Bruce Newsome finds that despite its comedic pretence, Boris Starling’s ‘The Bluffer’s Guide to Brexit’ offers more pertinent information and fair analysis than most of the pseudo-academic polemics who pretend to know more than everybody else.
Book review: The Bluffer’s Guide to Brexit, by Boris Starling, published by Haynes Publishing Group, June 2018. 128 pages. ISBN: 9781785212185. UK £6.99 / US $9.95 / CAN $11.95
Even if you’re aware of the Bluffer’s Guides to Cricket or Cats or Golf you’d probably not expect to see one on Brexit, but it’s real – the first political book in the series. Let’s hope to see more because this one is both seriously informative and hilariously irreverent.
This is a small book, just 3 inches by 5 inches – small enough to slip into your back pocket should you be embarrassed to be recognized as a bluffer. It’s thin, with about 100 pages of main body text, broken up into 14 chapters, such that most chapters can be read in the minutes between train stations.
Yet this is not thin gruel – those thin chapters are rich with inventive structures, such that no chapter quite looks the same. You’ll find bulleted comparisons of “false claims” and “winners and losers” on each side of the referendum, explanatory lists of the member states and key personalities, tables, and call-out boxes.
The structure has the look of an expert textbook – you’ll be genuinely informed. At the same time, you’ll be entertained. That’s an impressive combination.
The book achieves a delicate balance between intelligence and accessibility, between non-fiction and parody. The book ends with a glossary of Brexit terms – running to about 20 pages beyond the 100 pages of nominal chapters. The last printed pages are lined for your notes. However, most of the footnotes are comedic asides; the book gives no sources, bibliography, or index.
The conceit that ties the studious and the facetious is that you’re looking to bluff through a conversation on the subject. This conceit is easy to achieve given the complexities of the subject. Take the book’s advice to bluff your way out of any discussion of Article 50 (the EU’s constitutional item that allows a member state to leave), by suggesting that Article 5 is more pertinent. The bluffer is told to assume that nobody will have read Article 5. Yet Article 5 is a howlingly funny illustration of why the EU’s constitution is so disputed and abused – it’s the one about the principles of conferral, subsidiarity, and proportionality. Elsewhere, the book advises you to throw those terms about too, for the same reason. The EU’s constitution under-specified them in less than 240 words, partly in terms of each other. Now you can better appreciate why nobody can agree how Britain is supposed to leave.
The book neatly weaves the ridiculousness of the EU with the ridiculousness of British politics. You’ll find cringe-worthy quotes from the key personalities (such as George Osborne’s warning of economic emergency on the day after a vote for Brexit) and from entertainers (such as Noel Gallagher’s opposition to a referendum on the ground that 99 percent of people are as thick as pig manure – I cleaned up that one). You’ll find many quotes from “Yes Minister” – reminding us what great British political satire looks like – and what is so inferior about our popular culture today, which is why this book stands out.
For objectivity, I’ll reassure you that I had never heard of the author or his other works. In fact, when I first saw his name (“Boris Starling”) on the cover, above the legend “instant wit and wisdom”, I distractedly misread it as a marketing pun: Boris-startling, as in: a Boris Johnson-startling book of instant wit and wisdom.
I frankly admit that the author surprised me: a novelist and script-writer turns out to be informed enough to make jokes out of institutions, not just quotes. For instance, he describes the serious issue of super-majorities: this is an important issue because Brexiteers were promised that a simple majority would be good enough, but Remainers claim that the majority wasn’t big enough. Britain’s constitution allows for simple majorities on everything except to demand a super-majority before allowing a general election early in the five-year cycle. On everything else, the government can get what it wants with one more vote for than against. I’ll add what Boris Starling does not: the public often misunderstands the government’s working majority as a super-majority, but a working majority just means that the government’s party holds more seats in the House of Commons than all the other parties put together (the British super-majority is two-thirds, whereas a simple majority is one vote more than half of all votes).
Now for the funny aside on the serious issue: the author adds a footnote suggesting that confused readers should write to Theresa May, because she – in 2017 – won a super-majority in order to call an early general election, then lost the working majority that she had inherited from David Cameron. The author’s suggestion is both funny and enlightening. Given that Theresa May lost seats on her claim of “strong and stable” leadership, why didn’t she resign? Now, one year on from that debacle, given that Theresa May still has not killed the myth that Brexiteers need a super-majority in a second referendum, why hasn’t she made way for someone more articulate or resolute?
I second Boris Starling’s advice to write to Theresa May, because she and her entourage seem isolated from the public – I cannot otherwise explain her lurches from one unpopular policy to another.
Please read his book first, then send it to her with annotations, because she and her entourage seem shallow on what Brexit really means (“Brexit means Brexit” is her very own circular fallacy or, as Starling puts it, “something between stating the bleeding obvious and channelling her inner yoda”).
I was surprised to find in this little comedic book more pertinent information and fair analysis than in most of the pseudo-academic polemics by the innumerable politicians, journalists, and think-tanks that pretend to know more than everybody else.
There’s a larger lesson to be learned: a fair and balanced look at European politics inevitably reveals the ridiculousness. British writers must be holding themselves back, or being held back by producers and editors, because we’ve seen little on Brexit as good as this little book – either serious or comedic.