When my children were under the age of five, there was a book we enjoyed reading called Oh, Boris! It was the story of a large, enthusiastic bear who joins a classroom of smaller animals, and – without malign intent on his part – regularly sets them squealing. The lament of “Oh, Boris!” attended each fresh kerfuffle.
Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, is clearly not a bear – although his appearance has its ursine elements – but one suspects that “Oh, Boris!” is a cry frequently heard now in the Foreign Office. For Boris is, among other things, a former journalist of the most outspoken kind, and the instincts of a journalist are generally at odds with the restrictions placed upon a politician.
The “Oh, Boris!” moment that has caused most upset recently was the footage of the Foreign Secretary in Rome, lamenting the absence of “big characters” who were willing to reach beyond religious differences and “develop a national story again”. He continued: “That’s why you’ve got the Saudis, Iran, everybody, moving in and puppeteering and playing proxy wars.” Cue sharp intakes of breath among officials at the Foreign Office at the juxtaposition of the word “Saudis” with “proxy wars”: with that, Johnson’s remark fell into the forbidden category of “public criticism of an ally”.
Particularly vexing, for the Government, was that it came just as Theresa May had been photographed alongside King Salman of Saudi Arabia while on a visit to the Gulf. Indeed, Downing Street avowed that the Prime Minister was committed to “strengthening and enhancing” the Saudi relationship, which has long been sold to the increasingly uneasy British public as a necessary triumph of realpolitik over moral coherence.
The nub of the realpolitik argument is that Saudi Arabia is the biggest customer for the British arms industry, and that Saudi intelligence on Islamist terror plots helps to keep this country safe. To that has now been added the consideration that, in potential post-Brexit turmoil, we can’t afford to offend one of our chief trading partners.
The moral argument against the British Government’s cosy relationship with the Saudi government, of course, is overwhelming. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy which has systematically trampled on human rights, in particular those of women and gay people. It refuses to tolerate religious freedom or freedom of speech, as demonstrated by its flogging and imprisonment of the writer and activist Raif Badawi. Its medieval legal system includes the sentence of public beheading for the crime of witchcraft.
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