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On the right side of history
Small Men on the Wrong Side of History Ed West Constable, €17.99
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.