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Decline and fall: How They Broke Britain by James O’Brien – review

National decline is a difficult thing to prove, because at every point in history there have been those who idealise the good old days and lament the way the world is going. This is especially true in Britain. In the 1540s, East Anglian peasants under Robert Kett revolted because food prices were no longer what they had been. In the eighteenth century, especially after the territorial gains of the Seven Years’ War, there was a widespread bitterness that the country had branched off from its constitutional roots; and against this background the historian Gibbon wrote his six-volume Decline and Fall. In the first half of the twentieth century, the death of Empire occasioned a similar feeling that the nation’s identity and power had somehow collapsed. By the 1970s Britain was the “sick man of Europe”. 

Today, in the wake of Brexit, Britain is once again broken – so argues commentator James O’Brien in his new book, How They Broke Britain.

In writing this history of especially the last thirteen years, O’Brien seems to have modified Carlyle’s famous dictum: “History is but the biography of nasty men and a woman”. Ten chapters detail the ten nasty men and women whom he holds responsible for the decline in the economy, the media and politics. And, significantly, all of his points are packed with enough evidence and examples to show that the decline is provable and measurable.

In terms of the economy, O’Brien deconstructs the links between various free-market thinktanks, Murdoch-owned journalists, and government policymakers which have led to decline. Austerity programmes since 2010 reduced the annual rate of increase for public spending, which not only meant that transport, health, and social care services became weak from undernourishment, but that they eventually buckled under the COVID crisis. Brexit, which made us the “first country to impose economic sanctions on itself”, only added to government debt. Then an estimated £30 billion was flushed away by Liz Truss’s mini budget. 

O’Brien’s revelations about the Murdoch-owned media and the Daily Mail under Paul Dacre certainly deserve to be public knowledge. He demonstrates several links, some of which date back to the Thatcher era, between the interests of the Murdoch press and Conservative Party policy. The way in which ideological and commercial agendas are set above the truth is frankly disgusting. All of the blame for absolutely anything is shifted away from the lawmakers responsible and onto a giant conspiracy made up of immigrants, lefties and ‘remoaners’. When O’Brien compares the Mail’s anti-immigrant headlines of the 1930s to its almost identical ones of today, the whole thing becomes downright depressing.

The chapter on Boris Johnson is a dossier of corruption and amorality, which should be read by anyone who still believes that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel was fit for office. The real highlight, though, is the section on Nigel Farage. There is nothing O’Brien does better than pick apart the lies and prejudices of that man. He sees him for what he is: a cartoon villain whom everyone took way too seriously. The flashbacks to Farage’s schooldays, to his later “assassination attempt” in France, and to his constant pandering to bigotry, are related with a blend of comic irony and genuine concern at the fact that this man was allowed so much influence over British politics. He is, after all, responsible for what O’Brien calls the “Faragification” of the Tory Party; its increasing appeal to the far-right.

O’Brien, a man of the Left, is not a one-note pigeon, and he lays into Jeremy Corbyn as fiercely as into any one of the right-wing conspirators. And, even aside from the ten people who get their own chapters, the smaller fry is not spared either, whether political bullies like Dominic Raab or hatemongers like Douglas Murray. 

The saddest thing about this story of national decline is that none of the right people will ever read it. There will remain those who believe that austerity was the right decision after Labour “maxed out our credit card”; who continue to harp on about Brexit benefits; and who say Liz Truss really had the right ideas but was brought down by the “left-wing establishment”. 

The journalists, think-tankers and politicians who broke Britain have all delegated the blame for it onto the “wokerati”. To these people – all of them right-wing, and most of them Tory – I would put only one question. O’Brien does not specifically ask it. Nonetheless it is an important one to raise. The question is: Given that wokery came about on the Tory Party’s watch, how can they seriously fight an election on an anti-woke platform? I once asked this of a Conservative MP who was giving a talk at my college. He couldn’t give an answer. 

The real answer is that wokery is the merest deflection. It is a scapegoat for these people’s own failures. Yet the myth of the woke mob has eagerly been assimilated by the readers of the Murdoch Press, who now feel threatened if schoolchildren are told about Mary Seacole as well as Florence Nightingale, or if library books now contain the kinds of trigger-warning labels that used to be on DVD cases. 

Another recent book that How They Broke Britain is worth comparing to – briefly – is Nadine Dorries’ The Plot: The Political Assassination of Boris Johnson, which is being serialised in the Daily Mail. This masterwork of political analysis is less remarkable for any actual points it makes than for explaining what the author was up to for the three months it took her to resign from Parliament “with immediate effect”. Dorries’ thesis, of course, is bound to be swallowed by the sorts of people who will read it. I can already see the Mail subscribers flocking to tell their friends that they know “what’s really going on” in politics.

At first glance, Dorries and O’Brien seem to be writing on two sides of the same coin. Their titles both have an air of conspiracy theory, and they both seek to blame one quarter for most of the country’s political decline. There are, however, two essential differences between them. 

First is that fact that O’Brien uses verifiable evidence to support all of his claims, whereas Dorries relies cryptically on a sort of ‘insider knowledge’, and refers to the key puppet-masters only by pseudonyms like ‘Dr No’. 

Then there is Dorries’ underlying assumption that everyone was in it together, that the coup against Johnson was perfectly coordinated and agreed on by everyone involved. O’Brien suffers from no such persecution mania. He has the sense to see that it was not one grand master conspiracy, but that Britain was broken “sometimes by design” and “sometimes by incompetence”.

These may seem like small distinctions, but together they are all the difference between a conspiracy nut and a serious polemicist. As for O’Brien’s book: it is excellent. It is true that the most diehard Brexiteers, Tories, Corbynites and the right-wing press are sure to revile it. O’Brien does not write as well as he speaks on the radio; but that is largely because he speaks so well. He remains unmatched among modern broadcasters for impassioned analysis, biting irony, heartfelt sympathy and sheer rhetorical flourish. His trademark warmth, lucidity and wit – and above all his power to call an idiot an idiot – make How They Broke Britain immensely readable.

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