Book Review: How Britain Really Works: Understanding the Ideas and Institutions of a Nation by Stig Abell

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stig Abell is quite a fascinating chap and that comes across very much in this book. Almost a contemporary of mine (we both grew up in the Midlands around the same time, and he went to the same school in Loughborough as a friend of mine but six years later – he hated it whereas my friend loved it); he takes a very middle ground as befits a fellow Midlander and I get it entirely.

That said, his middle ground often means swinging widely from extremes and I had to keep my prejudices under tight control when he revealed he worked at the Sun newspaper (can anything good come out of the Sun?). Yet he also worked for Press Complaints Commission – the enemy, as it were – so he can’t be all bad. Indeed, his taste in books and visual media – which he gives as lists for the reader to explore further should they so wish – is spot on. Well, it’s the same as mine, which is pretty much the same thing.

And that, in a sense, is the whole point of the book. It’s all a bit of muddle. Britain, I mean – not just the book. Abell superbly takes us on a whirlwind historical tour of all the major components of what makes Britain, Britain – Economics, Health, Politics, Education, the Media, Law and Order and so on. From this he (and we) glean some sense of what it means to be British. It’s not pretty, but it’s also quite comforting. The British are nothing if not paradoxical. It’s not as harsh as Felton’s book which sees us all as ‘bellends’ but nor is it as soft and loving as Bryson‘s British travelogues.

Abell’s starting point for writing the book is harking back to the pre-internet days when the only source of information was the trusty encyclopaedia. Such books were always less than reliable, not just because they would easily go out of date, but also because they were written by writers with subjective views. Nevertheless, just like Abell, I still have my encyclopaedias which date right back to the 1950s and still get a thrill of knowledge-seeking when I open them. In a sense, ‘How Britain Really Works’ is a homage to such biased but one-stop works where you could dip in and get information – albeit flawed – at the reach of a hand rather than the click of a button.

And it works! There’s very little in Abell’s book to actively disagree with. He sticks, on the whole, to facts but litters around enough witticisms and his own thoughts on matters to avoid this being a dry academic tome. It is very readable, very likeable (despite the aforementioned time at the Sun) and just about manages to stay on the right side of smug.

So why not five stars with this review? Simply because the publication of the book (2019) made it out of date almost immediately. Abell focuses hugely on Corbyn – now largely gone since the election – and Brexit – still there but superseded by the Covid pandemic. Boris Johnson gets barely a look-in and the ruminations on the economic side of Brexit really now don’t have the same issues as they did before the pandemic occurred. While none of this has gone away, Abell really needs to update the book soon. Not yet, mind you. At the time of writing, we’re still in the midst of the pandemic and Brexit hasn’t yet actually happened. But come 2021, a revised version would be perfect – and I’ll revise this review and give 5 stars in response.

Of course, such books will always go out of date eventually and there’s no issue with that. Indeed, there’s a feeling from Abell that he almost welcomes that. But it is unfortunate that when he was writing the book Corbyn was on the crest of a wave that looked set to put him into Number 10 and Brexit looked like the most dominating influence of British and European life for years to come. Who knew that nature would say “hold my beer” to this and change the course of world history in one fell swoop? Everything has changed, and yet, nothing has changed – or is likely to. And that, is perhaps fitting – certainly in keeping with the nature of the British – and, I’m pretty certain, absolutely in keeping with the author’s views.

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. His third book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, was published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways and Lancashire Life magazine. Currently reviews for Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 5.5 million times.


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