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On the right side of his­tory

Small Men on the Wrong Side of His­tory Ed West Con­sta­ble, €17.99

- Michael Dug­gan

FOR a con­ser­va­tive-minded reader, the open­ing pages of Ed West’s Small Men on the Wrong Side of His­tory may feel like go­ing a few rounds with a boxer, be­ing pum­melled by jabs and up­per­cuts, all in the form of some very mus­cly stats demon­strat­ing that con­ser­vatism is a lost cause. Gasp­ing, spit­ting blood, and able to see out of only one eye, such a reader can take com­fort, how­ever, from the fact that Ed West is ac­tu­ally in his cor­ner, ready to tag him and take a few beat­ings him­self.

There is a kind of mock masochism to the way West lays bare the grow­ing dom­i­nance of pro­gres­sive ideas. And he sees no con­so­la­tion in the the­ory that the young will grow more con­ser­va­tive as they age. This may have been true once, but no more. In the 1990s, the same gen­er­a­tion that had played in rock bands, ex­per­i­mented with drugs, and took the pill over­ran the board­rooms, univer­sity quad­ran­gles and cor­ri­dors of power with all their old at­ti­tudes in­tact (al­though they were by then a lot more com­fort­able with cap­i­tal­ism). Brexit and Trump were messy, nasty win­ning rounds in a bout that will still, in­evitably, be lost.

But let’s pause first, as West him­self does, and ex­am­ine the au­thor’s for­ma­tive years. His fa­ther, Richard, was a leg­endary Fleet Street war cor­re­spon­dent who, over the course of a fortyyear ca­reer, trav­elled the en­tire spec­trum from hard Left to his own “wacky in­ter­pre­ta­tion of con­ser­vatism”. West se­nior ad­mired and re­spected Nel­son Man­dela, but thought the ANC would even­tu­ally make South Africa even worse than it was un­der apartheid. He hated multi­na­tion­als for what they did to the en­vi­ron­ment and to indige­nous groups, and in­deed was once sued by a min­ing com­pany. Even though he wasn’t a smoker, he de­lib­er­ately puffed away on Na­tional No Smok­ing Day. He loathed Thatcheris­m.

The other half of the mar­riage of “bo­hemian con­ser­va­tives” that gave rise to Ed was Mary Kenny who needs no in­tro­duc­tion to Ir­ish news­pa­per read­ers. West was raised Catholic and re­turned to the faith on be­com­ing a fa­ther. He can thus boast of be­ing the first and prob­a­bly last journo to have worked at a 1990s lads’ mag, Nuts, and, later, the Catholic Her­ald.

Th­ese days, West can be found at the ex­cel­lent com­ment web­site Un­herd, writ­ing witty, per­spi­ca­cious bul­letins about cul­ture and pol­i­tics. His Twit­ter feed is re­li­ably var­ied, in­for­ma­tive and en­ter­tain­ing, and free from the in­vec­tive that washes over large parts of the plat­form. Small Men pro­vides 350-plus pages of se­ri­ous, panoramic, nu­anced com­men­tary on how the great public ar­gu­ments of our time have come to pass, all rest­ing on en­gag­ing foun­da­tions of mem­oir and in­tro­spec­tion.

On the other hand, per­haps to meet the de­mands of a book that will need to hold its own amid the argy-bargy of the pol­i­tics and cur­rent af­fairs shelves, West oc­ca­sion­ally adopts a blunter, brasher style, with some throw­away quips rub­bing up awk­wardly against reams of thought­ful anal­y­sis. But the best of his dry hu­mour is here to en­joy all the same. West is re­flex­ively self-dep­re­cat­ing, as when he tells the story of search­ing on Face­book for an old school friend who came from a Labour fam­ily. Ben is now a DJ and looks ef­fort­lessly cool. Ed’s pro­file, on the other hand, shows “a man with a shirt and a side part­ing” and a face “filled with worry and fear”.

The philo­soph­i­cal well­springs of Ed West’s con­ser­vatism lie in ‘his­tor­i­cal util­i­tar­i­an­ism’, the be­lief that if a thing has sur­vived sev­eral hun­dred years, then it serves some hu­man need. As a cor­rel­a­tive to this, con­ser­va­tives carry with them what Russell Kirk de­scribed as a “dis­trust of cal­cu­lat­ing men who would re­con­struct all of so­ci­ety ac­cord­ing to their own ab­stract de­signs”.

Tra­di­tion, on the other hand, “en­ables men to live to­gether with some de­gree of peace.” (Kirk again.) West ap­proves of Ed­mund Burke’s idea that na­tions should find in their his­tory both sources of pride, and prin­ci­ples for nec­es­sary re­form and im­prove­ment. And from Catholi­cism, he draws his aware­ness of the dilemma of con­flict­ing goals — jus­tice and mercy, for in­stance — and the need to keep them in bal­ance some­how.

But deeper still in the con­ser­va­tive mind lies some­thing more pri­mal: fear. West de­tects in the Left’s “nar­ra­tive of lib­er­a­tion” a “darker, more au­thor­i­tar­ian un­der­cur­rent”. Ac­cept­ing op­pos­ing views in a mar­ket­place of ideas, he ar­gues, is “not nat­u­ral to our species”. Only in a small num­ber of so­ci­eties, af­ter many cen­turies of vi­o­lence, have peo­ple reached a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment where this is pos­si­ble.

The Left jeop­ar­dise this by pre­fer­ring the ‘prin­ci­ple of in­jury’ (in­ter­pret­ing op­po­nents’ views in the worst pos­si­ble light) to the ‘prin­ci­ple of char­ity’ (be­gin­ning with the as­sump­tion that the more be­nign in­ter­pre­ta­tion of an op­po­nent’s words is the right one). Con­ser­va­tives like David Cameron who try to make peace with so­cial lib­er­al­ism are on a hid­ing to noth­ing. Pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics must, by its very na­ture, move to­wards ever more rad­i­cal po­si­tions be­cause peo­ple on the Left will al­ways push things fur­ther as part of their com­pe­ti­tion for moral sta­tus. “There are no sur­ren­der pa­pers we can sim­ply sign and get on with our lives,” West sighs.

Small Men on the Wrong Side of His­tory there­fore both ex­plains con­ser­vatism and ex­plores what it is like go­ing about your life, in a world dom­i­nated by pro­gres­sives, with th­ese ideas lodged in your head. West re­calls watch­ing Reser­voir Dogs in the 1990s sur­rounded by school friends laugh­ing their heads off at the ex­treme vi­o­lence, while he se­cretly longed for It’s a Won­der­ful Life and Bed­ford Falls. But he could tell even then that be­ing prud­ish about such things was “low sta­tus”.

West con­fesses that, fear­ing so­cial lep­rosy, he usu­ally opts just to keep his mouth shut when he finds him­self in the com­pany of like­able peo­ple who have au­to­mat­i­cally as­sumed he is a lib­eral like them. But this, he knows, is sim­ply adding to the prob­lem: peo­ple on the left never meet oth­ers who might help them to see the other point of view. In­stead they rely on TV and the in­ter­net for en­light­en­ing con­tests of ideas. (Good luck with that.) In­trigu­ingly, West ar­gues that the fall of the Ber­lin Wall was the mak­ing of the mod­ern left, be­cause it meant they had to turn away from “eco­nomic ar­gu­ments, which they are not good at win­ning, to­wards so­cial ones, which they are”.

He is dead right too (at least about Lon­don, where both he and I live) when he says that, in so­phis­ti­cated cir­cles, ‘right-wing’ is al­most al­ways a pe­jo­ra­tive. (But, note, the ranks of th­ese same right-bait­ing so­phis­ti­cates will in­clude very well-off peo­ple with flash cars, sec­ond homes abroad, chil­dren at board­ing school, all the trap­pings of right-wing eco­nomic suc­cess.) When he tries to talk to Bri­tish peo­ple about the Dutch or Ger­man health sys­tems, in ways which might sug­gest that the NHS is not quite all it’s cracked up to be, he sees his words “pop­ping like bub­bles be­fore they reach their ears”.

There is, by the way, plenty in this book about the blind spots, hypocrisie­s and fail­ings of the right as well. For starters, West blames the sup­pos­edly free­dom-lov­ing Con­ser­vatism of the 1980s and on­wards for hav­ing en­cour­aged a “mo­ronic public cul­ture”. He seems happy enough to join Hil­lary Clin­ton in hurl­ing mil­lions of Trump vot­ers — “the pre­ma­turely dy­ing in Amer­ica’s de­pressed, opi­ate-rid­dled heart­lands” — into her in­fa­mous ‘bas­ket of de­plorables’. He is scathing too about how his side has han­dled en­vi­ron­men­tal ques­tions. (Like his fa­ther, he hates cars.) West ex­cels at for­ag­ing in the weirder un­der­growth of aca­demic and other re­search, so that we don’t have to. Lib­er­als, it turns out, are much more likely than right-lean­ing peo­ple to say that an al­most cir­cu­lar shape was in fact a cir­cle.

In Amer­ica, con­ser­va­tive house­holds give 30% more to char­ity than lib­eral ones, de­spite the lat­ter hav­ing earn­ings that are 6% higher. Re­main­ers were far more likely to ob­ject to a fam­ily mem­ber mar­ry­ing a Brex­i­teer than vice versa. In 2016, Hil­lary Clin­ton car­ried 15 of the 16 states with the prici­est hous­ing, while Don­ald Trump won all 22 of the cheap­est states. Mean­while, nu­mer­ous stud­ies have shown that the smarter you are aca­dem­i­cally, the more likely you are to twist the ev­i­dence to suit your be­liefs and group iden­tity. The data about lib­eral dom­i­nance of Amer­i­can cam­puses is pre­sented in eye-wa­ter­ing de­tail. And so on.

Ed West of­fers a some­what dif­fer­ent flavour of con­ser­vatism to, say, Dou­glas Murray or Peter Hitchens or Jor­dan Peter­son. While he is, for in­stance, scep­ti­cal about mass im­mi­gra­tion and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, some­times with­er­ingly so, he is also more dif­fi­dent than oth­ers in his camp; more prone to self-doubt, per­haps, and will­ing to in­clude him­self among the “me­dia gob­shites” on both Left and Right who earn a liv­ing “mak­ing the world an an­grier place”.

In the fi­nal chap­ter, West mov­ingly re­counts his young son’s brush with death and how this led him to step back from the “out­rage ma­chine” as it ground away on­line. Pol­i­tics was mak­ing him “deeply mis­er­able, and a bad per­son; well, an even worse one”. Lurk­ing deep within his book is a wist­ful, heart­felt plea for a re­turn to a bit more give-and-take: “I won­der if the sort of life my par­ents lived, of long-held friend­ships across the po­lit­i­cal di­vide and po­lit­i­cally di­verse din­ner par­ties might soon look as anachro­nis­tic as the cig­a­rettes they all smoked around the table.”

God be with the days, if not the to­bacco.

 ?? Pic­ture: Lionel Ciron­neau/AP ?? West ar­gues that the fall of the Ber­lin Wall was the mak­ing of the mod­ern left, be­cause it meant they had to turn away from “eco­nomic ar­gu­ments, which they are not very good at win­ning, to­wards so­cial ones, which they are”.
Pic­ture: Lionel Ciron­neau/AP West ar­gues that the fall of the Ber­lin Wall was the mak­ing of the mod­ern left, be­cause it meant they had to turn away from “eco­nomic ar­gu­ments, which they are not very good at win­ning, to­wards so­cial ones, which they are”.
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