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Expert Comment: A new model for government?

0119 Prof Bill Jones Monday 19 May 2014

As Wicklethwait and Wooldridge's The Fourth Revolution: the Global race to Reinvent the State is published, Professor Bill Jones looks at alternative forms of government.

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." This classic assessment of our form of governance by Winston Churchill in 1947, has tended to be the bottom line since for most of us who either practice or study politics in the west. However, John Wicklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge's The Fourth Revolution: the Global race to Reinvent the State, suggests otherwise. The authors re-examine the evolution of western state government and detect at least three revolutions.

The first occurred in the 17th century when the centralised state, in charge of everything within its own borders emerged. These nation states engaged in widespread trade and prospered in relation to the rest of the world.

The second happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when ripples from the American and French revolutions spread out to affect the whole of Europe. Government was unhitched from traditional royal dynasties and achieved even greater efficiency through introducing merit based appointments and the idea of accountable government. British government, under the influence of a liberal takeover, became much more open, free and consequently efficient.  But liberalism went on to assert that freedom was not real until the playing field of inequality had been levelled and thus inaugurated the third revolution: the welfare state.

This revolution extended unchallenged until the 1980s when  Reagan-Thatcher policies applied a halt to expansion of the state. But this was only temporary and 'rollback' never really happened. The authors argue that even with more education, healthcare, welfare benefits and the like we are still not happy: 'overload' has produced inefficiency and dissatisfaction. Membership of centre-ground political parties has collapsed, leaving only those on the extremist fringe, offering simplistic populist solutions, with any vitality.

Our systems have become dysfunctional - the US Congress is paralysed  by lobbyist funding and partisan deadlock - and in Europe, voting enthusiasm has been in steep decline. The west's discontent with the way it is governed is summed up by Angela Merkel's statistic that the EU, while comprising 7% of the world's population, produces one quarter of its GDP yet half of its social spending.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge claim that the west no longer leads the way on governance; this role has been taken over by Asia, especially Singapore whose remarkably successful model is being closely studied by China. This small Asian city state now enjoys higher standards of education and health care than us with a public sector 50% that of the USA. It's style is very much top down- its famous former ruler Le Kuan Yew  once said 'We decide what is right- never mind what the people think' - but it works.

Huge emphasis is placed on able civil servants who can get paid a £1m a year. Teachers must finish in the top third of the class to be accepted and testing is part of the educational culture. Free speech is restrained but imprisonment of the left seems to have abated. The People's Action Party exercises such a hegemonic control of parliament that it precludes the vagaries of our 'in-out' system. Lee Hsien Loong, son of the former premier, is the current prime minister and offers a system based on self-reliance rather than western 'wrap around' welfare ones. He thinks our systems lead to parties bidding up the giveaways at election time, further indebting future generations.

Mickletwait and Wooldridge argue the west desperately needs a fourth revolution to change our democracy and welfare provision. They suggest the 'Asian alternative', whilst not 'ideal', is there waiting to offer its advantages.         















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