Of Conservatism and Salesmanship

Like being a non-drinker, it must be wretched being a Tory. In both cases, when you wake in the morning, that’s the best you’re going to feel all day.

Ed West’s Small Men on the Wrong Side of History: The Decline, Fall, and Unlikely Return of Conservatism is not quite a eulogy for conservatism, but it is a coronial inquiry of sorts, a compelling memoir—at once pessimistic and amusing—of what it’s like to spend most of one’s life in an intellectual minority. It’s a reminder that endless battles where one is continually outnumbered are often as good as it gets. It’s also downbeat about conservatism’s prospects in modern Britain, which, given the Tories have just won a landslide election victory and coronavirus has failed to dent Boris Johnson in the polls, may be premature.

Bohemian Tories

By way of explanation for American readers, it’s worth knowing West comes from a background now vanishingly rare, at least in the UK. I’ve heard his type called “Bohemian Tories,” which isn’t quite right but serves well enough to describe people who work in the arts or academia, or otherwise value the life of the mind, and who also dissent from leftie views common as cat-dirt in arty, academic, or literary circles.

That said, we (and it is fair to say “we” at this point, since I come from the same tiny grouplet) are not stereotypically right-wing; often we have an idiosyncratic mix of beliefs. I describe myself as a product of “fusionism,” in that I hold some conservative and some classical liberal views. I’m culturally conservative in that I’d shred the 1951 Refugee Convention in a heartbeat and select for talent and ability to integrate among immigrants and refugees alike, for example. In other words, I think Australia has the world’s best migration policy, but it’s a policy that means acknowledging cultures aren’t equal, people don’t all get the same rights, and any rights they do get are subject to approval in parliament (answerable to the electorate), not by courts (answerable to no one). So far, so conservative. However, I was a classicist before becoming a lawyer (to pay the bills) and it’s impossible to read the early history of Christianity and Islam and not come away with a view that the individuals involved needed to spend several years apiece on the psychiatrist’s couch. I remember telling one hapless Latin tutor that Augustine was a headcase and an unfit parent to boot. So far, so classical liberal.

West is a more consistent conservative (in the British sense) than me, however. He dislikes online gambling, cheap alcohol, pay-day loans, and the habit British cities have of sacrificing their historic town-centres on various altars to the automobile. He also supports the smoking ban in pubs and the war on drugs. This means he suffers a double penalty in his lefty social circle: classical liberals and libertarians have cool, high-status opinions on cannabis, cocaine, pornography, and sex-work (we also know to call it “sex-work” and not “prostitution” in situations where we’re politically outgunned). That said, like West, I learnt early on that libertarians in particular can be as toe-curlingly awful as the teenage Marxists and Students for Christ who press free copies of The Communist Manifesto or invitations to undertake an “Alpha Course” on one at Freshers’ Fair.

“Yes, I’ve read Atlas Shrugged. It’s not an experience I wish to repeat. Go away.”

For this reason, he makes a persuasive argument that electoral success is meaningless when right-wingers of all stripes have been banished from so many areas of public life and social conservatism in the popular imagination manages to combine repellent nastiness with hypocrisy. However, he gets why people often don’t like conservatism, and much of the book is given over to analysing the extent to which it’s a good set of ideas held back by useless salesmen. Like baldness and impotence, he suggests, it’s a chronically low-status curse that afflicts any individual who finds himself possessed by it. West knows—ever since the days of John Major’s “Back to Basics,” satirised in Viz in the form of sex-obsessed Baxter Basics, a Tory MP consumed with getting his end away—how hypocrites whose internet searches likely contain a “mixture of depraved filth and censorious finger-wagging puritanism” fare in the age of social media.

Britain’s tabloids—the infamous “red tops”—may have provided red meat to the Tory voter base but made the ideas of conservatism toxic for a lot of political waverers.

Some years ago, a left-leaning newspaper in the land of my birth dubbed me “Australian literature’s lone classical liberal” and pointed out that I was one of the country’s two right-wing writers of renown. The other was poet Les Murray, who died last year. This leaves me on my tod, a situation unlikely to change anytime soon.

In a move West would understand but I suspect not emulate, I took the descriptor and attached it to my Twitter, Facebook, and official profiles (including those in the National Library of Australia and Who’s Who) as a sort of “farkyew” to the artistic powers that be. My A-level English teacher once compared me to Benjamin the Donkey in Animal Farm: sardonic, curmudgeonly, a grumpy rainer-on-of-parades, and the sort of person who would say something like, “Donkeys live a long time; none of you has ever seen a dead donkey.” I was, she maintained, the world’s youngest old fogey.

West is a more sensitive soul than me, so when a job shortage in the world of journalism meant he was forced to work for Nuts, a rather down-at-heel (and now defunct) “lads’ mag,” he found the experience a trial. “It was a strange, unintentional career trajectory, because I’m naturally quite shy and prudish,” he admits at one point. “I blush easily, something the glamour model Lauren Pope brought up in front of the whole Nuts office once, asking ‘Why is your face so red?’ Which made me go more red.”

He often jokes that he’s the only person in Britain to have worked for both a lads’ mag and The Catholic Herald, but what he neglects to say in his feature journalism (but admits in Small Men on the Wrong Side of History) is that he did so at the same time. At the point he realised he’d effectively become a pornographer, he started freelancing for the religious paper, taking a full-time position there two years later and leaving Nuts behind.

This Is the End

West’s odd and varied media experience not only gives him insight into how conservatism has become beyond the pale among the exam-passing classes, but also allows him to spot when the other side is in the process of falling into the same bear-trap. He is particularly acute on the extent to which Britain’s tabloids—the infamous “red tops”—may have provided red meat to the Tory voter base but made the ideas of conservatism toxic for a lot of political waverers. This forms part of his “bad salesmen” argument, and he’s right to observe that the tabloids “harmed conservatism as a movement in Britain, presenting it as essentially low-status and lacking in reason or reflection.”

The Doors-like “This is the End” refrain about conservatism complete, he then makes the point that “woke” media—along with thick-as-mince academics engaging in futile attempts to prove unconscious racial bias exists or that sex is a spectrum—show the same sort of “hegemonic degeneration” that existed among conservatives in the 1950s. It is simply true that many progressive young women and minorities have forgotten how to debate, they’ve been unopposed for so long or, worse, promoted beyond their ability. Given competent Tory opposition (Vote Leave’s Dominic Cummings, for example), they get eaten alive.

Websites churn out dozens of articles in the hope one strikes clickbait gold, and headlines have become increasingly shrill and bizarre, a daily parade of pieces tackling racism and sexism in the game The Legend of Zelda, or is Game of Thrones too white, or why Seinfeld episodes are racist and sexist and why that’s not OK, and why Friends is ‘problematic’. And, of course, the favourite clickbait topic of all—white privilege, found absolutely everywhere, visible, invisible and all-consuming, and unfalsifiable.

This clickbait media—handmaiden of both bonkers pseudoscience and humourless puritanism—now “damages the liberal-left,” West argues, in the same way tabloids once made conservatives look ridiculous by association. Of course, hypocrisy is always and everywhere fatal. The environmentalist who slurps cocktails while flying first class to Extinction Rebellion protests or the male feminist revealed to be a sex-pest are quite as finished in the public imagination as Augustine and his inability to keep it under his toga or Catholicism’s kiddy-fiddling priests. Even if you produce good ideas, bad salesmen have almost limitless capacity to ensure no one is tempted to buy.

In the end (to return to The Doors), West paraphrases Christopher Hitchens, suggesting that “politics poisons everything” and advocates in response a form of cultural quiescence. He loathes in the same way I do the extent to which politics has inserted itself into every nook and cranny of our lives, making us “deeply unhappy and unkind” in the process. It’s notable that he now works for an outlet specialising in long-form journalism and nuanced commentary.

The danger, of course—and a bitter lesson I came to learn, despite starting out in life firmly on the fictioneer’s side of the literary aisle—is for all that Ed West doesn’t want to take an interest in politics, it still takes an interest in him.