Monday, June 4, 2018

Book Review: Stig Abell's How Britain Really Works (2018)

Newspaper journalists are notoriously bad at long-form, worse with entire books. Part of the problem is a journalist's firsthand experience, though unique, doesn't necessarily capture the entire picture. For example, a journalist assigned to education might interview hundreds of insiders without ever meeting a single person knowledgable about pensions' involvement in unpredictable budgeting and lower entry salaries. Our modern world makes it impossible to have a life and publish a book containing ample firsthand experience matched by well-researched, comprehensive footnotes. 

In any case, Abell is excellent when discussing his specialities--healthcare, particularly the NHS, and British politics--but attempts too big a spoonful by also covering the military, economics, education, law, and media. His casual style is best-suited to casual readers interested in Britain generally and perfect for an advanced politics high school course. 

Despite my criticisms, much is enjoyable about the book. As you might expect, Abell is well-read--his recommended reading list at the end is wonderful--and he shares facts few others could. Did you know Zaire is not an African word? Or that the NHS is the "fifth largest employer in the world"? 
Had Abell written a shorter book about just politics, it would have been an easy five stars. Witness this remark on PM May's performance: "no humility, no soul-searching, no human touch, no real change. The audacity of nope." (My own characterization of May is slightly more appreciative, i.e., a person with the remarkable ability to piss you off while making you fall asleep at the same time.) Though in favor of more public welfare spending, Abell doesn't avoid unpleasant truths like moral hazard: "If you know you are going to be treated no matter what happens, you may take warnings about salt, or sugar, or booze or cigarettes less seriously; you may not bother to turn up to an appointment on time, or at all... 40% of the NHS's workload is related to 'modifiable health risk factors.'" 

In the end, Abell endears himself to the reader as an insider-outsider, one of the few successful Britons who attended diverse schools and made it without the aid of rich parents. He refused to speak at his former high school's commencement speech on account of his dislike of the experience and shares his pain at using the term "toilet" rather than the more proper "lavatory," a faux pas. A good, not great book, but few of us can claim greatness in literature; in some cases, one's own life will have to suffice. (June 2018) 

Bonus: on Singapore's educational system, ranked as one of the world's best, along with Japan, China, South Korea, Finland, Estonia, Vietnam, and Canada: 

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