O’Rourke is all too aware that, as titles go, A Short History of Brexit is problematic. For one thing, as the defeat of the withdrawal agreement has confirmed, this tale, however it turns out, will not be short. For another, the story is rapidly unfolding: the proofs of the book sent out to reviewers had empty space at the end for last-minute updates – the finished book takes events up to Christmas. It might indeed be questioned whether such a project is worth doing while the outcome is so uncertain. But O’Rourke’s book provides a bracing and absorbing answer. As he puts it towards the end, Brexit has already been “a hugely informative, if costly, civics lesson for the people of Britain, Ireland, and the rest of Europe” and he is superbly well fitted to draw out that lesson for the general reader.
The book may be tough going for those not electrified by the intricacies of twentieth-century international law or the workings and dissolutions of EU sub-committees. O’Rourke is mistaken if he thinks occasionally describing the atmosphere in the Old Library in his college helps to leaven it. He also refers readers to Tim Shipman’s All Out War (2016) so often that they might start wondering how much Shipman has paid him. But those who read A Short History of Brexit will have a distinct advantage: they might actually start to understand what has happened to the United Kingdom.
this is a book that, happily, throws up no surprises, at least in its form: it is short, it is history, and it is, you guessed it, about Brexit. It is a history with a curious history itself. It was originally written by O’Rourke, an Irishman teaching at a British university to explain to a French audience what the hell the UK had done and what it was up to now, then translated into English by him. The joy of a good history book is that it changes how you view the present, whether simply from the flash of recognition at the name of a street, or a greater appreciation of current events.
The fact that Boris Johnson could easily have gone to Remain, leaving Nigel Farage as the face of the Leave campaign, meant Remain could have won it. What O’Rourke does not explore is how decades of media vilification of the EU shaped those attitudes that probably meant, when in doubt, voters would default to Leave.
O’Rourke brings the action up to the end of 2018 and Theresa May’s pulling of the meaningful vote. He admits to drawing on existing Brexit literature to cover the negotiations, and he is also clearly frustrated at not knowing the outcome (aren’t we all?).
But this is an excellent and authoritative exploration of the roads to Brexit, one that is erudite, rigorous and highly readable.