Gavin Esler is looking forward to coming to Belfast. He last appeared at Imagine! festival in 2019 at an event called Why Leaders Lie? This year he’s enthusiastic to be back talking about his book How Britain Ends, though he is disappointed not to have the excuse to meet up with old friends and walk the streets he knows so well from living and working in the city. Ahead of his appearance at this year’s festival, he chats to Alan Meban.
”I’m afraid pints of Guinness would feature in this, they always do” he jokes when I chat to him over Zoom ahead of our conversation in front of a virtual audience on Saturday 27th at 8pm.
Back in the 17th century and during the Thirty Years War, the German Protestant Eslers got out and came to Scotland. Getting hold of land between Ballymena and Belfast seeded Eslers on this side of the North Channel. During the Troubles, his father got a job in Northern Ireland and they moved over from Glasgow.
“Not many people were moving that way, but he did. And I came across as a teenager and then eventually, because I fell in love with the place, my first job was the Belfast Telegraph.”
That was followed by a four-year stint at BBC Northern Ireland.
“And then as soon as soon as I left and went to London, they sent me back all the time, which was fine with me.”
Esler spent eight years as the BBC’s chief North American correspondent back when Bush senior and Clinton were in the White House. Published more than two decades ago, his book United States of Anger now seems remarkably prescient in its analysis of the souring American dream. Esler tells me that “during the Clinton years when everything seemed to be going well – the economy was going well, American films and music and hip hop and so on were taking over the world – but there was something going wrong in America.”
“And a voice was found to channel that who was called Donald Trump. Now I happen to see something similar going wrong in the United Kingdom. Various voices have channelled it and said, ‘Oh, vote for Brexit and we’ll all be fine’. Whereas unfortunately it seems to me, for this country Brexit is actually making things much worse.”
How Britain Ends explores the weakness of an unwritten constitution, argues that devolution that has created a secret federation, and finds a brand of English nationalism that doesn’t particularly value the ‘unionist’ part of the Conservative and Unionist Party (to give the Tories their full title). Esler concludes that without some radical changes, the United Kingdom as it stands is (to paraphrase the more articulate author) going to hell in a handcart.
What provoked him to write How Britain Ends?
“Two things really got to me. One was that I thought it was time to challenge unionists – not just in Northern Ireland, but also in Scotland, and if there are any in England – who are they, and what is the case for continuing the Union that’s been going on for 400 years. We’ve reinvented ourselves every hundred years. Last time was 1922. What does it mean being British anymore, if anything?
“And to challenge nationalists of all kinds – not just in Northern Ireland, but also Scotland and Wales – what does it mean to be independent in an interdependent world? How does that work?
“Those are the two areas that got me going. And then as I travelled up and down the country from Shetland to Cornwall, there were quite a few anecdotes and people who said to me, things which made me think the United Kingdom, as it’s currently constructed, isn’t going to last for another decade.”