Small Men on the Wrong Side of History: The Decline, Fall, and Unlikely Return of Conservatism, by Ed West (Constable, 479 pp., $28.00)
On paper, British conservatism is in good health: Boris Johnson is the third successive Conservative prime minister to form a government; the Tories hold a robust majority in Parliament; and by the next election, the party will likely have held power for a decade and a half. Brexit, which began as a pipe dream of the Euro-skeptic right, won the support of a majority of voters in 2016 and finally became a reality in January. And so, you might expect conservative journalist Ed West’s memoir-cum-tract, in which he reflects on the fortunes of his tribe, to strike an optimistic, even triumphant, tone.
There is nothing cheery, however, about Small Men on the Wrong Side of History. West believes that these recent electoral victories are minor, and that his side is more or less doomed. Like England’s dwindling Catholic population in the century after the Reformation, “conservatism has become increasingly concentrated in more provincial areas, a shrinking and often poorly educated community led by a small, reactionary aristocracy who still support the old faith.” According to West, a Catholic himself, we’re living through a second reformation that will be “long, painful and boring, and both sides are going to get more tedious and hysterical, just as divisions the last time around drove Catholics and Protestants into prolonged periods of insanity.” It doesn’t matter that conservative values remain popular enough for ballot-box wins. Elite opinion is left-liberal—and increasingly uniformly so. As West sees it, once ideas hold sway over that top tier, their spread is unstoppable. The Left’s mantras signal high status; the Right’s come with social baggage. The small men of the book’s title are those hopelessly resisting conservatism’s inevitable slide into irrelevance, but the phrase is taken from Barack Obama’s description of al-Qaida: “another group of guys not entirely comfortable with the modern world,” as West puts it.
Rather than indulging the idea that politics is a good-faith battle of ideas, in which the side with the best arguments comes out on top, West views it as a messy tangle of societal, cultural, and psychological factors. In keeping with this approach, he intertwines his own fortunes with that of conservatism, and does so with humor, self-deprecation, and honesty.
West is the son of the late Richard West, a distinguished foreign correspondent, and the Irish journalist Mary Kenny, both of whom he characterizes as bohemian conservatives (an increasingly endangered species in London). In Small Men, West comes to terms with the fact that, “as I enter my forties, I find myself turning into my dad.” West’s father was a socialist in his youth but developed views so conservative that he “spoiled his ballot paper each election because he didn’t approve of democracy and shrugged when Mum joined the Reform Club because in his view the Great Reform Act of 1832 was a historic mistake.” West writes that “by the time I was a teenager, Dad was such a reactionary that he had settled on the fourteenth century as the ideal time for human development before everything went downhill.”
In a chapter on the increasing intolerance toward religion in British public life, West reveals his journalistic start at Nuts, a now-defunct British “lads’ mag” whose stocks in trade were breasts and banter. West was then moonlighting as a contributor to the Catholic Herald. He left Nuts after “the boob count went up and it eventually dawned on me one day that I was a pornographer.”
As marriage and fatherhood arrives, West finds himself living a double life: doing ideological battle with the left by day, enjoying the hip trappings of a “bobo” existence in his trendy North London neighborhood by night. West’s life is light on Tory power lunches and heavy on dinner parties involving “people from the third sector or publishing or whatever, discussing The Bridge or Girls.”
West bucks many of the trends that can make contemporary political writing so tedious. He delivers humor without just insulting the enemy. He is capable of anger but isn’t afraid to express doubt or sympathy—both of which are taken as signs of weakness in an increasingly unforgiving culture war.
While West probably wrote Small Men with a conservative reader in mind, the book would serve progressives well as a guide to the mindset of many on the right. (Trigger warning: it includes a job interview with Steve Bannon.) Liberals who read Small Men will realize how central the feeling of being outgunned is to conservatives like West. To be a well-educated, city-dwelling conservative in Britain or America today is to choose a kind of cultural isolation. It is to spend most of your life in rooms full of people who consider your views “almost insane” (West’s guess at his neighbors’ opinion of his politics). Because the Left has established a monopoly on good intentions, to come out as a conservative is to risk more than political disagreement.
The Left fails to see this in part because it would mean acknowledging its cultural supremacy—a hard thing to do for many who prize a self-image as rebels. “While British arts folk love to break taboos, the highest praise, they only like breaking the taboos of fifty years ago, not the sort of ones that will actually lose you friends,” writes West.
There is much to recommend Small Men. West’s dispatches from a losing battle are funny, insightful, and refreshingly free of the “Ten-Point Plan to Fix the Problem” that too many publishers demand of their authors. At times, Small Men feels repetitive, with some chapters covering almost indistinguishable ground. Then again, going on longer than is strictly necessary is part of West’s crotchety conservative brand.
In place of the bullet-point list of policy proposals is a much-needed reminder that some things are more important than politics. West’s story ends with a realization of his joyless obsession over politics, and not just because he is losing the argument: “Creative alcoholics often talk about how the drink, despite its association with Dionysus and art, had stunted their development, stopped them from growing and maturing, and I wonder if there is a similar mechanism with politics.”
West’s practical suggestion to fellow conservatives is, therefore, a retreat from politics—for now, at least: “When the time comes, we will return to the mainstream, emerging out of our caves when conditions are more favorable. But for the meantime, this digital reformation will continue apace, making many more people both miserable and insufferable, as the secular religions continue their fight for the West’s soul.”
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