Getty Images
Artillery Row Books

Blown fusionism: is a common enemy enough?

Ed West, Small Men on the Wrong Side of History

Small Men on the Wrong Side of History is not quite a eulogy for conservatism, nor is it an autopsy, but Ed West, deputy editor of the website UnHerd, is decidedly downbeat about his fellow conservatives’ prospects in modern Britain. Its publication might seem premature when the Conservative Party has won its biggest electoral victory in decades and is at nearly 50 per cent in the polls, but West contends that electoral success is almost irrelevant when right wingers been banished from so many areas of public life and even the Conservative Party has abandoned conservatism.

Small Men on the Wrong Side of History: The Decline, Fall and Unlikely Return of Conservatism March 2020, by Ed West Published by Constable

Futile Tory attempts to win favour with their enemies only serve to alienate their natural supporters. While the left howls about the Conservatives’ supposedly ‘far right’ and even ‘white supremacist’ tendencies, the Tories in government have been giving prisoners the vote, making no-fault divorce easier, giving non-married relationships the same legal recognition as marriage, calling for returning jihadis to be moved to the top of housing lists, and condemning the term ‘pregnant woman’ for being exclusionary to the trans community. To what end? ‘The Tory modernisation project sails on like a ghost ship,’ writes West, ‘although no one is on board, and no one cares.’

This is a serious book masquerading as a lighthearted polemic. On one level, it is a self-deprecating and often hilarious memoir of a born conservative watching the world go wrong. Sprinkled with gallows humour, like a political version of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch or a humorous version of John O’Farrell’s Things Can Only Get Better, it is also crammed with history, political philosophy and social science. At its heart is the story of a life lived through gritted teeth as left-liberalism became the default setting of universities, schools, churches, the BBC, Big Tech, quangos, the third sector, theatre, comedy, medicine and most blue chip companies.

West argues that conservatives have the best pitch but the worst sales people. He cringes at those who agree with him and prefaces his remarks about such issues as ‘cultural Marxism’ and mass immigration with a weary acknowledgement that his ‘low status’ opinions are not entirely at odds with those espoused by Richard Littlejohn, Kelvin MacKenzie, golf club blowhards and Hammer_of_Odin64 in the comment section of the MailOnline. The opposing point of view, by contrast, is held by rock stars, attractive young people, Oxbridge professors, George Clooney and JK Rowling. This is unfortunate, he says, but what if the gammons have a point? 

Even those who do not instinctively associate conservatism with capitalism and evil may struggle to define what conservatives believe these days. Socialism has a final destination and an obvious trajectory. Free market economics has a logic which leads to particular set of policies. Conservatism, however, is more of a set of values; broad principles that can be bent when public opinion changes. When West lays out the tenets of conservatism in plain English I was struck by how rarely we see them written down or discussed these days, which I suppose proves his point.

Perhaps he would be more upbeat if he didn’t live in Crouch End surrounded by left-liberal Remain voters

I am not a conservative, but I agree with him about brutalist architecture, child-centred learning, the Equality Act and open borders – all of which are obviously terrible. I also agree with him about heavy metal, grammar schools and sending criminals to prison (all good). Above all, we share a common enemy in economically illiterate socialists and censorious, race-baiting, woke activists – the intensive care wing of what used to call the politically correct brigade. That alone is enough for him to have my sword.

I don’t agree with him about online gambling, cheap alcohol, pay day loans and motor cars, all of which he has a Labourite urge to suppress, nor about the smoking ban, which marked the moment when he abandoned his flirtation with libertarianism and became a card-carrying Tory. It had more or less the opposite effect on me, but then I am probably one of the ‘pro-tobacco cranks’ he mentions. 

Nor am I a church-going Catholic, which West seems to think is a preferable, if not essential, part of the conservative package. It may be true, as he argues, that religion demands a certain amount of self-control from individuals and that, in absence of self-discipline, the state will exert clumsier controls of its own. It may also be true that ‘once large sections of the population abandon Christianity, liberalism becomes their default setting’, but West provides so many examples of Catholic and Protestant leaders embracing woke ideology that it would be hasty to pin all the blame on atheism. Either way, if conservatism requires religion to thrive, it may indeed be doomed. 

But does it? Is West too pessimistic? Perhaps he would be more upbeat if he didn’t live in Crouch End surrounded by left-liberal Remain voters who regard his moderate One Nation Tory beliefs as ‘almost insane’. London is the only region of Britain where Labour has not gone backwards in the last twenty years. Immersed in Twitter and living in the belly of the beast, West may have a perception of leftist domination that is not reflected in the country at large.

He argues that the liberal left became ‘genuinely nasty’ after the Brexit and Trump wins of 2016 because it was the first time their agenda had been set back rather than merely slowed down. Perhaps so, but these upsets, combined with Labour’s thrashing outside the big cities in 2019, may be an indication that the median voter has had enough of the liberal left’s aggressive assault on traditional values and common sense. 

Ed West would be the first to admit that Britain’s pool of funny conservative writers is small, but Small Men on the Wrong Side of History cements his reputation as one of the biggest fish in it. Behind the dry wit and self-mockery, he has something important to say.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover