‘You’re looking at it!’: Wong’s UK counterpart hits back at colonialism comments

Southern England: James Cleverly says Australians need only look at his role as Britain’s first black foreign secretary and his boss, Rishi Sunak’s elevation to prime minister, to know that the UK is confronting its colonial past.

Penny Wong used the example of her own grandmother working as a domestic servant for the British as she called on the UK to confront its imperial history if it is to be influential in the Indo-Pacific.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong with British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.Credit:Getty

Wong, who is Malaysian-born, made the comments on her first visit to the Five Eyes and AUKUS partner since becoming foreign minister nine months ago.

Asked by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age if Britain had satisfactorily confronted its colonial past, Cleverly pointed to his own role as the UK’s first black Foreign Secretary.

“You’re asking the black foreign secretary of the United Kingdom of Great Britain?” Cleverly responded. “Yeah I think the answer is yes – you’re looking at it, you’re talking to it!

“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.

“The amazing work that we have been doing and are destined to do now with Australia is a real indicator that yes of course, history matters, what matters more is the stuff we can do in the future,” he said.

The Conservative Party’s success in promoting people from diverse backgrounds including from countries that were once colonies has seen all of the UK cabinet’s top four jobs occupied by holders of non-Anglo heritage.

In her speech at King’s College on Tuesday, Wong said Australians were “of the Indo-Pacific” and in clarifying her comments on colonialism, later told reporters the old stereotype of “white colonialists” was “no longer who we are”.

“I was making a point about histories and talking about who we are, and that if we are able to speak about that multifaceted history, that it does give us a greater capacity to engage with the countries of our region,” she said.

Cleverly said the UK’s “fantastic” working relationships with countries that were former colonies had undergone a remarkable evaluation and were now, by mutual consent, part of the close-knit friendship club of the Commonwealth.

The 56-member club of countries has in recent years been joined by former colonies of France, where Wong visited on Monday with Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles who lauded France as one of Australia’s closest neighbours in the Pacific with less than 700 kilometres separating the two countries between the French territory of New Caledonia and Australia’s Norfolk Island.

Asked if other European former imperialist nations should also be encouraged to address their roles in colonising Asia, Cleverly said there were many “difficult truths” that needed to be addressed “on our collective paths”.

But he said that countries had a choice between choosing to focus on the past or concentrating on an optimistic future.

“What I’ve found as the UK’s foreign secretary, dealing with countries around the globe, they are really keen to work with us and to focus with us on the opportunities of the future so I’m going to stay very much future focussed and I think that the classic example is the relationship that I’ve got with Penny Wong,” he said.

“We’re both mixed heritage representing our respective countries working together for the greater good,” he said.

In a statement, previewing Thursday’s formal AUKMIN summit at Portsmouth, Cleverly described Australia and the UK as “best mates.”

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