Some books are peculiarly review-proof. I don’t mean that whatever one says will have no effect on their success, though in the case of James O’Brien’s How They Broke Britain, which comprises an extended “charge sheet” of the nine men and one woman its author believes set the UK on a course of unnecessary decline, this is indubitably the case. The book is already a bestseller; a recent event promoting it required a venue change, so great was the demand for tickets.
No, what I mean is that some books, at least in the current landscape, are hard to criticise; to argue with them is to incorporate yourself, however unwittingly, into the framework they purport to stand against. A critic from the right who picks a fight with How They Broke Britain may be dismissed by O’Brien as just another hateful ideologue or client journalist, any review further evidence of the incestuous, corrupt and heinously biased world he works so hard to decry. But a sceptic who belongs (as I do) to the other side may end up having it even worse. Break ranks with the man once described as the “conscience of liberal Britain”, and you risk being seen as a useful idiot not only by him, but by the 1.1 million people who follow him on X. (While O’Brien has always seemed perfectly nice whenever I’ve met him – three times, and only ever in the course of work – I’d be lying if I said I like the way he behaves on social media.)
Even as O’Brien worries about divisiveness and polarisation in Britain, he also engenders it to a degree
Naturally, I don’t disagree with the substance of How They Broke Britain. No decent or sane person possibly could. As O’Brien writes, not only has Brexit been a disaster; much of Britain’s infrastructure now appears to be broken. We are indeed led by donkeys. The press is frequently a disgrace. In public life, facts no longer matter. Shame is extinct. When he appears on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, Nigel Farage, the show’s latest political signing, may well end up having to eat more than his share of kangaroo anuses. But he’ll be well paid for it – to the tune of £1.5m, according to the Daily Mail. Even as he gags, no one’s going to ask him any awkward questions about recent events at the Cenotaph.
All the same, I often bridled as I read. In part, this had to do with the book’s material, which mostly isn’t new. Yes, its author has done a lot of reading. But he relies almost entirely for his text on the hard labour – the investigations, and the thinking – of others, and this annoyed me, as a writer and a reader. It also makes his criticisms of some extremely hard-working journalists (the BBC’s former political editor, Laura Kuenssberg; the presenter of Today, Nick Robinson) seem snide and unnecessary.
O’Brien, of course, doesn’t want to work at the BBC. He values his “voice” too much for that, which is why he opted not to continue presenting Newsnight – though to my mind, his job at LBC, where he spends his time dismantling the opinions of the people who call in, wastes what talent he has. Surely he would be able to do more good, journalistically speaking, at the BBC than at LBC – a station where one of the presenters, Rachel Johnson, the sister of our former prime minister, once interviewed her father, Stanley, about the state of Britain’s rivers. But perhaps doing good isn’t the point for him. One of the other problems with How They Broke Britain is that however forensically it catalogues the misdemeanours of various politicians, journalists and strategists, it is just that: a catalogue. What needs to be done? Will things be different under a Labour government? Are we all doomed? O’Brien only (inadvertently) answers the last question.
Each baddie gets a chapter: Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre and Andrew Neil represent the press; Nigel Farage, David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss are his politicians; Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings of Vote Leave bring up the rear (like a pantomime horse). All 10 more than deserve his ire, and ours; there seems little point in my going over their entitlement and casual destruction here. But in the end, even as O’Brien worries about divisiveness and polarisation in Britain, he also engenders it to a degree, for hasn’t he signed up wholesale to what I’m going to call, for reasons of concision, a woke agenda?
You can’t have your face on the cover of your book and not be a brand, and his requires him to be firmly on one side – the other side – when he must know that aspects of the current politics of the left are just as muddled, fractious and potentially dangerous as those of the right. A man can’t fall out with everyone! Personally, I’m as suspicious as he is of the Mail’s newfound support for freedom of speech on university campuses. But this doesn’t mean that free speech isn’t a real problem, or that some liberal-left men haven’t abdicated all responsibility for asking questions about it, particularly as it pertains to women’s rights, the better to have an easier, more saintly seeming life.
How They Broke Britain by James O’Brien is published by WH Allen (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply