Charles Johnston: British diplomat who used a poet’s eye to fix the final phase of empire

His skill in defending British interests in the Middle East in the 1960s caught the eye of world leaders, even though his plans ultimately failed. Little matter though — his idealised view of late-stage British imperialism was pure poetry.

Charles Johnston
Charles Johnston. (Credit: The National Portrait Gallery).

Charles Hepburn Johnston was a towering figure during the final years of Britain’s Empire in the Middle East. Born in Hampstead, London on 11 March 1912, he was the eldest son of Ernest Johnston, an underwriter at Lloyd’s, and Emma Florence Hepburn. He attended Winchester College and Balliol College, Oxford before entering the Foreign Office in 1936. His early career included positions as first secretary at the embassies in Cairo and Madrid, and counsellor at the embassy in Bonn before he was appointed ambassador to Jordan in 1956, in the immediate aftermath of the Suez crisis, at the age of forty-four.

Despite the reputation he acquired as an Arabist, partly due to his earlier service in Cairo, Johnston felt himself to be something of an imposter when he was sent to Amman due to his relatively weak command of Arabic. His posting to Jordan as ambassador was mainly due to his reputation as a Foreign Office high-flyer. His first act was to oversee the termination of the Anglo-Jordanian Treaty under which Britain had paid a substantial subsidy to maintain Jordan’s army — the Arab Legion. Similarly, during his subsequent appointment in Aden, Johnston’s role as governor and later high commissioner between 1960 and 1963 was to oversee the end of British colonial rule and the institution of a new Federation of South Arabia linking the former colony to Britain’s neighbouring protectorates in the hinterland. But this role as a formal unwinder of British rule was in many ways contrary to his instincts.

In both Jordan and Aden, Johnston’s purpose was in fact to defend the British position by combating what he saw as the corrosive brand of pan-Arab nationalism championed by the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. In Jordan, after the termination of the Treaty, Johnston not only set about rebuilding relations with the regime of King Hussein after the break caused by Suez, he also acted as its staunch advocate as the king battled to hold on to his throne in the face of the threat posed by Nasser-sponsored subversion in 1957 and 1958.

Faced with what he saw as the defeatism of the United States government, that was inclined to write off Hussein’s regime, Johnston argued forcefully that the king could face down the nationalist threat to his rule. The Americans, he believed, were afflicted with what he saw as a bad case of ideological myopia. They imagined that a better alternative to the Hashemite monarchy might be a pro-American republic. Instead, what they were likely to get was a pro-Nasser regime. When King Hussein’s cousin, Feisal II, the Hashemite monarch of neighbouring Iraq, was overthrown in a bloody military coup on 14 July 1958, Johnston was one of the first to advocate immediate British military intervention to bolster King Hussein. His instincts matched those of then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who despatched a force of paratroops to Amman in a display of British support. The king held on to his throne, the Nasserite plotters were thwarted, and Johnston earned a secure place both in Macmillan’s and Hussein’s esteem. Years later, when Johnston came to write The Brink of Jordan (1971), an account of his mission in Amman, Macmillan wrote a preface to the volume awarding him ‘a secure place in the list of great envoys who have represented Britain overseas.’

That Johnston also cut a significant social swathe during his time in Amman was mainly due to the presence at his side of his wife, the Georgian Natasha Bagration, whom he had married in London in 1944. The daughter of Prince Konstantin Bagration-Mukhransky and Princess Tatyana Konstantinova, descended from the royal house of Georgia and Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. Decades later, and long after Johnston’s own death in 1986, King Hussein’s close associate and Jordan’s former prime minister, Zeid Rifai, still remembered the ambassador in terms of Natasha: ‘his wife was a Russian Princess, you know.’ According to Johnston’s close friend, Julian Bullard, Natasha was ‘arrestingly tall, possessed of magnetic charm, and connected with royal families all over Europe; she vastly enlarged his mental and especially social horizons.’ That magnetic charm is still evident from a portrait of her held by the National Portrait Gallery.

Natasha was also hugely influential on Johnston’s literary career. The two collaborated on an English translation of Ivan Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Notebook, published in 1948. Thereafter, her influence was also important in Johnston’s publication of an English verse translation of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in which they accomplished the remarkable feat of preserving the metre and rhyme scheme of the poem, while remaining true to the original text. When Johnston’s translation was published in 1977 it received considerable critical acclaim. Alongside his literary translation, Johnston was also a published poet in his own right. His collections of verse include Towards Mozambique and Other Poems (1947) and Poems and Journeys (1979).

If Natasha’s influence was central to Johnston’s literary career, her recurring bouts of ill health also shaped his time in Aden, ultimately causing him to curtail his tenure there by several months. As he wrote in his diary, ‘N’s health means more to me than anything else. My life is built around her, and she has done everything for me. It tears me to pieces to see her all wasted away, as she is now.’ His early departure from Aden was a significant disappointment to him; he was convinced  he had laid an important foundation for the future there. Johnston was also convinced that despite its role as the imperial power in the region, Britain could successfully channel Arab nationalism in directions  conducive to the preservation of British interests in the Middle East. He brought with him to Aden what he saw as the lessons of the successful defence of the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan. Alternative local forms of Arab nationalism, in this case of the Hashemite variety, could be harnessed to combat the pan-Arab nationalism of Nasser.

Johnston’s plan in South Arabia was to channel the Arab desire for unity, which he recognised as an important phenomenon, away from union with neighbouring Yemen and Nasser’s United Arab Republic, in a more parochial direction by focusing on building ties between the port city of Aden and the neighbouring sheikdoms via the creation of a federation. His great misfortune was that the Federation of South Arabia that ultimately emerged came into existence just as a coup in September 1962 in neighbouring Yemen overthrew the monarchy of the Imam and replaced it with a republican regime sponsored by Nasser. The ensuing civil war in which forces loyal to the Imam battled the Egyptian forces sent to preserve the Yemeni Republic, also served to destabilise the neighbouring South Arabian Federation.

Faced with this crisis, Johnston was firmly of the opinion that attack was the best form of defence. He sympathised with the intervention by the Saudi Arabian and Jordanian regimes in support of the royalists, and also backed covert British action in the form of the sabotage and gun-running activities, known locally under the euphemism keeni-meeni (believed to originate from the word for ‘undercover’ in Arabic). He also rigorously opposed a scheme for the disengagement of outside forces from Yemen developed by the United States. This would be ‘a major blunder in their interests as well as our own,’ he warned in a telegram passed to Prime Minister Macmillan.

Johnston was sufficiently well-connected and influential for Macmillan to use his arguments against disengagement in his telephone exchanges with President John F. Kennedy, who acknowledged he knew Johnston well and respected his views, even while admitting disarmingly ‘I know comparatively little about Yemen, even where it is.’ In the event, Johnston was right, and the US disengagement plan failed. The conflict rumbled on and exercised an escalating, destabilising influence on the South Arabian Federation. Meanwhile, with the advent of a Labour government from 1964 onwards, British priorities changed. Holding on in South Arabia in the face of internal and external nationalist opposition came to be seen as a bankrupt policy. Abandoning the tribal sheikhs who had been Britain’s essential collaborators in the creation of the Federation, the Wilson government negotiated a deal with the National Liberation Front, an overtly Marxist organisation that had displaced Nasser’s supporters in the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen as the main independence movement. The last British troops left by helicopter from Aden’s golf course on 29 November 1967 barely four years after Johnston had stepped down as high commissioner.

Ultimately, then, Johnston’s approach failed. The notion that local nationalism could be cultivated successfully to offset the forces of pan-Arab nationalism proved mistaken. The subsequent sombre history of Yemen, which has endured a devastating civil war, stands as a testimony to the fact that the British imperial legacy was one of permanent instability.

Johnston’s tenure first as ambassador in Jordan and then as governor in Aden, was remarkable for one more reason. It was highly unusual for any individual to move from a senior Foreign Office to a Colonial Office role. Johnston was thus uniquely placed to reflect on the differences between being an ambassador and a governor in the British system. The fundamental difference between the two roles as far as Johnson reflected was simple: a governor ‘held real power in his hands.’ Unlike an ambassador who could only observe and report, a governor could observe and dispose. For all that exercising power brought with it feelings of disillusionment and misanthropy, still, Johnston said, he was glad to have had it, a representative of what he termed a ‘dwindling and endangered species.’

For all his protestations of hard-headed realism, Johnston was ultimately a romantic imperialist at heart. In his valedictory despatch sent to the secretary of state for the colonies on concluding his term in Aden, he made a broader case for continuing Britain’s involvement overseas. This had ‘brought out an adventurous swashbuckling strain which might otherwise too easily have become recessive.’ Combining his skills as a poet, with his idealised view of British imperialism, Johnston concluded by conjuring what was a mythical, harmonious vision of the final phase of empire: ‘Aden has an enchantment of its own’, he wrote. ‘The spicy, sweaty, vital authenticity of the back streets of Crater. The cheerful Anglo-Oriental crowds swarming in the evening along the monumental Maalla Mile. The quiet of the terrace of Government House on summer afternoons when everything seems serene and ordered and immutable; beyond the Indian mutiny cannon and the Crimean mortars, the armed police sentry paces, impeccable in his scarlet cockscomb turban like the last embodiment of the British Raj.’

Johnston was not the only one to indulge in such imperial revelries. Macmillan wrote personally congratulating him on ‘a brilliant composition and the best exposition that I have seen of the situation in Arabia and of our position in the Arab world.’ But, in fact, the scene Johnston captured was not so much ordered and immutable, as fragile and transient. Nevertheless, he stands out as one of the very few British diplomats to try to use a poet’s eye to fix the final phase of empire.


Nigel Ashton