Broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby on Britain today: ‘Just alienation, frustration, resentment and contempt’

The British historian and journalist on UK elections, his new book, Russia’s war psyche and Tony O’Reilly’s holiday home


Election night in Britain used to be the Dimbleby family business. Former war correspondent Richard Dimbleby hosted the BBC’s first all-night results coverage on television in 1955. His eldest son David Dimbleby hosted 10 in a row from 1979 to 2017. For three of those – Tony Blair’s hat-trick of New Labour victories from 1997 – David’s rival for ratings was his younger brother, Jonathan Dimbleby, who anchored ITV’s coverage throughout the night.

When the UK goes to the polls next month there will be a Dimbleby-shaped hole in Britons’ election night experience for only the second time in 45 years. The genial Jonathan, a historian and journalist, grins widely as he insists the British nation will cope.

Does he plan to stay up all night at home anyway, munching crisps on the sofa and dashing to the kitchen to boil the kettle in between results from obscure marginal constituencies?

“I try not to stay up all night, but I did last time [in 2019],” Dimbleby says as we sit down in the venerable old Reform Club on London’s Pall Mall. .

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The Reform Club was where the fictional Phileas Fogg set off to go around the world in 80 days in the Jules Verne novel. For the former globe-trotting broadcaster Dimbleby, it has been a journey lasting closer to 80 years: he becomes an octogenarian next month.

He reveals he was horrified at the UK’s last general election result in 2019. “I thought to myself: ‘We got Donald Trump in the US and now we’re getting Boris Johnson? Save us!’”

The incumbent Conservative prime minister Rishi Sunak appears likely to lose heavily on July 4th to a Labour led by the man often derided as a lawyerly fun vacuum, Keir Starmer. Is Dimbleby looking forward to late-night news of Starmer’s expected triumph? “I’ll try to stay awake,” he says, eyes twinkling.

When Dimbleby hosted his first all-night election special in 1997, he told ITV’s viewers they were witnessing “one of the great moments in British postwar politics … a truly seismic shift” as the Blair era began. Does now feel like it did in 1997? “No,” he says, without hesitating.

“There was a sense of ‘glad tomorrow’ in 1997. That is not there now. There is just a huge amount of alienation, frustration, resentment and contempt. If like me you believe in democracy, the rule of law and parliament, you’re aghast at the degree to which the British public seem to be absolutely uninterested in anything beyond general soundbites.”

Days after our interview, provocateur Nigel Farage announces his electoral comeback, further churning the waters of Britain’s political culture war. When we speak, Dimbleby already seems perturbed by Westminster’s tribal farrago.

“I feel intense frustration as I see the lies and evasions that politicians churn out as a means of trying to seduce the public. I think there is a real Tweedledumb and Tweedledee aspect [to this election], and that’s why it is different from 1997. I’m glad I am not a part of it, to be honest.”

He double-taps the heavy book that lies on the table in front of us. “History – that’s what occupies me now.”

Dimbleby is best known as a broadcaster for BBC and ITV. He has reported from all over the world, including the North, and has presented ground-breaking shows such as the This Week episode, Death on the Rock, that led to accusations of a British state shoot-to kill operation against IRA members in Gibraltar. Yet alongside his journalistic endeavours, Dimbleby is also an accomplished historian. Over the past 12 years he has written a series of books about the second World War. His latest, the tapped book on the table – Endgame 1944: How Stalin Won the War – was published recently.

It recounts in terrifying detail Operation Bagration, the Soviet summer offensive that bludgeoned the German army from the east following the Allies’ D-Day landings in the west. The Russians, however, did most of the heavy lifting, decimating Adolf Hitler’s forces after a huge strategic feint, ensuring Nazism’s ultimate defeat.

Although it is a weighty, historical tome filled with the empirical fruits of three years’ graft, Endgame also reads like a pacy thriller. This book is not an academic indulgence. The historical narrative is interspersed with personal tales of German and Russian soldiers. It isn’t just a book about war; it is an account of the fears and triumphs of people.

“We abstract ourselves from the reality of war. We use language such as collateral damage, rather than talking about the people who are dying. We talk about weaponry, guns. But often not about what they do to people. People’s stories are vital, whoever they are. Whether they are at the top of the tree politically, or having their guts torn out on the battlefield.”

The Russians lost nine million soldiers on the battlefield during the war, a multiple of the western Allies. Does Dimbleby, who has travelled widely in the region, believe Russians to this day feel other countries are ungrateful for their sacrifice?

“That feeling is deeply held in Russia: a mixture of astonishment and resentment. ‘Why do they not give us our dues? Why are we not invited to march alongside them? Why are we not treated as honoured partners in the destruction of Nazism?’”

Dimbleby says Vladimir Putin, the Russian president who two years ago ordered the invasion of Ukraine, trades on his people’s resentment over the West’s historical ingratitude. The old Russian war psyche, which thinks little of sacrificing huge numbers of troops in the “meat grinder”, can also still be seen in its tactics in Ukraine today. Why do they do it?

“All Russian history is filled with the proletariat obeying orders unless they have a sudden revolution. It’s a sense of fatalism – ‘we’ve been persecuted all our lives, what’s different in being persecuted today?’ You know the saying: ‘live today because you might die tomorrow’? Well, the Russian psyche is: ‘die today because you might live tomorrow’.”

Dimbleby believes Russia’s proven capacity for inflicting and withstanding war suffering means it “cannot be defeated” in Ukraine and a negotiated solution that involves Ukrainians sacrificing territory is inevitable. Talk by UK politicians of Ukrainian victory is “nonsense”, he says.

Dimbleby suggests a solution to avert further bloodshed might lie in a ceasefire that leads to an armistice, similar to the one that ended fighting in Korea, with neither side accepting defeat.*

A compelling part of Endgame deals with the Russian discovery for the first time of Holocaust horrors at Majdanek, a Nazi death camp in Poland that it liberated during Operation Bagration. Jews were massacred there. Dimbleby says he “hates and fears” anti-Semitism, and also the anti-Muslim prejudice that has been stirred up during Israel’s war in Gaza.

“Had I been a marching person, I think I would have been marching in the case of Gaza, marching after October 7th for the victims of Hamas, and I would also be marching now for the right of the Palestinians to be treated with humanity and to have a state.”

He criticises pro-Palestinian marchers who chant “from the river to the sea”, as he believes it implies a future that “frightens” Israelis. Yet he also cannot understand why the British government does not do more to criticise the “horrific acts committed against civilians in Gaza by the [Israeli prime minister Binyamin] Netanyahu’s government”.

“You condemn horrors – you don’t retreat from that.”

Dimbleby also seems disturbed by the resilience of Trump despite his criminal conviction and ongoing divisive rhetoric. “I’m worried about Trump’s hold on reality, even more than I worry about [president Joe] Biden’s stumbling. It looks like [the race] will be razor thin. Woe betide America. I think it is really terrifying.”

He is more effusive about his friend, King Charles, who is in the middle of a return to public duties after treatment for an unspecified form of cancer. Dimbleby made a deeply personal filmed profile of Charles in the 1990s when he was Prince of Wales, and again in 2022 when he became king after the death of Queen Elizabeth.

The two men have been close friends for decades.

“It was quite a shock [for the king] to have the [cancer] diagnosis. It was swiftly followed by frustration at not being able to do his job. It doesn’t surprise me that some of his frustration might also have been frustrating for some of those around him,” he says, a reference to the monarch’s known tendency to get a little crotchety if things don’t go his way.

Dimbleby says Charles is well versed in the history of his nation with Ireland’s, including the Troubles and their legacy: “He is very sensitive to language. He knows where the fire crackers and time bombs are, and the sensitivities and how you respond to minimise them.”

Dimbleby spent time in the North early in his career at the outset of the Troubles. He recalls once filing an Easter report that referred to “tribes” in nationalist circles, and how this did not go down well with the republican movement’s then publicity chief, Danny Morrison. According to Dimbleby, Morrison, whom he described as a “charming monster”, sent him a letter warning him he was no longer welcome in republican areas of the North.

Years later, as Blair’s Labour worked to bring peace to the region, Dimbleby played his own small role in events there. Former Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam used him as a conduit to convince Chris Patten, one of his closest friends, to help with the overhaul of the North’s police service.

As much as he likes the North, Dimbleby says he prefers the Republic, especially around west Cork and in particular Skibbereen. His friend Baroness Margaret Jay, the daughter of former prime minister Jim O’Callaghan, owns a house in Glandore, where the former newspaper magnate Tony O’Reilly, who died last month, was a neighbour. Dimbleby says he visited O’Reilly’s house on several occasions with Jay.

“What an extraordinary figure he was. Margaret served as a director of his newspaper business. O’Reilly used to find the most exotic locations around the world for board meetings.”

Our previously freewheeling conversation ends on a more sombre note – my mistake, and one which an expert interviewer such as Dimbleby would never have made. I leave it late to ask about the recent death of his younger brother Nicholas, a sculptor who had motor neuron disease. Watching his brother suffer reinforced a belief in Dimbleby that terminally ill people should be given the right to die, and be assisted with it. He promised Nicholas he would advocate for this.

“I understand people’s fears of slippery slope. Any legislation for assisted dying would protect all of us from that slope. I want to be protected from it. But I don’t think we will stop this widespread and increasing sense that it is a human right to end your life when you are terminally ill. It would save us from the worst kinds of dying. You can protect yourself and those you love from immense suffering.”

Life’s endgame arrives in different ways, whether it be amid brutality on the battlefields of Russia or in a hospital bed surrounded by loved ones. For Dimbleby, how it ends is as precious as life itself.

*This article was amended to include this sentence on June 9th