No sacred cows

The best leader we never had

5 September 2020

9:00 AM

5 September 2020

9:00 AM

I spent Monday afternoon with The Wake Up Call, a new book by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge that lambasts the West for its grotesque mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis. Despite an upbeat chapter towards the end, in which they dust off the standard menu of reforms, it makes depressing reading. They contrast the cack-handed response of the authorities in countries like America, Britain and Italy with those of China, Singapore and South Korea and conclude that, absent a political miracle, the world will soon resemble the 17th century again, with Europe beset by war and corruption and Asia in the ascendant.

There’s a good deal in the book to disagree with. The authors make no attempt to re-evaluate the threat of Covid-19 in light of evidence that it’s no more deadly than a bad flu. Instead, they regurgitate the WHO’s doom-mongering and chastise Boris and other populist leaders for not locking down earlier. This ‘failure’ to heed the apocalyptic warnings of public health panjandrums is one way the West ‘flunked the test’. The book even claims Britain’s death toll (which they overestimate by at least 10 per cent) might have been two-thirds lower if we’d locked down a week earlier.

But it’s hard to dispute the authors’ central hypothesis: that the virus has exposed the governments of most western democracies to be dysfunctional and sclerotic. They were caught off guard, even though they’ve had decades to prepare for a flu-like pandemic, and proved un-able to source protective equipment for health workers. Their attempts to roll out test-and-trace programmes have been hampered by bureaucratic incompetence — even Germany bungled its contact-tracing app. And the death toll is higher than it should be thanks to a series of unforced errors, such as failing to protect care-home residents. If the Chinese Communist party had manufactured Sars-CoV-2 in the Wuhan Institute of Virology to test the resilience of our system of government, they’d be starting up the tanks about now.


According to Micklethwait and Wooldridge, the sheer inadequacy of the response is partly due to the mediocrity of our politicians and civil servants. Today’s pygmies are contrasted with the giants of yester-year like William Gladstone and Abraham Lincoln, and they come up with a composite — Bill Lincoln — to imagine how a gifted, visionary leader would address America’s long-standing problems.

Lots of the things they believe he’d do are boilerplate liberal solutions — stricter gun control, a multilateral agreement on climate change, higher taxes on sugar and junk food. Others are more conservative— national service, schools for gifted children. But the general point lands: Trump is no Franklin D. Roosevelt (and neither is Biden).

One counter-intuitive proposal is to pay senior bureaucrats even more in the hope of luring talented administrators away from the private sector. In Singapore, the authors point out, civil servants can earn upwards of a million dollars a year, which partly accounts for its world-class health and education systems. Not sure that one’s going to find its way into the Tory manifesto — or Labour’s for that matter. I share Milton Friedman’s reservation about improving the calibre of unelected officials: if they become better at their jobs, it becomes more difficult to withhold power from them. It’s hard enough as it is.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge are committed internationalists and look back wistfully to the financial crisis of 2007-8, in which Gordon Brown and Barack Obama agreed on a strategy that they persuaded the rest of the world to follow. Johnson and Trump have shown no such leadership, hampered partly by their anti-globalisation rhetoric. I braced myself for the inevitable critique of Brexit, but mercifully it doesn’t come. On the contrary, the authors believe the pandemic has also exposed the weaknesses of the EU.

Ultimately, though, the blame for the Covid fiasco cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the political class. According to these Cassandras, it’s our entire system of government that’s rotten. What’s needed is a re-invention of that system, a new contract between citizen and state that will restore the West’s vitality. Mickle-thwait and Wooldridge’s sketch of what that should look like is un-imaginative, but their diagnosis of the problem is spot on.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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