How Britain Really Works review: Troubled state of the nation | Books | Entertainment



But unlike the rest of us Mr Abell set out to answer his own question. How Britain Really Works explores how the patchwork of laws and dogma that govern our lives came to be stitched together so imperfectly that few of our institutions seem to work properly.

Why is the economy staggering, the health service buckling, the education system failing white working-class boys, the justice system jailing so many black men?

The resulting book is brilliantly researched, well organised and delightfully readable. Abell wanted to write the “reader’s encyclopaedia of Britain”.

It is that and more: part history, part reflection on the state of the nation and the perfect primer for the pub philosopher.

It is essential reading for anyone who wants to know why our governments stumble from one crisis to another.

Abell, who is editor of the Times Literary Supplement, has divided the book under eight headings: Economics, Politics, Health, Education, Military, Law And Order, Old And New Media, and Identity.

The section on health is rich in depressing detail. Remember when the National Health Service worked the way it was meant to?

If so your memory is letting you down. It has apparently been in crisis since its inception in 1948.

The NHS has remained true to its founding principles: that it meets the needs of everybody, is free at the point of delivery and is based on clinical need, not the ability to pay.

But Abell argues that given our ageing population and our reluctance to throw even more money at it – it cost us £120billion in 2016 – it is unlikely to get better any time soon.

A book such as this is likely to throw up some jolting statistics and here are two of them. Forty per cent of the NHS’s workload relates to “modifiable health risk factors”.

In other words, if we gave up smoking, cut back on the wine and ate fresh, wholesome food, the NHS budget could be around £75billion and be “both affordable and efficient”.

The second is that in 1974 the bill for medical negligence was about £1million. By 2015 that had soared to £1.4billion.

Which may say more about lawyers than doctors. Abell insists that he does not write from the perspective of an expert: “My qualification is perhaps no more or less than my persistent curiosity.”

But he reminds us that the bankers who plunged us into the great crash of 2008 were so-called experts. And Abell really comes into his own in the section on Old And New Media.

He is a former director of the Press Complaints Commission and a former managing editor of a national tabloid newspaper so, when the phone hacking scandal erupted, he had a grandstand seat.

Not only does Abell write with the authority of an insider but the bright and breezy manner of the tabloids has rubbed off on him. His book is erudite but never hard work.

In a final whimsical touch Abell gives us a list of novels that he judges might add to our understanding of how Britain works and “touch on universal issues”.

PG Wodehouse’s Psmith In The City shines a light on economics, Huxley’s Brave New World on politics and Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens on education.

One small quibble, though. Abell’s book is scattered with footnotes like confetti in a churchyard, on everything from Shakespeare to his grandma’s dementia.

Often witty or ironic, they are the digressions of a lively mind. But they are distracting too and ever so slightly irritating.


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