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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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