Tag Archives: reading

How Britain Broke The World

Popular opinion is that the whole of the UK was against Blair’s invasion of Iraq. Over a million people marched in London.

I wasn’t one of them.

I’m not sure that I was as politically engaged then as I am now, but the main reason that I wasn’t there was because I wasn’t entirely against the intervention. Sure, I never believed the justifications that they gave. The whole ability to attack in 45 minutes seemed unlikely, and the connection to Al Qaeda didn’t seem plausible either. Blair deserved all resistance he got for such obvious untruths.

So if I didn’t believe in the reasons given, why was I not against the invasion? Because the regime was abusive to its own population. We talk about choices and democracy and representation, but what can people do when they have such a corrupt, oppressive and violent government?

Other countries tend to say it’s not their concern. Does that mean it’s okay to let people suffer because they were unlucky enough to be born in the wrong country? I say no1. The international community has a responsibility to the world’s population, wherever they live2.

I should add that my (limited) support of the policy was about the idea of an intervention. The execution of the idea was clearly a mess, but no one marching knew that.

Anyway, the book.

As I tend to do, I second guess myself. Was my opinion, if not correct then, at least justifiable? If I didn’t know better, should I have known better? I got “How Britain Broke the World” by Arthur Snell to answer that question, and others.

It starts in 1997 with Kosovo and finishes with Brexit in 2021. I do think it strays from the title at times, which comes across as the book equivalent of click-bait. However, it largely answers my questions.

The simple chronological structure helps put the individual events into perspective. I’d forgotten some of them, and the details of many. In the end, I think my opinion on the Iraq invasion is similar to that of many of the interventions: the argument for doing something was there but the execution was poor3.

If there’s something to take away, it’s that we don’t learn.

You can see that because, weirdly, this is a very current book. By which I mean that shortly after reading various sections, I’d come across some contemporary event that was about the same thing. Russia. The Middle East. The US-UK “special relationship.” It’s all there and it’s all ongoing.

I can’t say I’m now an expert on any of these events or situations. It’s all complicated. Many of the challenges we have are from people who are trying to give simple solutions to complex problems4. But I can say that I am better informed than I was. To paraphrase, Donald Rumsfeld, I now have fewer unknown unknowns.


  1. It’s a slightly odd realisation to finally figure out that you don’t believe in the concept of a country. Not as in I deny that they exist, obviously, but in the sense that your potential shouldn’t be constrained by the place you happen to have been born. ↩︎
  2. Deciding what are universal rights has been a challenge, too. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights seems pretty good to me, though arguably it come from a liberal, western perspective so perhaps I would? ↩︎
  3. I realise this isn’t a wholly original take. I’m just slow on the uptake sometimes. ↩︎
  4. That’s Brexit in a nutshell. ↩︎

Wilt on High

“Wilt on High” is another one of those books that I read because a number of people said “if you like Douglas Adams, you’ll enjoy Tom Sharpe.” This book was picked arbitrarily by virtue of being available in a second hand bookstore for 50p.

Since it’s the third book in the series staring Wilt and I’ve not read any of the others, there were some references to the backstory that I missed. I don’t think those details were absolutely critical.

Written in the early eighties, there are aspects that have not dated well. There are references that younger readers will miss or not understand. My understanding of some parts was tenuous. And the occasional description, well, let’s just say you might phrase it differently now.

But it mostly stands up. The petty politics and personalities are still relevant and the writing is good. The dialogue, the bickering and characters are all well conceived. The story is a farce, with different threads coming together towards the end. The humour wouldn’t work if the characters motivations and state of mind were not clear. It’s one of those things that looks easier to do than it is, and it appeared effortless here, which I mean as a big complement.

Having said all that, it’s not terribly like Douglas Adams. While humorous, it’s not as clever as Adams and the writing, while good, is not at the same level. The comparison peters out after “funny” and “well written.” Adams’ obsession with digital watches dates his work a little, but Wilt being so firmly set in early eighties Britain does limit its modern appeal.

What if? 2

Following on from XKCD, “What if?,” and “How to” comes Randal Munroe’s “What if? 2.” It’s another collection of silly questions with scientific, humorous answers. Examples include “Could you eat a cloud?” and “How far could you see if you had an eye as big as the earth?”

It’s as simple as this: if you liked those books, you’ll like this one.

“Incineration of organic matter within it” is a bad feature for an umbrella.

If I have a criticism, it’s that it feels like it’s playing by numbers at this point. All the same ingredients are there. I did enjoy it — I genuinely laughed out loud at parts of it — but it’s not as fresh and original as, well, the original. Is this the fate of all sequels?

Atrocity Archive

I’m not sure that I can explain why it took me so long to read this Charlie Stross book. Some of the references to nineties computing tech dated it a little, but no more than Douglas Adams’ obsession with digital watches. The characters are pretty good, as is the writing. It strays into the mystical, magical world but there was always a logic underpinning the world. (The lack of “logic” in many fantasy books is one of the reasons I generally prefer sci-fi.)

In that sense, I don’t know what to conclude. I quite enjoyed it but the fact that it took me a year to read surely says something?

Jews don’t count

I’ll cut to the chase: David Baddiel’s book about anti-semitism and how it’s often treated as a second-class form of racism is very much a worthwhile read. I’m sure you can find more academic works, or with more detail, but even in this short text, he’s able to passionately and effectively makes his case.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I didn’t fully understand the subject, and it does a nice job of filling in those gaps. As he notes at one point, there are lots of oh yeah, I suppose so, never really thought about it like that moments.

In parts, it’s an uncomfortable read in the sense that it challenges your understanding of the world and likely suggests that you’ve been (inadvertently at least) antisemitic or accepting of the same in others.

If you can manage that level of self-reflection, it’s recommended.

How Westminster Works… and why it doesn’t

If there’s one good thing that has come out of the whole Brexit omnishambles, it’s that my understanding of how British politics works has dramatically increased. I don’t think it’s worth the cost, but understanding how laws are debated and passed is something that should be taught in schools, but isn’t.

Brexit taught me about Proroguing Parliament and the various readings of bills. I learned of the role that committees serve and the works that the Lords do. It made me do homework to find out what a “three line whip” is.

My piecemeal approach to understanding the whole was interesting, but delegating the hard work of structuring it into a cohesive whole was worth it. Thanks, Ian Dunt.

This isn’t a balanced, academic treatise. Rather, it’s pitched as how it doesn’t work with an epilogue suggesting solutions to the worst problems. The writing is energetic, angry even, but clear and structured. This energy is what keeps the book entertaining, in what could have been a dry subject matter.

If you’re familiar with his podcasting work, you might be disappointed by the lack of swearing. If so, make sure you read the acknowledgements. There’s no bad language, but the vignette with his dog is illuminating.