Small Men on the Wrong Side of History: The Decline, Fall and Unlikely Return of Conservatism by Ed West

Ed West finds himself in a predicament familiar to many conservatives who live in the trendier parts of London, and in various other places too. A few months before his 40th birthday, it dawned on him that “my worldview is dying”, for no one he knows is “becoming more conservative”.

Instead they are becoming more left-wing. Whole fields, “among them teaching, academia, journalism and science”, have “gone from being politically mixed a generation ago to overwhelmingly Left-liberal today”.

And according to West, “the Left has also developed a moral monopoly”, so

“those outside of the faith are under an unspoken obligation to prove their moral worth before their views can be considered, just as non-believers in highly religious societies have an air of suspicion hanging over their every word. Because of this, one of the de facto expectations for conservatives in public life is that they must denounce those to the Right of them, and so the boundary of what is acceptable shifts Leftward…”

West’s book was written before the Conservatives won the general election of December 2019. During that campaign, Labour found itself losing ground with its traditional voters because Jeremy Corbyn was known to be unpatriotic, for he had shown he supported neither the Queen nor the armed forces, but was instead on the side of various vile terrorists.

Boris Johnson’s ability to appeal to the conservatism of the working class, something achieved by every successful Conservative leader since Benjamin Disraeli, falls outside the scope of West’s book.

He instead offers us a wonderfully pessimistic account of what is happening inside the supposedly educated middle class, where “Right-wing” is now “an irredeemably tarnished identity”.

Nelson Mandela has a statue in Parliament Square, while Margaret Thatcher does not, for hers would be vandalised.

The eight years from 2009 to 2017 passed, West says, “without a single joke on any BBC comedy show about the president of the United States (unless I missed one)”, because Barack Obama was president.

The coverage of politics on Radio 4 has come to seem so “pointless and idiotic”, and Brexit has turned so many people in public life “into fanatics and fantasists”,

“I just turn on Radio 3 with its nice soothing classical music; occasionally they’ll interrupt the tunes to have something about encouraging diversity in the arts but I imagine it’s just one of those things they have to say, like in communist systems where, whatever your job, you had to repeat some token quote by Marx once in a while so they didn’t hassle you.”

West comes to think the fall of the Berlin Wall was a setback not just for hardline Leftists, but for conservatives too:

“It moved our opponents away from economic arguments, which they’re not very good at winning, towards social ones, which they are…the Right replies with polemics that are shouty and self-satisfied, and too little explore where our arguments have failed to find an audience and why people find us so repulsive. Where did we go wrong? Or as Michael Douglas’s character says in Falling Down, one of the few recent Hollywood films that had a conservative message, ‘I’m the bad guy? How’d that happen?’ (Admittedly he’d shot quite a few people by this stage and was stalking and threatening to kill his ex-wife, so maybe we’ll gloss over that bit.)”

There is an enjoyably throw-away tone to this, and a willingness to admit when the facts do not quite fit the theory. Like many conservatives, West derives a kind of perverse pleasure from the mishaps in his life, his inability to fit in, his need to keep quiet about his political opinions during social events in Crouch End, where he might all too easily be mistaken for a Nazi if he were to speak out.

I have never met him, but I was lucky enough in the 1980s to see his father, Richard West, a bohemian, not to say anarchic figure who would come into the Duke of York, the pub nearest to the offices of The Spectator in Doughty Street, often back from a journalistic assignment in Africa, Asia or Latin America, full of amusing and penetrating observations which did not fit any political orthodoxy.

For while Richard West had long since become disillusioned by the Left, to which he had given his allegiance in his youth, he was infuriated by Conservatives who, devoid of reverence for the past, promoted the desecration of Britain’s town centres at the hands of property developers, the destruction of the railways and the untrammelled triumph of the motor car.

Some of the most enjoyable passages in this book are about the author’s father. In the early 1980s, while reporting on the war in Nicaragua between the communist Sandinistas and the American-backed Contras, Richard West and another writer, Peter Kemp, found themselves “surrounded by an angry mob of Sandinista-supporting men, increasingly looking like they might turn violent against the gringos in their midst.”

West remonstrated in Spanish with the crowd, pointing to Kemp and saying, “and to think here you are threatening a veteran of the Spanish Civil War”.

The crowd backed down, “shame-faced and respectful towards the old English gentleman they had only a minute earlier threatened to pull to pieces”.

The joke here was that Kemp – a delightful man who in between heroic spells of soldiering sold life insurance, worried about his health and wrote books – was one of the handful of Englishmen who had fought for Franco.

The problem here is that liberals won’t find that funny – though as Ed West remarks, while the Nationalists didn’t have Orwell, Hemingway or Laurie Lee in their army, on the other hand “they didn’t massacre any nuns”.

How is the conservative case to be made to people who don’t already feel the truth of it? The task often seems impossible, for by voicing what one takes to be conservative verities, one only creates shock, distress and antagonism.

But anyone who already has conservative sympathies will find wonderful things in West’s book, and sketches of many figures who have passed into obscurity, for example Virginia Woolf’s uncle, the Victorian High Court judge James Fitzjames Stephen, who

“rejected the radical idea of a ‘brotherhood of man’, stating that: ‘It is not love that one wants from the great mass of mankind, but respect and justice.’ Are we brothers? he asked. ‘Are we even fiftieth cousins?’ In his book Liberty, Equality and Fraternity – none of which he entirely approved of – Stephen argued that ‘Humanity is only I writ large, and love for Humanity generally means zeal for MY notions as to what men should be and how they should live.”

Towards the end of the book, West is rung up by Steve Bannon, who talks on and on in a revolutionary tone about how they are going “to overthrow the tired old Republican establishment and put their own nationalist candidate in the White House”.

West listens – this is in September 2014 – and thinks to himself:

“What on earth is he on about? They’ll never get some crazy outsider with no experience elected president on a populist ticket!”

Bannon offers him a job running the Breitbart UK site, which West turns down, for though he reckons he could “probably handle being a social leper”, he couldn’t bear “the thought of hating myself”, because of the tone in which he expected he would find himself writing about immigrants.

And yet cheerfulness keeps breaking in, and an engaging refusal to claim – though he canters though various thinkers, including Augustine, Hobbes and the dreadful Rousseau – that he has discovered an impregnable philosophical case for his beliefs:

“as I got older I came to accept all my political stances are effectively based on irrational feelings of annoyance about smugness and sanctimony.”

West comes to see that heredity matters more than liberals think it should be allowed to matter. He contends that

“Our thirties are the decade we become who we were destined to be, our true selves emerging as the pressure to conform reduces… We are free – to become our parents. Inevitably, much as I resisted it, I was starting to think like my dad, in particular his belief that the Conservatives aren’t actually interested in conserving much. Nor, once they had cut down the state, did they have any ideas about what holds society together.”

In my eagerness to review this book, I find I have jumped the gun: I realise belatedly that it will not be published until 19th March. But it is worth waiting for, because instead of expounding a system, it describes with tremendous vividness the mentality of a Tory who will not be imprisoned in a system.