Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Even in Pakistan’s remote mountain passes, you keep stumbling upon China’s spoor. By the side of empty roads, you find monuments celebrating the unlikely alliance between the world’s first purpose-built Muslim country and the last Communist power. On the edge of villages, you find Chinese-funded social projects. More and more, you find highways, dams and factories springing up along the path of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

I spent early January in those sparse highlands. Like most visitors, I was struck by the beauty of the landscapes and the warmth of the people; but also by an uneasy sense that a country with the strongest demographic and cultural ties to us has drifted into the orbit of a nearer and fiercer star.

Pakistan has its own reasons for cosying up to China, which it has long seen as a counterweight to India, and to which it is closely tied commercially. But something similar is playing out across swathes of Asia, Africa and, now, Latin America. Countries which, 20 years ago, looked to the West culturally and politically – countries which wanted to think of themselves as a law-based, propertied, multi-party democracies – have found an alternative model.

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s clever and charming prime minister, recently put it this way:

“Up until now, we were told that the best way for societies to improve themselves is the Western system of democracy. What the CPC has done is that it has brought this alternative model. And they have actually beaten all Western democracies in the way they have brought up merit in their society.”

Merit. That’s the key. Allocating positions through talent rather than by birth, caste or status was a big part of what originally elevated the Anglosphere and a handful of related European states over their rivals. Now, just as the West is letting go of the idea, the world’s greatest autocracy has taken it up.

I have been thinking a lot about merit since reading Adrian Wooldridge’s magnum opus, The Aristocracy of Talent. I had vaguely intended to review it last year, but I was enjoying it too much, and wanted to savour each chapter.

Wooldridge, who recently moved to Bloomberg after a career at The Economist, has written one of the great books of the decade. Here, meticulously researched and in arresting prose, are definitive accounts of Plato’s authoritarian philosophy and the way later generations interpreted it, of China’s mandarinate, of the rise of IQ tests and much else. But what comes across most strongly is just how downright weird the concept of meritocracy is.

For most of human history, hierarchy and heredity were seen as the natural order. Wooldridge begins with some lines by our national poet:

How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows!

I remember Michael Portillo getting into terrible trouble when he quoted that passage. Yet, until an eyeblink ago, almost no one seriously questioned the world-view that Shakespeare was articulating. It seems to have been hard-wired into us as social primates. Even when we imagine future worlds – think of Star Wars, Dune or Foundation – we people them with emperors and princesses.

Wooldridge shows how English-speaking nations, in particular, replaced kin-based models with open selections and exams. He reminds us of how recent and, by global standards, how unnatural this system is. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, its chief supporters were on the Left. The Webbs and their followers saw a rational, socialist state as resting on meritocratic appointment, while many conservatives protested that abandoning the older social order would leave people deracinated and unsatisfied.

Oddly, from our present perspective, some of the biggest supporters of IQ tests and unadjusted exams in the United States were black sociologists, including Horace Mann Bond, Charles Johnson, Howard Hale Long and J. St Clair Price, all of whom saw the ability to rise by talent as an antidote to racism.

Judged by economic outcomes, meritocracy worked. Countries that tried it got richer than countries that didn’t. The Anglosphere went more or less the whole hog, but most places ended up with hybrid systems. Pakistan, for example, took from Britain the common law, individual property rights and a civil service open to talent. It also retained clannish voting patterns, resting on strong extended families.

As long as Western nations had open institutions, they tended to outperform their rivals. But, as Wooldridge shows, they are now turning against the creed that elevated them.

The assault comes simultaneously from both sides. There is a Trumpy/populist/Know-nothing line of attack which holds, roughly speaking, that a bunch of effete pointyheads, removed from the general population, are imposing their Leftie values on the decent majority. And there is a woke line which holds that groups rather than individuals are what matter, and that if, say, blind assessments result in more Asian than black students getting into a particular university, then those assessments should be racially weighted.

There is a third and more subtle critique, which posits that meritocracy is a hoax. Rich parents, themselves products of elite universities, invest resources in rigging the system in favour of their children, sending them to expensive private schools and buying them opportunities to ensure that they go to the same universities and perpetuate the cycle.

This line often comes from beneficiaries and exemplars of the system being decried. Professor Daniel Markovits of Law at Yale Law School argues in The Meritocracy Trap that “merit is nothing more than a sham”, a way to transmit inherited privilege. Harvard’s Michael Sandel agrees. In The Tyranny of Merit he laments the decline of manual jobs and argues that a new trans-national elite has arisen, bringing hopes of social mobility to an end for most people. The same theme is taken in Britain by David Goodhart who holds, in Head Hand Heart, that the overvaluation of cognitive skills (head) over manual (hand) and caring (heart) has led to the creation of a graduate oligarchy.

There is something in this analysis. The solution, though, might be more meritocracy. The domination of elite schools by the wealthy could perhaps be addressed by crammer-proof aptitude tests. The under-valuation of non-academic skills is widely acknowledged, and huge efforts are being made to boost technical education.

Far more dangerous is the notion that openness to talent is intrinsically racist. Woke critics don’t want to improve meritocracy. They want to return to the pre-modern idea of group rights, collective identity and advancement by caste. A theory that was, until perhaps eight years ago, more or less confined to campus, has, with astonishing rapidity, taken over most of our institutions. Company boards, charities, schools, churches, political parties, local authorities, NHS trusts and, most of all, the civil service – all now recruit and promote on the basis of physiognomy as much as aptitude.

You know who isn’t bothered about “equality, diversity and inclusion”, though? China. That’s why it’s on course to become the world’s largest economy. No wonder ambitious politicians across Asia and Africa are learning Mandarin. No wonder up-and-coming cadets want to train at the PLA National Defence University rather than Sandhurst.

The way for any society to get rich is to allow people to rise to the level of their talents, to remove obstacles of birth, tradition and clan, and thus to marshall its human resources with maximum efficacy. We used to do that very well. Now, others have taken our place.