An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain

John O'Farrell

Posted on 2 January 2021

I bought this book on impulse in a charity shop having read two outstanding histories of Britain – Andrew Marr’s A Short History of Modern Britain which covers the same period, and Jeremy Paxman’s equally brilliant The English, which documents England’s variously outrageous behaviour as a colonial power. I expected something the same but more light-hearted.

We start at the end of the second world war, where O’Farrell immediately announces that the government telling the people Britain had won was simply lies and government spin. We can’t really say we won, because the country was left in a mess, which is a bit like saying you didn’t really win the marathon because you were a bit puffed out at the end.

O’Farrell continues in a similar anti-Tory, anti-rich, anti-establishment vein, to talk us through the various postwar UK governments, a comprehensive denouncement of Thatcher, Tony Blair moving the modern Labour party far enough to the right to actually be electable, and the beginning of the credit crunch. The book was published in 2009.

I was going to write a lot more about O’Farrell’s obvious bias but then finally bothered to read the short introduction before writing this post. O’Farrell prepares the reader by making his bias perfectly clear and saying he has no intention of writing objectively. He also wrote a Guardian column. Fair enough, we all have opinions and had I made the effort to read the introduction before diving in then I wouldn’t have found the bias a surprise.

Bias aside, this is still a really good book. It is well-researched, easy to read and hilarious. O’Farrell has a comic gift for mixing the real with imagined banal elements which humanise his characters. I was laughing out loud every 10-15 minutes and the fact he was previously a scriptwriter for Spitting Image is no surprise. On Tim Berners-Lee, who essentially invented the internet:

Berners-Lee explained his plan to take the hypertext and connect it to the transmission control and domain name system, and rather than admit they didn’t have the faintest idea what he was talking about, the government decided they’d better give him a knighthood to acknowledge his achievement. Crucially, he resolved that access should be freely available to everyone. “That’s wonderful, darling,’ said Mrs Berners-Lee. “I mean, you could have copyrighted it for yourself and we would have been multibillionaires; richer than Bill Gates and the Sultan of Brunei put together. But much better that everyone gets their pornography and stolen dissertations for free…” and she walked briskly through to the kitchen where the sound of crockery being smashed could be heard soon after.

On Thatcher, O’Farrell sums up for the prosecution by accepting that the country as a whole was richer as a result of Thatcherism, whilst saying it was a failure because it increased the gap between rich and poor. Thatcher famously answered this in her final PMQs, saying “As long as the gap is smaller, they’d rather the poor were poorer.” I found it arrogant that O’Farrell didn’t address the answer Thatcher had already made to his argument against her policies. The arguments and counter-arguments are there to be made, to simply take an absolutist position is puerile.

O’Farrell also chalks the creation of the NHS up as a victory for the caring and altruistic left against the evil Tories who just want the poor to suffer. Marr takes a very different position, saying that it was the national cohesion achieved during the war which drove people to demand that we work together in the same way to create free healthcare, and that a National Health Service would have been in inevitable in such a social climate regardless of the government in charge.

Hugely enjoyable and lots of fun, this is a really entertaining book. If you’re looking for a more serious and objective postwar history of Britain then Andrew Marr’s book is in a completely different league, and if you want a discussion of the Thatcher years which actually contains some nuance then Mark Viney’s ‘Thatcher’s Britain” is excellent. But if you already kind of know the story and want a good laugh at the expense of our past prime ministers, you won’t be disappointed.