Who is Boris Johnson?

When he announced that his great-great-grandmother was a Circassian slave, was it just another "inve

The garden in Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, was always packed during the Spectator's summer parties. Former Tory cabinet ministers like Lord Gilmour might be spotted conversing with Sir Charles Wheeler, the veteran BBC correspondent. A smattering of Pakenhams, the literary clan headed by Lord Longford, perhaps; Telegraph editors past and present, such as Charles Moore and Sir Peregrine Worsthorne; novelists, painters, political commentators and, darting hither and thither, shirt untucked and tie askew, the magazine's then editor, Boris Johnson. The guests, a mix of influential Tories, raffish writers, a few stray aristocrats and several young women whose purpose appeared mainly decorative, may have been what one would expect at gatherings thrown by the cheerleading magazine of the right.

But what would not have been obvious to many was the extraordinary degree to which the host was connected to a large proportion of those who were supping his Ruinart champagne - and not merely by ties from journalism and politics, but by much deeper, long-standing ones of school, university, family and extended kinship. Nor could the newcomer have any idea that if history had taken a different turn a century ago, the Tory MP and former Spectator editor of today, whose Wodehousian circumlocutions seem the very quintessence of Englishness, might have found himself named not Boris Johnson but Iskander Ali.

Whether Boris's great-great-grandmother was indeed a Circassian slave is an unprovable matter of family legend. Her son's life, however, is better documented. Ali Kemal, Boris's great-grandfather, was the last interior minister of the Ottoman empire after the First World War. Soon after Atatürk's nationalists took power in 1922, Kemal, who had been one of their most vehement opponents, met a sticky end. He was kidnapped and taken to Izmit, where he was handed over to a mob who attacked him with sticks, stones and knives, then hanged him from a tree in the square.

Before all this, though, Kemal had fathered a son, Osman Ali, by his half-English first wife. Born in Bournemouth in 1909, the child was brought up by his grandmother, whose surname he took; so Osman Ali became Wilfred Johnson. (If this change of surname and religion had not taken place, then Alexander Johnson could have been Iskander - the Arabic version of Alexander - Ali.) The Johnsons' relations through Kemal's second wife, with whom they are in contact, include two past Turkish ambassadors, to Britain and to Norway. So when the member for Henley holds forth on Turkish accession to the EU, he has more insight than he is often given credit for.

Through his father's side Boris has not only Muslim ancestry but a connection to one of Britain's most prominent Jewish families. Boris's stepmother Jenny, the second wife of his father Stanley, is the stepdaughter of Edward Sieff, the former chairman of Marks & Spencer. This also provides a link to two politicians he was later to encounter in the House of Commons: Edward Sieff's son Adam, the urbane record executive, has the distinction of having been in a Seventies rock band, Jaded, that was promoted at different times by both Tony Blair and Chris Huhne.

Stanley is in the unusual position of both preceding and attempting to succeed his oldest son in public office. An early environmentalist and a Tory MEP from 1979-84, Johnson père stood for the Devon constituency of Teignbridge in the last election. Son and father campaigned together, forming a double act that failed to win Stanley the seat but produced some memorable bons mots. Discussing higher education with a small crowd, Boris dismissed "loony degrees in windsurfing from Bangor University". Added Stanley sagely: "They also surf, who only stand and wait."

Andrew Gimson, Boris's biographer, theorises that the almost caricature Englishness stems from Stanley's side of the family, that it is a front to conceal the very non-English paternal inheritance. Possibly more surprising, however, is that Boris's mother, Charlotte, has an impeccable left-wing pedigree. Her father, Sir James Fawcett, was a prominent barrister and a member of the European Commission of Human Rights. The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality for women, is named after a 19th-century forebear, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and wife of the Radical MP Henry Fawcett.

Charlotte's parents were close friends with Lord and Lady Longford. Their daughter, the novelist Rachel Billington, is godmother to Boris, providing him with further unlikely socialist kith on top of the Fawcett kin. But through the Longfords come also ideological fellow-travellers: Billington's cousin, the writer Ferdinand Mount, is a former head of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit at No 10, and his son Harry is a vigorously right-wing Telegraph columnist. These paths happily cross, as does Boris's with that of Orlando Fraser, son of Billington's sister Lady Antonia Fraser from her first marriage to the late Tory MP Sir Hugh Fraser. In 2005, Orlando himself tried to win a Devon constituency for the Conservatives, but did not prevail despite (or, dare one suggest, because of) support from Boris and Stanley. More distantly, Ferdy Mount's cousin Mary is the mother of a junior of Boris's at Eton and Oxford, the Tory leader David Cameron.

Johnson & Johnson

Boris almost derailed his career in journalism at the very beginning, when as a Times trainee he made up a quote from his godfather, the historian Colin Lucas. The quote was not only fictitious but also inaccurate, exposing Lucas to considerable academic ridicule. Lucas overcame his godson's thoughtful attempt to bring his name to a wider audience, and later became Master of Balliol and vice-chancellor of Oxford University; but his angry complaint at the time got Boris the sack.

Such incidents did not deter his younger siblings from entering the fourth estate. Regular Johnson bylines include those of his sister Rachel, a novelist and Sunday Times columnist whose husband, Ivo Dawnay, is communications director of the National Trust and a former foreign editor of the Sunday Telegraph; and his brother Jo, recently appointed editor of the Financial Times Lex column and married to the award-winning foreign correspondent Amelia Gentleman.

At one point during Boris's editorship of the Spec, the Johnson surname appeared so often (his predecessor, Frank Johnson - no relation - was a regular columnist as well) that no one noticed when the diarist one week was a Leo Johnson. Surely, readers thought, it can't be another member of the family. But close inspection of the article, an account of Leo's bizarre pitch to a movie mogul, revealed a certain similarity of style:

"It is the mainstream, genre movie of Stanko the Bulgarian pastry chef who casts off the shackles of liberty, deflating the soufflé of capital and licking clean the spatula of injustice," said Leo to the mogul. Goldwyn spoke. "Let me tell you something. I have been in this business a long time. This is the worst story I have ever heard." It is believed to be Leo's sole foray into journalism.

The media connections do not end there, however. Sir Charles Wheeler is Boris's father-in-law through his second wife and the mother of his four children, Marina. The affair that Boris tried to deny with his line about an "inverted pyramid of piffle" was with another writer, the former Spectator deputy editor Petronella Wyatt, daughter of the News of the World's "Voice of Reason" columnist, the late Lord (Woodrow) Wyatt. And many of the writers whom Boris championed during his editorship of the Spec were friends from Oxford, including the Tory MP and former Times executive Michael Gove, the magazine's regular Africa correspondent Aidan Hartley, and its theatre critics Lloyd Evans and Toby Young.

Other friends from Oxford include the US pollster Frank Luntz; Earl Spencer; the fraudster Darius Guppy (who once telephoned Boris for the home address of a NoW journalist he wanted beaten up; although he did not supply it, Boris did not refuse the request, and the incident was to cause him no end of trouble); Poland's foreign minister, Radek Sikorski (who is married to Anne Applebaum, another former deputy editor of the Spectator); and the barrister Justin Rushbrooke, the son-in-law of the former cabinet secretary Lord Butler, to whose house Boris escaped when Marina threw him out temporarily in 2004 after his escapades proved too much for her.

Many of the above were to be seen at the parties Boris held at the Spectator, and are familiar with each other's homes in north and west London. Broad networks in media and politics are not unusual. The extent of the ties that Boris can draw on, however, harks back to a different time: to that of the Salisburys and Balfours at the end of the 19th century, to the Bonham Carters and Asquiths in the early 20th century, or later, up until the fading of the grouse moor Tories in the Sixties, to that vast tree that encompassed the Churchill, Eden, Sandys and Marlborough families. Boris's network is less Establishment than that - there is a whiff of the demi-monde about all those literary types - but it is wider-reaching and more deep-rooted than that surrounding any Tory leader from Ted Heath to Michael Howard, and, unlike their circles, its foundation is class and family, not pure politics.

If anyone can confirm Boris's great-great-grandmother's origins, however, I'm sure he'd be grateful. The election's going to be close, and the ex-Circassian slave vote could be crucial.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror