Singapore: a model for the west? Credit: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

How the west can thrive in the 21st century

Two authors make the case for conservative liberal democracy
September 2, 2020

Writing a book about an ongoing crisis is risky. But it would take an extraordinary reversal of fortunes for the west to mount an impressive response to Covid-19. John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News, and Adrian Wooldridge, a columnist for the Economist, have put together a “manifesto” arguing that the pandemic is a “stress test” which has proved devastating for western countries whose governments have long been in bad health.

Starting with Leviathan and the rise of the nation state, The Wake Up Call gives a potted history of the west’s heyday and its supposed decline after the 1950s. Whereas China, Singapore, Japan and South Korea have secured their strength through technological innovation, the authors argue that the US, a “dithering” EU and the UK have loaded their cumbersome state apparatuses with bureaucracy and “(over) generous” welfare systems. Micklethwait and Wooldridge claim that the west’s failure to modernise and its political infighting led to populism in the form of Trump and Brexit.

Other targets in the book include the “intellectual decay” in universities, and the “control freakery” of the NHS. While they offer half-hearted denouncements of Singapore’s autocracy, they are clearly impressed by the country’s “proudly elitist” approach.

It’s apparently not too late for the west to recover. The Wake Up Call advocates for modernised infrastructure, higher salaries for talented public servants, lean government spending, and a tightly circumscribed role for the state. It’s a prescription that suggests the authors have been asleep since the 1990s. The absence of original analysis about Covid-19, and familiar arguments from their previous work, rouse suspicion that the pandemic is a topical hook on which to hang their case for conservative liberal democracy.

The Wake Up Call: Why the pandemic has exposed the weakness of the west—and how to fix it by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (Short Books, £9.99)