How They Broke Britain by James O’Brien review – a catalogue of disasters
Some books are immune to negative reviews. I am not saying that reviews have no impact on their success, but in the case of James O’Brien’s How They Broke Britain, which presents a detailed list of nine men and one woman responsible for the country’s unnecessary decline, this is certainly true. The book is already a bestseller and a recent event promoting it had to change venues due to high demand for tickets.
Some books are difficult to criticize, as engaging in a debate with them means aligning oneself with the very framework they claim to oppose. A critic who challenges a book from the perspective of the right may be dismissed as a biased ideologue or a journalist with an agenda, with their review seen as further proof of the corrupt and biased world that the book’s author denounces. However, even a skeptic who aligns with the opposing side may face even harsher consequences. Going against the man known as the “conscience of liberal Britain” could result in being labeled a “useful idiot” not only by the author, but also by his 1.1 million followers on X. While I have personally found O’Brien to be pleasant in the few times I have met him for work, I cannot deny that I am not fond of his behavior on social media.
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.
However, I frequently became frustrated while reading. This was partly due to the content of the book, which is largely not groundbreaking. While the author has clearly done extensive research, he heavily relies on the work and ideas of others in his writing. As a writer and reader, this bothered me. Additionally, his negative comments towards highly dedicated journalists such as Laura Kuenssberg and Nick Robinson from the BBC’s political team came across as mean-spirited and uncalled for.
O’Brien has no interest in working at the BBC as he values his own opinions too highly. This is why he chose not to continue his job as a presenter on Newsnight. In my opinion, his role at LBC, where he mostly argues with callers, does not fully utilize his talents. It would be more beneficial for him to work at the BBC, where he could make a greater impact journalistically. However, it seems that making a positive impact may not be his main motivation. One issue with How They Broke Britain is that although it thoroughly documents the wrongdoings of politicians, journalists, and strategists, it is simply a list of events. What actions need to be taken? Will there be change under a Labour government? Is there any hope? O’Brien only indirectly addresses the last question.
Each antagonist is assigned a section: Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre, and Andrew Neil represent the media; Nigel Farage, David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss are his political figures; Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings of Vote Leave trail behind (like a pantomime horse). All 10 are more than worthy of his frustration and ours; there is little use in delving into their entitlement and careless destruction here. However, in the end, while O’Brien expresses concern about division and polarization in Britain, he also contributes to it to some extent, as he has wholeheartedly embraced what I will refer to as a “woke” agenda for the sake of brevity.
It is not possible to have your image on the cover of your book without also being associated with a brand. This requires the person to take a firm stance on one side, even if they may be aware that the current political climate on both sides is complicated and potentially dangerous. It is unrealistic for someone to have conflicts with everyone. Personally, I share his suspicion of the Mail’s sudden support for free speech on college campuses. However, this does not mean that free speech is not a legitimate issue, or that certain liberal men have not shirked their responsibility in addressing it, especially in regards to women’s rights, in order to have an easier and more virtuous 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