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Review: Has Covid Exposed Deeper Failings in the Way We Are Governed?

John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge
The Wake Up Call: Why the pandemic has exposed the weakness of the West – and how to fix it

With the pandemic the role of government is under the microscope. Why have Asian countries had far fewer deaths from the virus compared to Western democracies? The apparent poor performance of the US and UK has exposed deeper failings in the way we are governed – so argues this short book.

Micklethwaite, a former editor-in-chief and Woolldridge, the political editor of the Economist, are prolific writers and have questioned the role of government before. They trace the origins of the liberal state and how Western democracies rose to dominate the globe through the influence of Hobbes and J S Mill. The decline in performance has been gradual – they date the high point in the 1960s and express a hope that there is still time to reverse the trend. By the mid 1970s the public sector dominated the economy in the UK and the International Monetary Fund had to bail out the government. Reforms followed but by 2010 after the financial crash public expenditure was back above 50% of GDP.

Singapore is held up as the example of excellence in governance. High calibre people are recruited into the civil service and paid private sector salaries. Yet the scale and culture of Singapore is very different – a city state. The elitist model with the strong focus on education, which emphasises competition and testing, is seen as the exemplar that other Asian countries have followed. The Western decline has accelerated with the rise in populism “Trump and Johnson are undermining the idea that statecraft is a serious business; instead they have treated it as a branch of mass entertainment.” The derision of constitutional restraints, state institutions, civil servants, judges and experts has become all too common.

Seven main flaws in Western democracies are identified. Denmark does better than Washington DC or Rome but all have faults that have been brought to the fore by Covid. There was a clear lack of urgency in grasping the problem. The lack of unity and global leadership has been stark in comparison to the 2008 financial crisis. Autocrats point to Western failures yet they fail their people in so many other ways in normal times.

The authors create a fictional president of the US to articulate their solution to the how we are governed. Bill Lincoln – a combination of William Gladstone and Abraham Lincoln who both showed an appetite to ‘cleanse government’. They suggest thirteen areas for change. They favour smaller, efficient, well-educated and transparent government. Perhaps the most controversial is the idea of national service in some form of public service to enable a greater integration across society.

The analysis is too sweeping, lacks depth and finds evidence to suit the thesis of small government. It does not give sufficient weight to the benefits that some countries gained from previous experience of SARS, why Germany did so much better thanks, in part, to the deeply embedded regional public health service, nor have they delved sufficiently into the work of Francis Fukuyama on political decay. The questions raised in the book remains – what is democratic government for and how can it be improved?

Review by Canon Mike D Williams