Boris Johnson has apologised after he caused a “livid” reaction in a worshipper in a Sikh temple by discussing his enthusiasm for a boost in the whisky trade, apparently without realising that alcohol is forbidden under some Sikh teachings.
The foreign secretary, who is widely seen as having been sidelined during the election campaign over his perceived propensity for gaffes, was visiting a Sikh temple in St George’s in Bristol when he made remarks about ending tariffs on whisky traded between the UK and India.
In a BBC recording of the event, a female worshipper can be heard taking him to task, asking: “How dare you talk about alcohol in a Sikh temple?” After the unidentified woman also told him about alcoholism in her family, he apologised several times.
Johnson was visiting the Shri Guru Nanak Prakash Singh Sabha gurdwara in Bristol in an effort to woo voters from the city’s large Sikh community to the Tories.
The former London mayor, seen as a liability by some in Theresa May’s team, was filmed wearing a bright orange turban before arguing that a free trade deal with India could be good for both countries. Seemingly unaware that the drinking of alcohol is forbidden under some Sikh teachings, he told the crowd that he was going to sign a free trade deal in order to boost the trade in whisky.
I hope I’m not embarrassing anybody here by saying that when we go to India, we have to bring ‘clinky’ in our luggage,” he said. “We have to bring Johnnie Walker.”
“There is a duty of 150% in India on imports of Scottish whisky. So we have to bring it in for our relatives duty free. Imagine what we could do with a trade deal with India, which there will be, because then the tariffs would go.”
His words provoked an angry response from some members of the crowd, with one women, named as Balbir Kaur, particularly vocal in her criticism. “How dare you talk about alcohol in a Sikh temple?” she said. “You are standing in a Sikh [temple] talking about alcohol, which is absolutely not right.”
The former mayor replied: “I’m very sorry if you think that alcohol is a bad thing – I understand your point of view. It is not, though, the view of every religion. There are plenty of Sikhs who are good and practising Sikhs who don’t take your attitude.
“I do think it is relevant to our considerations that whisky is a huge business in this country and a free trade deal with India would be of great value.”
Kaur then told Johnson that she had relatives who had suffered from alcoholism. Other members of the crowd reportedly told Johnson that if he had made the comments in India, he “would not have got out of the temple alive”.
Bhai Narinderjit Singh, general secretary of the Sikh Federation, said that “no politician in his right mind” would speak in a gurdwara about a trade deal involving alcohol. “It is a requirement that Sikhs should not consume any intoxicants. Anyone (Sikh or non-Sikh) who has consumed alcohol or has tobacco on them is not allowed to enter a gurdwara, Sikh place of worship. There are signs up in all gurdwaras.”
Singh said Johnson should know better, given that his wife, Marina Wheeler, is half Sikh. “Boris Johnson should know much better - after all, he is the foreign secretary, and his mother-in-law is a Sikh.”
A spokesman for Johnson denied that it was a gaffe, claiming instead that he was sympathising with the woman’s personal situation. “Boris was simply making the point that a free trade deal with, for example, India could be huge for both sides, pointing out that in India, billions of litres of whisky are consumed every year but there is a 150% tariff on imports of Scotch whisky.
“One lady expressed her views based on a personal situation, but the other 30 attendees warmly welcomed his remarks. He said he was sorry to hear of her personal story, that was all. There was no gaffe … The temple regulars loved him being there.”