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Summary

A thoughtful, articulate and important book about the rise of English nationalism and the impending breakup of the United Kingdom from one of the finest BBC journalists of the last 20 years.

How Britain Ends is a book about history, but also about the strange, complicated identity of Britishness. In the past, it was possible to live with delightful confusion: one could be English, or British, Scottish or Irish and a citizen/subject of the United Kingdom (or Great Britain). For years that state has been what Gavin Esler calls a 'secret federation', but without the explicit federal arrangements that allow Germany or the USA to survive.

Now the archaic state, which doesn't have a written constitution, is coming under terrible strain. The English revolt against Europe is also a revolt against the awkward squads of the Scottish and Irish, and most English conservatives would be happy to get rid of Northern Ireland and Scotland as the price of getting Brexit done. If no productive trade deal with the EU can be agreed, the pressures to declare Scottish independence and to push for a border poll that would unite Ireland will be irresistible.

Can England and Wales find a way of dealing with the state's new place in the world? What constitutional, federal arrangements might prevent the disintegration of the British state, which has survived in its present form for 400 years?

©2021 Gavin Esler (P)2021 Head of Zeus

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Good, but a bit of a rant

I have always respected Gavin Esler as a journalist, and broadly agree with his thesis. He did however cross the rubicon into politics when he stood as a candidate for Change U.K. He does tend to go on a bit in when he has already more than made the point in that it becomes a bit of a rant, which detracts from good work. A more pithy impactful narrative would have carried more weight (for example, why is Louis De Bernieres an example he explores at such length? And why is his view even vaguely important?) As an Englishman who has lived in Scotland, London, northern England and have many friends from all four nations, many of the points he raises do chime with me and what friends and colleagues from all nations have said. The sad thing is that I think it is too late, and even more sad, I’m not sure how much I can care anymore as this seems an irreversible evolution within these nations.

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A stylish and very informative book

I found this a thoughtful and well researched book. I hope it will be very widely read because it clarifies many confusing issues.
Also, the reader, Robin Laing, has a very pleasing voice.
Gavin Esler has, through his personal experience and ancestry gained many insights into the history and regional factors that have shaped the characteristics of our disparate island nations. I think I have finally understood matters that I have never heard so clearly explained before. It is not a dry academic text but a vibrant book of ideas passionately expressed.
Not just history and analysis but practical suggestions for reform.


A solid five *****

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Highly recommend.

I great book. Well researched and some very personal accounts by author. A must listen. Very well narrated. Fully enjoyed and worth listening to a few times to get all information. Thanks to Gavin for this insightful book.

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Compulsory reading!

This is a fantastic book. Utterly fascinating. Well researched, well written and well read!

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I couldn't get into this book

This book is all about how Britain is a federation of separate nations, somewhat bullied by the hedgemonic England. I find this obsession with 'looking for difference' unwelcome and destructive. Everyone seems to need to identify with some minority, preferably persecuted, these days. I've always lived in England and maybe you can argue that my lack of interest in the feelings of minorities is exactly the problem. My view is that we have real problems (Russia, gas prices, inflation, NHS) and we won't solve those by navel-gazing on small, hard to define, possibly imaginary, cultural divides. So I gave up about three chapters in.

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well argued and we'll read.

Well researched as you would expect from a good journalist Gavin lays out his arguments logically and engagingly, and it is well narrated by Robin Laing.

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Illuminating

A very illuminating and interesting read. Thoroughly enjoyed this book and it was very well presented with lots of interesting facts and outlooks

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Informative, but at times poor narration

Gavin Esler knows his subject, and I particularly enjoyed his demolition of Lord Frost. However, I just wish he had narrated it himself, as I got intensely annoyed by some bizarre pronunciations and accents. Just one hideous example: George Mikes’ surname is pronounced as the plural of Mike, instead of the more normal ‘Meekesh’. I feel sure that GE would not have made this, and many other irritating mistakes.

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Interesting first half

I like the book for the first half. The second half began to annoy me mainly because the authors political bias came through, which for the large part I disagree with. He is reporting the facts but the words he uses to describe certain situations, politicians changes on who it is about. For example Tory bashing and SNP praise. Sure its about politics and the author has the right to his views, was just a struggle to finish it!

The first half was good as it was just giving the facts, wasn't much political about it just more why people are nationalistic and how we can move forward.

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recommended - with one caveat

A very good summary of the current situation and potentially very enlightening to anyone who hasn't been paying attention. I have one objection. Gavin has to suggest a federal solution but makes no mention of the fact that for such a solution to be implemented the people of England would have to vote first for a government to suggest it and then yes in a referendum to confirm it. This will "never" happen. Here in October 2021 motions on PR have just been voted down at the Labour conference. Not only do Labour look at least a decade from power they don't even support the key policies needed. I suggest Gavin moves back to Edinburgh so he can vote in the up coming Indy ref!
(For the record I write this from my home in Edinburgh. I was born British in the great city of Bristol but have been in Scotland nearly 30 years. I never really considered myself English but strangely friends and family South of the border have become English, or more explicitly English, in my absence. I now consider myself Scottish first then a disenfranchised European. Britishness is long gone. )

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  • Duncan Keegan
  • 05-05-21

Reasonable account of a state passing out of history

This is a decent essay by a reasonable man, offering a reasonable account of the sources behind the UK’s current crisis of identity.

Esler’s Scottish conscience can’t help but force him to be more honest about those sources, their contradictory natures and their workings out on the peoples of these islands than one usually finds in other similar works.

So he avoids the worst of the rose-tinted nostalgia he interrogates very well, yet he can’t help glancing back himself through a certain sepia-tinged gauze, and fails to make explicit certain connections and resonances that might pick out the glints of the harder edges to ‘Britishness’ that has underpinned that conquest state over the past three centuries. The suggestion that Bridget Cleary’s murder was somehow representative of the Irish Catholic community in general of the time and thus justify Protestant opposition to home rule is ludicrous. We hear about his ancestors in 1912 and their supposedly reasonable decision to stick with the UK; not so much about the proto-fascism and ethnic cleansing in the province 1920-22.

Indeed, for all the references to the ‘four nations’, Gavin doesn’t really provide any reason to credit Northern Ireland with a status equivalent to that of the three historic nations on the island of Britain. And one cannot escape the feeling that, like most non-English unionists charmed and mystified by what ‘Britishness’ means, Gavin simply missed that at root it’s a pseudo-nativist cosplay of a kind of Britannic “romanitas” by English elites, indulged in with the same amateurish spirit of ambiguity they bring to so many of the games they play between themselves.

With those legendary gifts for omission and understatement that mark the English aristocratic tradition, it was easy to overlook it as a Jock or a Paddy or a Taffy on the make in London. But it remained true nevertheless. Britain, Albion, the UK, the British Isles: it really doesn’t matter, for it was all only ever England, for England; this was a truth not requiring explicit uttering, but one tacitly approved of and maintained by all the right sort of people, from the better families and with the proper qualifications.

Anyway, still a decent if flawed light essay on current affairs improved greatly by some great narration.

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