WTF (2017) is Robert Peston’s fifth and latest book and focusses on ‘Brexit’, by which I refer to the UK Government’s decision to exit the European Union (EU), following a referendum in 2016. Peston is the political editor of ITV news and has followed a journalistic career focussing on business and the economy. The ‘WTF’ of the title refers to the unexpected outcome of the referendum; an outcome which shocked Peston and made him question whether he really understood the British population that he was reporting to. As the cover states, Peston seeks to answer three questions: What have we done? Why did it happen? and How do we take back control?
The book is an open letter of sorts to his father, Lord Peston, a notable economist who passed away in April 2016. Both Peston and his late father were state school educated: ‘comps rule!’ as Peston puts it. While that doesn’t necessarily give Peston the platform of speaker for the working man or woman, it did nevertheless surprise me.
So, what’s the book like? Well, I should firstly say that it’s well written. Peston has an easy writing style and avoids economics jargon, making the 288 pages a fairly light while engaging read. One of the surprising things about WTF is Peston’s tone and openness. He’s not averse to using the occasional swear word or being critical of government policy, far more so in fact than I had expected. Peston nevertheless approaches his subject in a balanced way, seeking to understand why over half of those who voted, voted to leave the EU. As Peston notes, ‘we might not love the bureaucracy and remoteness of the EU, but what defined us as a nation was moaning about it, not actually tearing up our membership card’.
Peston’s investigation adopts an historical approach, as he looks at subjects spanning declining social mobility, the stagnation of incomes, ‘austerity’, the disparity between incomes in the north and south of the UK, the rise of the super rich, and the empowerment of capital over labour, including organised labour in the form of unions. All of which, Peston argues, contributed to the referendum outcome. Peston also looks at other contributing factors, such as the way in which the remain and leave campaigns were run, the adoption of social media and analytics to determine which content would hit the hardest. A particular quote (from Roland Rudd, the ‘In’ campaign’s treasurer) summed things up for me: ‘Craig Oliver ran the campaign on the slogan “Don’t Risk it”,’ he says. ‘What we failed to understand was there were too many voters with absolutely nothing to risk.’ One gap in Peston’s analysis, however, is the cultural aspect of Brexit and the extent to which individuals voted to leave the EU based upon their desire to return to the perceived halcyon days of the British empire. For a relatively short book, Peston packs a lot in and it’s understandable that he can’t cover everything.
Often with these kind of books, the author prescribes some half-hearted remedies, if at all. That isn’t the case here. Peston identifies a range of measures which he considers will help address some of the social issues which gave rise to the referendum outcome. Though as Peston says, ‘the priority is to fix the country’s structural flaws, those that hobble us out of the EU or in.’
If you’re interested in how ‘Brexit’ came about, but want something readable and free from economic jargon, I’d highly recommend WTF.