Small Men on the Wrong Side of History
By Ed West Constable, 352pp, £20/$20.70
Even before the death of Sir Roger Scruton in January, it was not unusual to encounter thoughtful people on the political right who were worried about the future of conservatism as a serious intellectual endeavour. Since then, the problem has only become more pressing. With that great figurehead gone, there is a real question mark over the prospects for believers in family, tradition, patriotism, stability and ordered liberty. We in Britain may have a Tory government with a very comfortable majority, but it remains to be seen whether a Johnson administration can resist the powerful liberal forces that dominate British life.
This latest book by Ed West comes, therefore, at an opportune time. Small Men on the Wrong Side of History is not a work of political philosophy, but an entertaining, wide-ranging defence and explanation of the conservative way of seeing the world. Alongside some fine knockabout polemic, there is a colourful and lively account of the development of conservatism as a coherent tradition, and a good deal of amusing memoir showing the development of West’s worldview.
West is the product of a distinct class that is nowadays almost extinct: conservative bohemians, people who work in the arts or journalism, or otherwise cherish the life of the mind, and have unconventional and eccentric lifestyles or approaches to life, who nevertheless dissent from the standard left-wing views generally found in such circles. That is not to say they are conventionally right wing; very often they have an idiosyncratic blend of attitudes and beliefs, as did the author’s father, the foreign correspondent Richard West, who seems to have been an adherent of what is sometimes called Tory anarchism.
This background means that West’s undoubtedly robust conservatism is nevertheless suffused with generosity and wit. Small Men is not only full of self-deprecating asides but is laugh-out-loud funny, especially in its assessments of historical figures from both the liberal and Tory traditions. “If you want an infrastructure project built, having two romantic poets in large frilly shirts in charge is probably not ideal,” he notes dryly of the plan by Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to build a utopian commune in rural Wales. And in lamenting the coolness gap between liberals and conservatives, he remarks that those on the right cannot compete with handsome, urbane actors like George Clooney, identified as conservatives are with “sports casual, Alan Partridge cardigans, novelty socks [and] middle-aged slippers”.
This problem of being constantly on the defensive, having to strain every sinew just for a fair hearing, preoccupies West. In Britain, conservative views have been utterly vanquished among high-status people: the kind of individuals who set the tone and broadcast social cues for the rest of society. Actors, musicians, novelists, playwrights, celebrities, television presenters; almost all are liberals.
This dominance of the “commanding heights” of culture by radicals is linked to an important theme of the book, possibly the central thread – the extent to which traditionalists have experienced what JRR Tolkien referred to as “the long defeat”. This has happened all over Europe, since the cataclysm of the First World War shattered the continent’s old Christian civilisation, and the horrific atrocities of the Second forever tainted believers in patriotism and old-fashioned social order with the dark shadows of genocide and fascism.
This is why West is ultimately rather pessimistic about the viability of conservatism. He provides compelling arguments in its favour, free from cant and hyperbole, and sometimes hostile to received right-wing wisdom. He builds a strong case against liberalism, particularly its wildly unrealistic ideas of human nature, grounded ultimately in Rousseau and other fantasists, and persuasively defends the Victorians from their modern critics.
Yet West reluctantly recognises that, despite the depth and rigour of his own thinking, right-wing ideas more widely are increasingly identified with loudmouths and cranks (and worse), and lacking any kind of meaningful elite support. In the closing chapters he recounts a certain disillusionment with the growing polarisation of politics; and perhaps this conservative reluctance to devote energy to politics and a preference for concentrating on the actual business of life, is itself a weakness against a relentless opponent which seeks to politicise every part of society and regards the very idea of non-political spaces with suspicion.
The casual Catholic reader may be quite blasé about the fate of a mere political ideology. Are we not meant to keep our eyes on higher things? It remains the case, however, that the progressive, secularising ideology which has swept aside the values of Old Britain during the last 60 years is also highly hostile to Catholicism, to the principles of conscience, religious liberty and private family life within which the Church functions.
Conservatism is not the faith; but it is at least not an enemy, and its disappearance would be a significant loss.