James Cleverly rebuffs Australian minister over UK colonialism remarks

James Cleverly has rejected suggestions Britain needs to do more to confront its colonial past, pointing out that he is “the black foreign secretary of the United Kingdom of Great Britain”.

He was responding to questions after a speech by the Australian foreign minister, Penny Wong, while on a visit to London this week in which she said Britain needed to reflect on its past.

Wong and the Australian defence minister, Richard Marles, had been meeting with Cleverly and the British defence secretary, Ben Wallace, in Portsmouth for an annual ministerial get-together in which the chief topic of conversation was the future structure of the Aukus plan to build a nuclear submarine.

The birth of the three-way pact was mired in controversy due to the secretive way in which the previous Australian government negotiated with Washington and London to exclude France, with which it had an existing submarine contract. China has since then been deeply hostile while it has been unclear how quickly the submarines can be built and the willingness of the US to transfer its nuclear technology to Australia.

The controversy about the UK’s colonial past sprung from remarks by Wong in a speech to King’s College London where she spoke of how her father was descended from Hakka and Cantonese Chinese ancestors. “Many from these clans laboured for the British North Borneo company in tin mines and plantations for tobacco and timber,” she said. “Many worked as domestic servants for British colonists, as did my own grandmother.”

Wong added that “such stories can sometimes feel uncomfortable” but “understanding the past enables us to better share the present and the future”.

Speaking at a press conference in Portsmouth, Cleverly said the pair did discuss “the nature of the relationship between the UK and other countries which are now in the Commonwealth but which were previously British colonies”. But Cleverly said these were “not the mainstay of the conversations we’ve been having”.

Asked by the Australian newspaper about Wong’s remarks, Cleverly said: “You’re asking the black foreign secretary of the United Kingdom of Great Britain?” He added: “I mean, the bottom line is we have a prime minister of Asian heritage, you have a home secretary of Asian heritage, you have a foreign secretary of African heritage.”

He said it was incumbent on the UK to say it was seeking partnerships of equals, different but equal.

Wallace used the press conference to make a plea to keep open the option of providing military jets to Ukraine. He said: “One thing I have learned over the past year is don’t rule anything in or anything out. We respond to the needs of the Ukrainians at the time based on what the Ukrainians tell us, intelligence and our knowledge of Russians on the battlefield.”

He said even if the Ukrainians were given jets, it would take time for them to be trained to fly them.