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Artillery Row

A left-wing Limbaugh

James O’Brien has become a part of what he loathes

One day I took an Uber from Waterloo station and found my driver in a state of noticeable disquiet. This gentleman had recently arrived from Uganda, and stuck with a car radio had been initiated into England via the “James O’Brien Show”. As I travelled over Waterloo bridge, listening to the Uber driver’s apocalyptic rants about racism and Brexit, it occurred to me there was a novel experiment underway. Could a man be driven insane purely by understanding the country through the LBC sermons of James O’Brien?

How They Broke Britain, James OBrien, WH Allen, £15.99

The most pertinent observation of O’Brien’s new book How They Broke Britain is that he has a “very weird” job. Most media formats we gobble up on a daily basis, are abnormal, unhealthy even. But Talk Radio has to be the worst. The story of how O’Brien’s came to be one of the most significant media fixtures in this long decade of discord begins not on gossip pages of the Daily Express, where he started his career, nor his aborted efforts on ITV to become the thinking man’s Jeremy Kyle, but further back into the grubby reaches of American pundit radio.

Limbaugh, perhaps inadvertently, paved the way for O’Brien

Rush Limbaugh is in many ways the platonic opposite of O’Brien’s current politics. But paradoxically the two men are both masters of their medium. Limbaugh, perhaps inadvertently, paved the way for O’Brien, having made the amazing discovery in the latter half of the twentieth century that you didn’t have to be shrewd or likeable, or even particularly intelligent to gain political currency over the airwaves.  All you had to have was a convincing story about the decline and fall of the nation. 

Limbaugh, like O’Brien, cultivated one of the nation’s most popular radio shows through such a narrative arc: a gift for sifting through the detritus of political news and gossip to serve up the apocalyptic. Limbaugh, like O’Brien harboured back to a mythic haven of a “previously sensible society,” preaching a gnostic revelation of seeing through a system of self serving incompetence and moral depravity. Like Limbaugh he has proven he is happy to shoot first and ask questions later. Ironically, they also preached largely to a similar demographic: vaguely embittered men who in their midlife who had somehow found themselves angry and alone. Crucially, like Limbaugh, O’Brien is capable of giving the impression he is always on the verge of saying something profound. 

The opening overture of O’Brien’s latest, essentially one of his radio monologues laid out in print, is a vintage example of this. The first signs of portent crop up on page 3 in which he laments how the “levers of power…are controlled by a comparatively tiny number of people.” He then proceeds to shore up the fragments of Britain, ruined at the hands of a motley crew including Murdoch, Andrew Neil, Jacob Rees Mogg and Policy Exchange, in a rant that covers everything from the Hillsborough disaster to the redecorating of Boris Johnson’s flat. 

Yet unlike on the radio, there are times when this polemic, by virtue of being committed to the page, must be dampened. The evenhand of an assiduous editor is felt when phrases like: “at least some of these numbers are debatable,”  crops up during a discussion of the apocalyptic economic impact Brexit. Indeed they are. O’Brien quotes a figure from Bloomberg Economics that Brexit is costing the UK £100 billion a year, failing to clarify that this was based on Q1 estimates from 2020. Doubt has been cast on this figure recently, not least by Remainers themselves, ever since revised ONS figures from September suggest that before the pandemic and up to the 2nd quarter of 2023, the UK’s economy grew more than Germany and France. It seems since Brexit, the world has discovered there is more than one way to destroy a country’s economy. 

Then there are just sections where the narrative is downright chaotic. Take a chapter on Dominic Cummings, typical of the slapdash way in which O’Brien presents his evidence. First we are given Cummings’s stint working for an airline in Russia between 1994-97, with O’Brien foreboding that he has “never responded to claims,” (put forth by an email from then shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry) that he had compromised national security by (possibly) knowing some influential Russians. O’Brien then segues into the idea that the Brexit referendum was influenced by nefarious Kremlin forces.  Cummings is then described as “embedded in the ecosystem of cronyism and manipulation,” (he briefly worked for Andrew Neil you see, another man who broke Britain). Yet only pages later, O’Brien, confesses that he has “sympathy” for Cummings, being particularly impressed by a two-and-half-year stint in a bunker he spent on his father’s farm in Durham “trying to understand the world.” Sentences later however we are back to very bad Dom, as we are told that it was he who enabled Boris Johnson to gain an 80-seat majority that “smashed up the last vestiges of parliamentary democracy and political integrity.” Oh dear. Given the scale of his crimes we the reader at least deserve to know. Malign Russian actor or flawed genius? 

O’Brien is very much adept at playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order. This was indeed a decade of sleaze and incompetence in most sectors of public life. The sole marvel of the book is that despite writing on one of the worst periods of British governance, O’Brien still manages to come across as an incoherent crank. He is ever eager throughout not to associate himself with any overarching idea that might touch on a conspiracy (an albatross he has carried around his neck ever since enabling the fantasies of convicted paedophile Carl Beech). But the sheer rambling scale of his many gripes quite simply demands at least some overarching narrative. How else are we to make sense of everything from Rod Liddle’s anonymous comments on a Millwall forum to the “supremely courageous,” journalism of Carole Cadwalladr? 

In seeking to elevate his broadcast to a book however he runs himself into a corner. O’Brien has neither the intellect nor rhetorical skill of a writer to properly explain what exactly links his cast of villains and chronicle of misdeeds. This is why so often we find him resorting to his usual tics about Brexit, his favourite crime racism (the first accusation comes on page four), being “privileged,” or being against, what he loosely refers to at one point, “modernity and diversity” (whatever that means). 

But for O’Brien even this is not enough. One of his great gnostic revelations gifted to his listeners and readers is that everyone on the right of British politics or media seems to know each other, invariably linked through either sex, money or personal gain. Thus we get attempts to describe the malignant influence of the “British right,” through phrases like “diabolical nexus of media, politics and think tank,” or “ecosystem” (a word that crops up a lot) that come across as rather desperate attempts to bookend what is otherwise a well versed dinner party rant. Here’s a personal favourite: the “British newspaper industry,” writes O’Brien, “lurches from one unhinged diatribe to the next with no discernible pause for reflection.” Physician heal thyself. 

What then to make of O’Brien’s thesis and the great midden of soundbites, sleaze and misdeeds he has assembled before us. The title of course demands it. Are those who “broke Britain” merely incompetent, stupid, venal and corrupt. Or are they sinister, malevolent, manipulative with a full handled grip on those “levers of power,” he introduced at the start. These are after all the accusations that pop up relentlessly throughout the book almost interchangeably. Which exactly is it? Surely it can’t be all of them at once. After all, Britain, despite suffering under this evil right wing nexus of power, has not done too badly. More migrants than ever make a home on these shores, its population are some of the most socially liberal in Europe. Its electorate shows all intents and purposes of wiping out the Conservative party at the next election, at a time when most of the continent veers rightwards.

In this respect, one of the book’s most telling set pieces is a recycling of a 2014 transcript of his interview with Nigel Farage. Here one of many gotchas comes by reminding us of Farage’s association with the far-right through a radio interview with Marine Le Pen. Reading this passage nearly a decade later is a strange experience. Le Pen and her party have faced a resurgence of support, now being potential favourites at next year’s European elections. Meanwhile, Farage is about to eat kangaroo cock on I’m A Celebrity. Alas, the forces that broke Britain have a curious means of also breaking Europe. 

Despite hating this undeniably toxic and divisive saga of British history, he has also found himself as one its defining players

Ultimately this is a book that tells us more about O’Brien and his radio show. For his many faults, the man is undeniably a talented orator. Buried in this chronicle of soundbites, political gossip and link tracing among the “ecosystem” of the British hard right, there is the odd amusing rhetorical flourish. Perhaps if O’Brien had modelled himself as a sort of cerebral Chris Moyles rather than a serious polemicist cum broadcaster, he may have been content to smuggle through the occasional bit of wisdom with his apparent wit. But this is a man that has emerged from his own strange little experiment. To open up that hermetically sealed chamber of the LBC studio and introduce it to the coherence and lucidity demanded by prose — and indeed that virtue he is so fond of “reality,” — on the grand theme of British decline just doesn’t seem to work. Perhaps O’Brien greatest skill is that he is suspiciously attune to the fickleness, opportunism and superficiality of the industry in which he works. 

As such, glimmering through this tirade of anger, frustration and contempt, sometimes justified, sometimes not is a more overt truth. Despite hating this undeniably toxic and divisive saga of British history, he has also found himself as one its defining players. 

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