“I used to be inexperienced and innocent, but now I am wise and doubtful”: James O’Brien reflects on politicians who consistently disappoint.
When I meet James O’Brien it’s just a few weeks before his new book, How They Broke Britain, comes out. It’s a damning account of how the country ended up in the current mess, and the cast of characters he holds most responsible – Rupert Murdoch, Jeremy Corbyn and Andrew Neil are among those given their own chapters. As is Liz Truss, whose lettuce-spanning, economy-wrecking premiership is held as the inevitable conclusion to having had our political and media ecosystems polluted with lies and corruption for years.
It’s a neat ending, but O’Brien worries he might have jumped the gun. It’s the Conservative party conference when we speak, and, given some of the frankly barmy news coming out of it – will Nigel Farage re-join the Conservatives? Could Liz Truss be Tory leader again? – he’s wondering if we’ve yet to reach the nadir of this bleak political period. Should he still be writing it?
“He is torn between two thoughts – one urging him to proceed as this subject strikes at the core of it all, while the other sees it as an ideal opportunity to delve into themes such as the transformation of the Tory party into a “Farageification” and the recent appearance of Farage dancing with Priti Patel provides irrefutable evidence for his thesis.”
O’Brien, wearing a baseball cap and trainers, appears quiet and slightly disoriented as we wait for coffee before the interview. He came directly from his three-hour talk radio show on LBC, which he admits can be exhausting. Surprisingly, he has been hosting this show for almost two decades, though many listeners only began following him during the Brexit discussions, when he gained widespread recognition.
In a time of chaos, his show provided a sense of peace for many left-leaning individuals who had voted to remain – he would often express his frustration with his head in his hands, while also highlighting the harm that we were about to cause ourselves. Other media sources seemed strangely hesitant to do so. His thorough interview with Farage in 2014, in which Farage was clearly unprepared, was a great example of how to expose a false image in less than 20 minutes. O’Brien shares, “I receive thanks from people in public, and sometimes they become emotional. They tell me, ‘Your show was the only place where reality was accurately portrayed.’ And that is exactly what I have aimed to do in my book.”
It could be the espresso that energizes O’Brien today, but I believe it’s the act of turning on my recording device. He has a passion for speaking and is exceptionally skilled at it – he can be perceptive, inquisitive, critical, clever, sympathetic, and consoling all within the span of an hour on his show. However, he can also come across as smug and arrogant at times, particularly in the past when he took pleasure in constantly breaking down the weak arguments of callers on his show. This is a man who authored a book, featuring his own image on the cover, titled How to Be Right.
Undoubtedly, O’Brien has received criticism from various sources. On the right, figures like Dominic Raab paint him as a dangerous leftist extremist. Meanwhile, some on the left view him as nothing more than a conservative disguised as a progressive. In reality, he falls somewhere in the middle, praised by Starmer and the #FBPE (FollowBackProEU) group as a sensible and mature figure. A friend of mine described him as the ultimate moderate father figure. He leans towards the left on certain issues, but tends to hesitate when faced with complex situations – for example, during our interview, he questioned whether Israel should be held accountable to international law in light of the situation in Gaza.
Although O’Brien may have previously sparked anger, he has now become less confrontational. He attributes this change to undergoing therapy for his pent-up anger, which helped him understand why he always had a defensive attitude. He now prioritizes listening over fighting and has gained a greater insight into the struggles of those who have been swayed by the false promises of the Tory party. He feels a sense of responsibility when these individuals tell him that his book has influenced their thinking, motivating him to shed light on the hidden issues at play.
In light of the numerous ongoing crises and scandals, it’s possible to overlook some of the unethical actions that took place. Therefore, “How They Broke Britain” serves as a valuable record – O’Brien’s critical perspective presents a comprehensive account of the selfish behavior and statements made by those in positions of authority in Britain.
According to O’Brien, it was crucial to document it immediately because information is often quickly overlooked and forgotten. He believes that many readers will have frequent moments of realization throughout the text.
The intended audience for this book is not just political enthusiasts, but also those who are interested in understanding the current issues facing our country. According to O’Brien, there is a fundamental problem with our perception of the truth in Britain, and this book serves as a guide to help navigate through the overwhelming amount of misinformation.
Rephrased: Revisiting the entire unfortunate situation can be quite disheartening. Just like O’Brien’s show, if you tune in too frequently (which he denies is possible), it can leave you feeling frustrated and powerless. He acknowledges that it is not a solution or a cure, but he hopes that by exposing the corruption behind the scenes, it may make it easier to cope with the anger. When faced with a disturbing statement from a home secretary regarding refugees, being able to see it as the result of a corrupt process may lessen the anger. Ideally, with more understanding, there will be less irrational anger.
Some people criticize O’Brien for his anger, but others argue that he dismissed politician Jeremy Corbyn as unelectable despite sharing similar views and offering radical change. O’Brien defends himself by pointing out that most of his radio shows focused on criticizing Boris Johnson and he did, in fact, vote for Corbyn’s Labour party in 2017 and 2019. However, he also acknowledges that by 2019 he knew it was a lost cause due to Corbyn’s personal flaws and track record. As a radio host, he regularly received calls from listeners expressing their opinions on politics, and he was not surprised when research showed that Corbyn was a key factor in people not voting for Labour.
The chapter by O’Brien on Murdoch’s harmful impact can be frustrating to read, as he laments how even prominent politicians like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown felt pressure to appease the media mogul. Wasn’t Corbyn the first mainstream party leader to reject the Murdoch press and communicate with voters through alternative channels?
“Well, you have to take Murdoch on,” he says. “They didn’t pick fights with anyone. They just sat around congratulating each other on the purity of their ideology. They could have gone after the Mail. Ed Miliband did!”
Indeed, we are all aware of what occurred in that situation.
O’Brien has undergone a political transformation, having been raised by adoptive parents in Kidderminster after being born to a teenage single mother. He did not have a positive experience in school and learned to use his persuasive abilities to avoid confrontations with other students. He admits that when he attended the London School of Economics, he was not very politically active. However, during his time on the radio, he expressed opinions that he now regrets. In the past, he advocated for stricter teachers and made ignorant comments about obesity.
In 2008, O’Brien cast his vote in favor of Boris Johnson as the Conservative mayor of London. He confesses that he was not fully attentive at the time. He was drawn to the idea of granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants. O’Brien felt that Ken Livingstone was becoming too extreme, while Johnson seemed like a friendly and energetic personality.
In addition, he stated, “at that time, no one had accomplished what I have achieved in a book.” While it may be accurate that there were no books solely focused on Johnson’s flaws during that time (unlike the abundance found in bookstores currently), there was ample documented proof that he was unsuitable for his position. As far back as 2008, many of us were just as shocked by the notion of supporting Johnson as he was by the concept of voting for Brexit. How did this come to be?
“I didn’t walk into the voting booth thinking, ‘Hooray for Boris!'” he explains. “I entered the booth with a split decision, probably 52/48, and ended up going the wrong way.” He grins mischievously as he recalls this. “So, it’s strange to bring it up again after 15 years.”
O’Brien frequently brings up his own mention of it, even in his latest book. It serves as a means for him to relate to those who supported Brexit – after all, he was also deceived! And it has proven to be quite effective. Instead of viewing his shift in political stance negatively, it should be seen as a positive development. It’s surprising to hear that he is now considering that his beloved endeavor, a movement for a second Brexit referendum, may not have been a wise decision.
The speaker expresses that they do not believe the situation is hopeless yet. However, their current perspective is closer to that belief than it was in the past. Upon reflection, they realize that the event was unlikely to occur. They admit to being inexperienced and idealistic in 2018, but now they are more experienced and skeptical.
I am curious if O’Brien, the author of a book discussing the broken state of Britain, has any solutions for fixing it. Do they have confidence in Starmer’s ability to address the issues?
“Yeah. I mean, it’s necessary, right? To a certain extent. He’s viable as a candidate, at least.” He highlights how Sadiq Khan has implemented impactful policies within his limited scope, like providing free school meals for all primary school children in London and expanding the Ulez. “But I don’t think Starmer will come out strong right away. And I think he might still be too afraid of upsetting people.” If he ends up being a disappointment, O’Brien states that he will have the privilege of criticizing him daily and giving him the same level of criticism as any other politician who fails to meet expectations.
Similar to Starmer, O’Brien is known for being indecisive. Despite his strong words about promoting equality, I am taken aback by his lack of stance on the topic of transgender rights. He explains, “I simply do not want to accuse anyone of being untruthful. If an individual truly believes they were born in the wrong body, I do not want to label them as a liar. And if someone feels that their safety is at risk with a transgender person using the same facilities, I also do not want to accuse them of lying.”
He may not apply this type of reasoning to homophobia or racism, as they can be fueled by fear.
“He accuses me of trying to manipulate him into saying something that may offend others,” he explains. “But I’m not trying to do that – instead, I’m attempting to dissect his reasoning in the same way he does with many of his callers.” I provide an instance of someone feeling hesitant to enroll their child in a class with a homosexual teacher – a legitimate fear, but one without valid grounds. However, O’Brien argues that there are no comparable situations. I struggle to follow his train of thought, but it appears that he believes he can use logic to convince individuals to let go of their fears towards gay people or immigrants, but not towards transgender individuals.
“I believe I can persuade them with my reasoning,” he states.
Do you believe you cannot convince them on this matter?
“I am uncertain if I am able to.”
It may seem unexpected for someone who enjoys conflict, but O’Brien seems slightly annoyed by my questions. However, therapy has helped him to respond more calmly. He states, “If you had asked me unfair questions 10 years ago, I would have reacted in a much more aggressive manner.”
Are these inquiries biased?
“I see, there will be no digging up of old grievances,” he says with sarcasm, alluding to the act of uncovering past actions or statements to discredit someone in the current moment.
Is it beneficial to have the chance to clarify certain matters?
“Of course, it is,” he replied. “I was just hoping we could discuss the brilliance of my book for an hour.” He gave a playful smile. “Are you not interested in the discussion about thinktank? I assumed Guardian readers would want to know more about it…”
I sympathize with O’Brien as I read his chapter about Andrew Neil and the promotion of secretive organizations like the Institute of Economic Affairs (which Neil featured in while he was editor of the Sunday Times). The chapter was captivating, especially in its explanation of how intertwined these groups, including the Tax Payers’ Alliance and the Adam Smith Institute, have become and how easily their representatives have been given a platform on the BBC and in the media. Could we have devoted more time to discussing his book? While I enjoyed it, I found it difficult to disagree with the various chapters that suggest figures such as Johnson, Paul Dacre, and Dominic Cummings have had a detrimental impact on the country. What intrigues me more are the contradictions between O’Brien’s radio persona as “the conscience of liberal Britain” and his actual desire for significant change.
Being known as the “ultimate centrist dad” comes with its own challenges. You have to navigate through the center, highlighting what appears to be obvious political truths, while facing criticism from both ends of the political spectrum. O’Brien is no stranger to this. As he puts it, referring to the polarized politics of our time, “For Corbyn supporters, it was all a scam, and for Johnson supporters, it was all a witch hunt. In reality, they are essentially the same.” And in classic O’Brien style, he concludes, “Both sides will struggle to accept that I am right.”
James O’Brien’s How They Broke Britain (published by Ebury Publishing for £20) can be ordered at guardianbookshop.com to show support for the Guardian and Observer. Additional delivery fees may apply.