In Britain, where failure is often celebrated, his survival has done him no favors.
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The Charge of the Light Brigade was a catastrophic military action of the Crimean War in which a British error of judgment ordered cavalry to gallop directly into Russian artillery.
This fatal mishap of 1854, costing casualties of two-thirds of the brigade, caught the imagination of the Victorians, who couldn’t stop obsessing about it. The calamity inspired a popular poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and eventually three films (made in 1912, 1936, and 1968).
Americans tend to celebrate success, such as the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima in World War II, or the storming of the Normandy beaches on D-Day (along with British and Australian support).
More recently, American success has been equated with money, represented by such films as Air, which touted the triumph of Nike in marketing the Air Jordan shoe, netting the company (and namesake Michael Jordan) billions of dollars. This monetary windfall is heralded in an end-credit crawl with solemn pomp, as if the company had vanquished cancer or solved the climate crisis.
But the British continue to have a curious relationship with national failure or personal mishap. They have their heroic moments, such as when Winston Churchill intoned his inspiring speeches during the Blitz, the subject of countless books and films. But you’ll just as likely find a movie about a king stuttering, going mad, or getting his head cut off.
Other films have celebrated General Gordon, who was beheaded by the Sudanese after bungling into Khartoum in 1885, and Captain Scott, who failed to reach the South Pole and died there in 1912. Another folk hero is George Mallory, who froze to death while trying to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1924. These valiant catastrophes have captured the British imagination, playing to their propensity for modesty and self-effacement.
Whoever is prime minister is insulted every Wednesday at noon in Parliament, live on television, when he or she has to undergo a gauntlet called Prime Minister’s Questions. It’d be as if the Senate leader or speaker of the House got to take potshots at the president to his face every single week. (Nancy Pelosi came close one time when she tore up President Trump’s speech after his 2020 State of the Union. But that was a rare act of public opprobrium.)
The greatest postwar British failure is undoubtedly Brexit, an unfathomable project of economic and cultural self-harm. Seven years after the surprising referendum result — so surprising that even its own architects couldn’t believe it and had no plan for its implementation — its malign effects are revealed daily (farmers denied workers, companies denied markets, performers denied tours).
Johnson’s recent resignation letter, accompanying his stepping down as a member of Parliament, was so full of untruths and indignation, it was widely described as “Trumpian” and did him no favors.
Brexit is such a full-on cock-up it’s difficult to reconcile the pockets of resistance to its complete, gold-standard disaster (though a recent poll claimed only 9 percent of respondents considered it more of a success than a failure). One of these holdouts is its successful champion Boris Johnson, who was reportedly unsure whether to be pro- or anti-Brexit until the night before his announcement, and decided on the basis of what would be most helpful to his career. His swashbuckling support arguably pushed the referendum over the 50 percent threshold (it passed 52 to 48), much to his own surprise.
Like Lord Cardigan, who led the notorious Charge of the Light Brigade and survived unscathed despite the death and destruction around him, Johnson has endured despite the devastation he left in his wake. The Guardian estimates he’s earned upwards of £5 million ($6.3 million) in speaking fees since he resigned as prime minister last year, mostly outside of the UK. He’s also reportedly been offered half a million pounds for his memoirs.
Johnson, born in New York in 1964 (he gave up his US citizenship in 2017 to avoid American taxes), is a peculiarly American kind of politician for a self-perceived British bulldog. He likes to model himself after his hero Winston Churchill, but he far more resembles a British Donald Trump, as the original recognized when he awkwardly labeled him “Britain Trump” in 2019.
Johnson’s recent resignation letter, accompanying his stepping down as a member of Parliament, was so full of untruths and indignation, it was widely described as “Trumpian” and did him no favors here. He called the investigation into his lying to Parliament over parties held at 10 Downing Street during the COVID-19 lockdown “a witch hunt” enacted by a “kangaroo court.”
He had little to say to his abandoned constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, just outside London, whose residents, according to recent reports, are glad to see the back of him. His real constituency now seems to be in the US, where he’s still seen by many as a comical, self-effacing shaggy dog who likes to quote Churchill and Tacitus, and say funny things like “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.”
Americans, who haven’t had to clean up his crumbs or contend with his various British calamities (including a mishandled COVID-19 response), still find him amusing and entertaining. Brits are long past finding the joke funny.
Edward Smith, the Captain of the Titanic, went down with his ship and was seen as a tragic figure, as were General Gordon, Captain Scott, and George Mallory. After the fateful Charge of the Light Brigade, Lord Cardigan was widely condemned for failing to perish in the ill-fated action. It was the doomed cavalry officers who were eulogized afterwards, not the wily and slippery Cardigan, who ordered the maneuver and somehow survived.
If Boris Johnson had gone down with his own ship, perhaps run over by that notorious bus that claimed millions in weekly savings for the cash-strapped National Health Service if only Brexit were passed, he might now be seen as a tragic figure and have joined the ranks of those ill-fated Victorian heroes. He came close when he almost died of COVID-19 in April 2020 after minimizing the threat (he refused to call off various public sports events the previous month, leading to countless infections, and ordered a national lockdown later than most European countries).
Lord Cardigan outlived his ill-fated Light Brigade Charge by 14 years, enjoying a retirement of horse racing, hunting, and shooting. His Wikipedia entry informs us that he “remained a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron and was Commodore of the Royal Southern Yacht Club.” He died from falling off a horse at the age of 70.
Boris Johnson should be so lucky.
J.B. Miller is an American writer living in England, and is the author of My Life in Action Painting and The Satanic Nurses and Other Literary Parodies.