One might think that few people were more annoyed by the 2019 British general election than the conservative author and commentator Ed West. Here he was, preparing to publish his book Small Men on the Wrong Side of History (Little, Brown and Company, 2020), which argues that “the Left is winning and we’re losing”, and the Conservatives romped to one of the most devastating triumphs in British electoral history. Had Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his scheming right hand man Dominic Cummings torpedoed West’s chances for relevance and, more importantly, sales?
Well, no. Firstly, there is nothing especially conservative about the Conservative Party. Johnson is a flamboyant Whig while Cummings is most interested in structural competence. There is nothing essentially wrong with this. Who would you rather have at hand when coronavirus strikes? People who know about science, probability and public health or people who know about Burke? Still, the fact remains that the government is more liberal than conservative, and slapped a formal warning on Daniel Kawczynski MP for attending the National Conservatism conference in Rome. Meanwhile, Britain’s academic, media and charitable institutions are solidly progressive. West’s book is as relevant as it was before.
But people should not just read this book – which, I should acknowledge, I read and commented on when it was in draft form – for the politics. West is one of Britain’s funniest political writers, and the book is rich with humour. “Mum had a column for the Catholic Herald, and so through sheer grit and persistence I had managed to get a commission to write for them.” “When reading this you have to imagine that I’m speaking in a heartless-sounding aristocratic voice.” “One morning in November my wife and I were blessed with a beautiful daughter, after a long and exhausting twenty-four hours; technically, Emma did the majority of the work, but it was definitely a team effort.” This dry humour keeps the pages turning far more smoothly than one might imagine a book about right-wing politics would. It is like going to watch a Scandinavian murder mystery and coming out with a big smile on your face.
West’s breezy tone helps his politics go down. His conservatism is moderate and dispositional, and more focused on outcomes than a priori ideals. Does a smoking ban reduce lung cancer? Very well, there is something to it, conservative anti-statism be damned. West knows preferences are essential to politics, though, and has data to explain them. His empirical inclinations and psychological interests make him a fascinating guide to the political subconscious, such as when he charts the decline of marriage and the rise of progressivism. I wonder if he thinks too little of philosophy – one sentence appears to imply that religious belief depends on “unprovable assumptions” – which makes the leap from descriptive to moral claims broader. Still, he offers a valuable matter-of-fact perspective, and it will be challenging for liberals and leftists who are used to their conservatives being shoutier or stodgier.
But of course, while Ed is entertaining he is no optimist. Progressivism, for him, is spilt religion, as the poet T.E. Hulme described romanticism. West agrees with the Polish political philosopher Ryszard Legutko that liberalism has “sacramental” qualities, and that its idealism is reinforced with hot intolerance of dissent. Yet West’s pessimism doesn’t end there. Thatcherite Tories encouraged “grotesque levels of wealth” and a “moronic public culture”. The populist right includes “some absolutely terrible people”. Brexit is at least something of a false hope.
None of this is wrong, I think, and West’s willingness to dissent from people whom one might expect to be on his “side” make for some of the best passages in the book. There is an excellent section in which West assails the dominance of cities by that “mechanical Jacobin”, the car, which “restricts people’s liberty through fear.” Conservatives who are high on their electoral success in Britain and America should take a shot of sour West as well, and consider his chapter about Conquest’s second law – that “any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing” and consider how much difference their political success is having given the progressive drift of other institutions.
Yet West’s pessimism about politics gives him too little confidence in his own. He is unnecessarily self-deprecating about his excellent Telegraph blog, which he suggests was all knee-jerk anti-leftism but which was sharper and funnier than he gives it credit for. He is acutely sensitive to right-wing hypocrisies, repeatedly qualifying his references to family values with jokes about Tory MPs boning their assistants. Those hypocrisies exist, of course, but how many leftists feel compelled to qualify their sentiments about climate change with jokes about self-righteously environmentalist celebrities quaffing cocktails on their private planes? If the arguments are right, the behaviour of their representatives is secondary.
In a hilarious passage, West recounts being interviewed for a job at Breitbart by Steve Bannon. Bannon, hopped up on Red Bull and tribal outrage, was ranting about how West could “weaponise” this or that current affair. The fireworks did not impress his English sensibilities, but he was also concerned about the hot-headed xenophobia that stewed in comment sections, talk radio and ill-written blogs. He opposed mass immigration, for example – and one of his first books is called The Diversity Illusion – but he had nothing against most immigrants and did not want to be associated with people who abused them.
Ultimately, West has little hope for politics. As Christopher Hitchens said of religion, it “poisons everything”. The death of his father and the illness of his child put stupid social media arguments into perspective, and realised they were “people making themselves upset about non-issues”. Well, perhaps. But while we can avoid Twitter, we can’t avoid politics. Twitter is only on our phones but politics is in our schools, and in our universities, and in our churches, and on our televisions, and in our books, and in our bank accounts, and in our streets. Politics is poisonous, but there are no easily available antidotes.
West has written an engaging, interesting, witty and even moving book, and I would not blame anyone for taking his advice and getting off the Internet, but if the principles defended in it are not taken up with energy and innovation then the book could be looked back on as a funny requiem.