on the basis of false claims that a massacre in the city of Benghazi by the Ghaddafi government was imminent.

A 2016 report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee stated that the UK had been taken to war in Libya on "erroneous assumptions", notably that "the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence".

The report confirms that the invasion "led to the rise of Islamic State in North Africa".

Read more: Libya - a country controlled by organised crime gangs

In Sirte, a small coastal city, Nato carpet bombed the civilian population using fragmentation bombs, often with indiscriminate shelling. Uranium warheads were used. The Red Cross identified mass graves, and Unicef reported that "most [of the children killed] were under the age of ten" – this was described by Cameron as a "humanitarian intervention".

True motives

Muammar Gaddafi was sodomised with a knife and killed in Sirte's ruins, a murder chillingly celebrated by Hillary Clinton ("we came, we saw, he died") before the city became an IS stronghold. The jubilation for Clinton, and Johnson's Dubai dream are based on Libya being the home of Africa's largest oil reserves, a great prize for Western imperialists. Once a key Western ally, a rendition destination for MI6, Gaddafi's dictatorship became open for regime change under the cover of the Arab Spring.

And now Johnson's mocking of the human cost of the UK's invasion. The foreign secretary is a cartoon colonialist whose affected buffoonery has been lapped up by an "aspirational" middle class in Greater London who twice elected him as their mayor. He is a genuine embarrassment to many in the UK, but to the political establishment he is an embarrassment because he lifts the mask on their true foreign policy, one that remains profoundly imperialist and racist, and one they have no intention of changing.  

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies. 

Follow him on Twitter: @tomhcharles

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.