How Britain Really Works: Understanding the Ideas and Institutions of a Nation

by Stig Abell

John Murray, £20

Review by Brian Morton

Straight to the matter of credentials. What qualifies Stig Abell to emulate the great Anthony Sampson and attempt an anatomy, or perform a biopsy on contemporary Britain? Let’s see. Though still shy of 40, Abell has worked on the Press Complaints Commission, served three years as managing editor of the Sun and concurrently presented a Zeitgeist-sampling phone-in show on LBC. He currently reviews the papers on late-night television, while holding down a day job as editor of one of the few publishing institutions of which we can still be uncomplicatedly proud, the venerable TLS. As if this wasn’t enough, the man grew up in Loughborough, which is, to adapt his own description, the middle of the middle of the muddle that is the United Kingdom. Who better to write a book about how Britain works, the Really in the title being a strong clue to Abell’s belief that, when the Dickensian fog isn’t blinding us, the wool is being pulled over our eyes.

Credentials apart, he has one sterling talent, which is an ability to ask the very questions we would all like to see answered. This is a genuinely valuable book, an expansive and often funny tour d’horizon that gives a chapter to each of the main pillars of civic and civil society, and some of our other venerable institutions. Though no economist (you can tell), he gives a brisk and coherent account of our strange fiscal plight in just forty pages, and then politics (all of it, including Brexit) in less than fifty more. For the record, Abell is a Remainer, albeit a pragmatic one rather than a committed European.

The chapter that follows, on health, is among the more personal, opening on a genuinely distressing tableau of his wife in crisis in an NHS labour ward. The reader relaxes in relief when he takes her, and a newborn child, back home. “While the hospital could cure her, they were not able to care for her.” It’s not the most savage indictment of our health service I’ve ever read, but in its simplicity and quiet, it’s devastating.

One might expect a chapter on religion, but it’s dealt with so briskly that Abell actually draws more attention than he perhaps intends to the metaphysical. Much of our belief in our institutions, whether monarchy, Parliament or the national culture is driven by faith rather than reason. People who don’t believe in God believe without question in the NHS, knowing it to be everywhere, eternal and all-caring. Ha!

After health, it’s onwards through education, the military, law and order, old and new media, ending on the proliferating connotations that now attach to “identity”. His conclusion here is that we should not romanticise a country that is fractured and unfair; “nor should we ignore its best qualities either”. Abell loves his country the way we might love a once-promising family member, who’s gone from promising steadily to the dogs, and the horses, and the pub, but for whom we’d still turn out with bail money at midnight and who still has to be invited for Christmas.

Abell’s endnotes are brilliant, his footnotes not. The former are endlessly informative, whether offering potted biographies of long-forgotten political figures or evidentiary numbers on the state of our hospitals, universities, and regiments. The latter are the equivalent of the funny asides he likes to make when reviewing the papers on tv. They work there. They don’t work here, and an editor should have told him so. Stig’s tendency to comment ironically on his own use of youthspeak has some of the embarrassing qualities of dad dancing.

The problem with being a smartarse is that you bring all the other smartarses out of the woodwork. I positively cheered when I caught him using “picaresquely” for “picturesquely” in one of those chatty footnotes. And that from a literary man, as well. Unusually, but again brilliantly, Abell doesn’t provide a long and ponderous bibliography of national statistics and balance sheets. I don’t think he even mentions Anthony Sampson, who ended a run of “anatomies” with Who Runs This Place? in 2004, the year of his death. Instead, Abell recommends a whole bookcase of “condition of Britain”/state-of-the-world novels, ranging from Disraeli, obviously, to Kurt Vonnegut, less so. He includes The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but not Trainspotting, which prompts the quiet thought that while he devotes appropriate attention to the nations and regions, he probably doesn’t understand the Scots, Irish and Welsh (that’s the Cardiff Welsh rather than Irvine) as well as he grasps the workings of the metropolis. As far as I know, the only other famous alumnus of Loughborough Grammar School, apart from some decent cricketers, was Patrick McGoohan, creator and star of the original “confuseries” The Prisoner, a 1960s portrait of our nation as a kind of gilded cage run according to quite inscrutable rules, but done with blazered propriety. It hasn’t changed much. Abell takes a more analytic view of our strange estate than his schoolfellow, but he knows how to twist the kaleidoscope, too, and reveal to us our strangeness.