Book Review: ‘Tory Boy’ by Ed West
AKA: Small Men on the Wrong Side of History
The Decline, Fall and Unlikely Return of Conservatism
By Ed West
Republished in paperback, 2021, Little Brown, 432pgs.
British author Ed West has written that presently rarest of literary things: a thorough and readable political book that avoids the facile Manicheanism characteristic of most contemporary debate. West’s book Tory Boy — or in its original title: Small Men on the Wrong Side of History: The Decline, Fall and Unlikely Return of Conservatism — steers a successful course between the unthinking zealotry that’s come to be synonymous with the pro-market right whilst avoiding any easy acquiescence to the fashionable dogmas overwhelming us from the left. His book is in fact a happy vindication of that now most maligned of all political types: the social conservative.
As such, it’s a particularly welcome offer for the small band of Burkeans remaining in the West, battered and bruised as we are by the aforementioned forces assailing us from either side. Yet it’s also a book that deserves a larger audience, given its inherent appeal to our innately conservative nature — a point acknowledged by West himself: conservatism is our default setting.
The original title of the book is taken from an Obama reference to Al-Qaeda, a group of guys, as West informs us, also not entirely comfortable with the modern world. Yet as is evident, it’s analogously applied to the plight of social conservatives under our current ‘double-dose’ social and economic liberalism. The parallels between these two groups are assumedly obvious: anyone not on board with these twin liberalisms is prima-facie illegitimate, doomed to failure under our American-led global dispensation.
Yet it’s these easy clichés that West sets out to expose in his idiosyncratically self-deprecatory way. He is also under no illusion that his thesis will be glamorous nor popular; in fact, largely the opposite, and he spends most of the book making the case for social conservatism because of its inherently dull predictability and not in spite of it.
Yet this is all done in a wry and effective manner. With the first few chapters in particular containing amusing observations about the unfashionableness of social conservatives when compared to their more charismatic opponents from across the aisle: who would give a woman a better night of romance, lovemaking and pillow talk….? Lefties, almost every time. In fact, West himself — a 40-something Londoner of pale complexion and similar demeanour (a point he readily concedes) — is also a rather apt personification of the kind of conservatism that the book advocates.
The book is largely structured as memoir and is thus predominantly chronological. Beginning with West’s childhood in 1970s and 80s England, the book charts West’s youth in the suburbs of London, his developing relationship with his own rather eccentric journalist father, passes through the triumphant liberalism of the ‘end of history’ years, before ending with the arrival of Trump and Brexit.
The book is also partly thematic, delving into the various social spheres (the arts, the media, education, etc.) and detailing the usually catastrophic relationship that conservatism has had with each of them. Further to this point, the book could also be read as a rough chronical of the failure of social conservatism (both as ideology and movement) from the end of the Second World War until today.
Yet given this, and the gloom of West himself — the title of one chapter is named Cassandra Was Right -, each of the chapters is an illuminating read, replete with points of broad interest and historical insight.
To take one example regarding the state of tertiary education, West informs us that the ratio of liberals to conservatives in the American academy has increased from about 3 to 1 in the twentieth century to…50 to 1 in some areas today. And that three-quarters of university departments in the US ‘have either zero Republicans, or so few as to make no difference’. Other chapters follow in the same vein, highlighting the triumph of the Left and the utter diminution of the Right.
Yet all of this is met with magnanimity by West. And in what is one of the book’s chief virtues, West counterpoises such depressing facts with his own humorous quips and insight. The names of the chapters, for one, are a particularly effective example of this: the chapter on tertiary education is titled safe spaces; the chapter on marriage, sex and the suburbs; the chapter on censorship, shown the door, and so on. The left-liberal state is also amusingly referred to as the blob, or the cathedral, echoing the American blogger Curtis Yarvin.
Yet, the highlight of the book is its ability to transcend the moronic dichotomy in which are currently imprisoned — a problem that appears to be, unfortunately, natural. In our ongoing tribal battle between ‘the left’ and ‘the right’ we’ve lost any capacity for nuance and clear thought, and it is this realisation that is the book’s greatest strength.
Whilst undoubtedly a man of the right, West remains objective and largely avoids the easy temptation to succumb to tribalism: which has come to mean that to be on the left is to unquestioningly view phenomena such as multi-culturalism, transgenderism, and the like as unimpeachably beneficent; whilst to be on the right has been assumed to denote a myopic devotion to free-markets (come what may) and either scepticism (at best) or violent rejection (at worst) of Darwinian evolution and man-made global warming. Or, as it’s put in the book, in a childish inability to countenance either climate change or primate change.
Indeed, to take the missteps of the right first, West is quite happy to reinforce their oft-quoted label as ‘the stupid party’ (especially in their relatively recent neo-liberal incarnation). This is the case as West views conservatism — and if I can be so bold, ‘the good’ — through a broader social lens, and not the narrowly economic one of which it’s become more readily known. Indeed, West’s most emblematic predecessors are probably his fellow Britons, Edmund Burke (of whom West naturally refers) and the late, great Sir Roger Scruton.
As such, the criteria West brings to bear on political matters are either: practical and common-sensical; historical and traditional; or natural, whereby things are judged against an innate and permanent natural standard — of which the best philosophical example is probably Leo Strauss’ 1953 masterpiece Natural Right and History.
This is how West is able to successfully critique much of what has come to characterise the right in its main guise as the promoter of the market, to the almost total exclusion of any other notions of value, be they environmental, communal, salutary or aesthetic.
To take one pertinent example, West quotes the liberal British commentator George Monbiot approvingly as he excoriates the hypocrisy of the nominal conservative parties as they (predictably) capitulate to the exigencies of the market: everything conservatism is supposed to defend — tradition, continuity, community, national character, the physical fabric of the nation — is ripped apart by the demands of capital, whose permanent revolution the Conservative party assists and accelerates.
This assault on what have become ostensibly right-of-centre positions continue, as he informs us that in his lifetime there has been little Tory opposition to lending at high interest, for instance; likewise online gambling, or types of booze that are clearly marketed at serious alcoholics. A sad circumstance that a brief walk around any of the major Western metropoles will immediately confirm.
Purportedly conservative governments have also neglected both the natural and built environments. For one, we still continue our misguided love affair with the motor car (or with the mechanical Jacobins, as West states, echoing the famous American, Russell Kirk). And we also continue the spread of dystopian glass and steel architecture, becoming like men who would dig up the charcoal foundations of the temple of Ephesus to burn as fuel for a steam-engine as West appropriately quotes from the poet Coleridge.
This is also how West is able to critique what has been one of the more tightly-held pieties for those on the Right over recent decades: that of the legacies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. For West, the Reagan and Thatcher years have run their course, their limitations becoming more and more evident as they progressed
Thatcher’s hope that the free market would lead to Gladstonian Victorian morality was clearly wrong; instead, it led to obscenely wealthy banks distracting attention from their profits by cheering on progressive social causes while armies of homeless rot in city centres.
The obvious lesson in this is that freedom is not an end in itself nor a substitute for virtue: or ‘freedom’ is not what conservatism is about, as West has it — a notion the right is now being forced to reacquaint itself with. Yet, it’s the left that’s the obvious target for West and one at which he happily takes aim.
Given West’s belief in our innately conservative nature — to disinter Thatcher again: the facts of life are conservative — a large part of the book is also an account of West’s befuddlement that anyone could ever think that the fashionable left-liberal ideas now dominating our societies (multiculturalism, gender ‘fluidity’, mass immigration, etc.) could ever be taken seriously, let alone implemented.
An apt example of this is where West shows the naïveté of the Western liberal intellectual (in this case, the anthropologist Margaret Mead) in wanting to believe their own delusions about the presumably easy-going egalitarianism that awaits man back in the state of nature.
In this case, ‘nature’ — in the form of the island of Samoa — was a far darker place than Mead and her acolytes had led us to believe. The island — contra Mead — was not a miraculously unheard-of utopia, but home to the usual range of human depravities such as rape, underage marriage and the murder of neighbouring tribespeople. Thus we end up where we’ve always been, or as West puts it: back on the hunt for the lost city of Egalitaria.
In fact, a large amount of what troubles West about the left could be expressed in their neglect of the practical and the real for the utopian and the tenuously theoretical. That is, in their acting counter to the sentiments expressed by Oakeshott, and quoted by West, in the following refrain
The Left are misguided as they neglect to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbound, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.
Which is also essentially a direct representation of West’s own beliefs and what he is seeking to reinforce in this work. Which, all in all, is a book with much to recommend and little to critique. Although if one were pressed, it’s (self-consciously) Anglo-centric focus may not be endearing to a broader conservative audience: the North Americans have their own history and more muscular strain of conservatism, whilst we in the Antipodes may be too far removed — geographically, and increasingly culturally — to appreciate all of the book’s asides and references.
West may also lean too heavily on the Big-5 Personality Model (as recently popularized by Jordan Peterson) as a justification for much of the phenomena that he seeks to explain. Whilst this is not an explicit critique of the model per se, it’s more a query vis-à-vis its long-term durability (will we still speak of it the way we do, say, Plato’s tri-partite division of the soul, in a few generations?) and the broader notion that we can reduce the immense variety of human experience into a convenient pentagonal-shaped parcel.
West, to his credit, is also willing to engage with figures further to his right — with West himself about as far as mainstream journalists are allowed to stray these days without wandering off the reservation entirely. He approvingly mentions controversial conservative figures, such as the American blogger Steve Sailer and the French counter-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre, yet given such acknowledgment the conclusions that we’d expect to be drawn from such realisations are largely left unsaid: a position which, to be fair, isn’t totally incomprehensible under our current climate.
However, and again to West’s credit, this is further than most mainstream commentators are willing to tilt against the prevailing orthodoxy, and a large amount of his beliefs are regularly expressed in his columns for the Unherd website, and have already been articulated in his excellent 2013 Book The Diversity Illusion (a work he now appears to be slightly reticent of; again, perhaps understandably).
Yet his views on such contentious topics as immigration and multiculturalism are eminently sensible. Whilst far from praising either: I was worried about it [mass immigration] because I don’t like conflict and division. I’d rather live in a state of Japanese-style harmony; he also accepts its de facto position as the status quo in most Western democracies: although diversity brings division, once it exists we should do our best to mitigate it and bring people together.
Which is a somewhat poignant and depressing notion, yet it’s also one that captures the spirit of the book, and is also essentially how the work ends, with West, in effect, bringing the book to its close in its penultimate chapter (the final chapter has the feel of a slightly incongruous, probably publisher-induced, add-on of confected optimism). West’s description of his family’s Easter journey and service in a 13th Century church, partaken alongside the elderly, frail and dwindling flock of parishioners, is a particularly moving and evocative one; and one meant as an obvious analogue to the state of social conservatism today.
This an entertaining, wise and much needed book. Yet given our current travails, it’s unfortunately also a book that is unlikely to get the broader readership that it deserves. This may be a personal disappointment to West, yet it will not be a surprise: as on his own analysis, social conservatism in Western societies is largely doomed. This is, however, a paradoxical vindication of his ideas and a further recommendation and testament to his work.