Boris Johnson, the former London mayor and member of Parliament who helped orchestrate the Brexit, will be Britain’s foreign secretary. It seems like an odd role for someone who spent the last months campaigning against internationalism, who wrote a limerick (for a 1,000-pound prize) about the Turkish president having sex with a goat, who said President Obama had an “ancestral dislike” of Britain because he was “part Kenyan” and compared Hillary Clinton to “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.”
Actually, the new gig is the perfect fit for boorish Johnson. Chairman Mao helps explain why:
In 1999, I lived in Chengdu, a city of roughly 13 million people in China’s westerly Sichuan province. At the time, the city had its share of oddities, but the oddest sight was a nearly hundred-foot-tall statue of Mao Zedong in Tianfu Square, where it had stood since 1967, when the Red Guard erected it atop the rubble of a razed palace built in the fourth century BC.
These statues had been standard nationwide during the Great Leap Forward, but many cities, embracing China’s quasi-capitalist streak, had torn them down like so many statues in history’s long legacy of dictators. I was studying abroad at a business college and worked up the nerve to ask our teacher, who I feared wouldn’t want to talk politics, why Mao still stood.
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“We think it’s better he stays,” she said. “Let it rain on him. Let the wind hit him, the sun burn him, the snow freeze him. Let birds s– upon his head. But most of all, let him see our progress. Let him watch us move more and more away from him.”
Johnson is going to have to travel the world meeting heads of state and negotiating triage for the wound he opened not just in his own country, but around the world. Let the man who brought London’s bridges tumbling down rebuild those bridges brick by brick. Condemn him to a fate out of Greek myth: Force the villain who left the very name of the United Kingdom in question into patriotic duty, into civil service, into acquiescence of international protocols by the world’s diplomatic corps. Maybe he’ll be celebrated one day: Just remember Guy Fawkes!
Poetic justice is the most satisfying kind. After the American revolutionaries declared their independence in 1776 (the original Brexit), New Yorkers joyously toppled the statue of King George III in Bowling Green and melted it into 42,088 musket bullets for use against the redcoats.
Johnson’s Brexit is one of the greatest embarrassments of England’s 950-year history. The most cunning punishment is one in which he must tidy a stain of his own making. Think of his restless, haunted nights in the hotels of Washington or Brussels or New York, tossing and turning and muttering, in the words of a certain Scottish play, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” Surely that torment is enough to compel him to give his new job his all-out best.
Richard Morgan is a writer in New York.