What are the largest challenges for UK politics in 2023? Inflation? Climate change? Vladimir Putin? You’d be a fool to dismiss them. But if we are to get the country into a better place, then here’s another big one: the collapse of political trust.
Two major reports — from 2020 and 2021 — showed a major deterioration in how much the British people trust our leaders. Both analyses go back a long way — to 1986 and 1944 respectively. And, perhaps most alarmingly, both were published before Partygate and the chaos of 2022 — it seems inevitable that trust has nosedived since their release. One is reminded of the claim, by one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters, to have gone bankrupt twice: “Gradually and then suddenly.”
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Cynicism about UK politics hovers above the fray — both more important and less urgent than the average passing crisis. But its role is entirely negative, reducing the public’s patience, goodwill, and readiness to “put into” the system — commodities which are vital if you want to change things in a long-term way. When disaffection reigns, the winners are the politicians who have the least integrity: those most willing to flatter the popular notion that bad people run the world.
This eventually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, with those who genuinely lack scruples attaining high office. Hence the Prime Ministership of Boris Johnson, an abnormally unprincipled figure, who clambered the greasy pole through “boosterism” and “cakeism”, and ended up confirming the electorate’s deepest-held suspicions about the political class. Increase political trust, then, and you reverse the cycle of poor leadership. In the process you become better able to tackle the root causes of the energy crisis, the housing crisis, the refugee crisis, and countless other issues.
Yet before this is possible, we need to ask why trust is low in the first place. And for this to be meaningful, we must address two of the pat-answers often put forward. The first is that suggested by political partisans. This argues simply that the failures of the other side are to blame. In the case of the Left, the story might start with Iraq, and run through to the mishandling of Covid — taking in the lack of financial regulation pre-2008 and the Tories’ austerity and hostile environment policies. In the case of the Right, it may begin with “unchecked” freedom-of-movement and overspending in the 2000s, compounded by failure to meet the “tens of thousands” immigration target, deliver a radical enough Brexit or expel “wokery” from our institutions.
The problem with these explanations is that each pretends the failures they cite were forced through against a groundswell of popular dissent. Or that there was a perfect alternative. Or both. In a democracy such arguments rarely stack up. Many of the blows to trust listed either reflected the public mood or made sense based on the information at the time.
The second type of bromide comes from those who blame a lack of accountability. Preoccupations here usually involve the claim that our political class has become remote from those they serve. Start listening again and trust will return, the argument runs.
I have much more time for this view than for garden-variety political partisanship. Localism and devolution, in particular, are hugely important buttresses against disaffection. And serious, regular public engagement is vital. But the uncomfortable truth is that the UK has more locally-rooted politicians, more scrutiny and more opportunities for citizen participation than a few decades ago. Even before the Government announced its deal for the North East yesterday, significant powers were already devolved compared to in the past. Added to this is the additional transparency of a 24-hour news cycle and the Freedom Of Information act. And in 2016 we carried out the biggest experiment with direct democracy in history. The Westminster bubble itself is aware, to an unprecedented extent, of what the public thinks about every topic under the sun.
Some of these shifts will have stopped political cynicism from spreading as fast as it might, with politicians responding better to the public mood and corruption exposed more quickly. But the paradox remains: trust has continued to fall over the same timespan as many initiatives designed to enhance democracy or transparency have been rolled out. So, if a lack of accountability is not the answer (or is not the sole answer), then what is?
Low trust is ultimately down to social changes that are broadly positive: lower deference, a more informed electorate, a media aiming to speak truth to power, a diverse electorate (politically and demographically), the rise of Judicial Review processes to challenge decisions, the expectation that businesses publish executive pay, and the fact that politicians are cross-examined more often (via public enquiries and select committee grillings, with footage circulated on social media if they mess up). All of this points less to the absence of democracy than to a sort of hyper-democracy — a situation of relentless exposure, which decision-makers have not acclimatised to.
Meanwhile the public have learned, in the past decade or so, about MPs’ expenses, non-dom status, Partygate, phone-hacking, bankers’ bonuses, energy company profits and sexual misconduct allegations, to name but a few. These are not, for the most part, novel phenomena. But they might once have gone undiscovered. And even if they’re getting less common, all it takes is one high-profile example for us to conclude that they’re on the rise.
This mirrors the phenomenon dubbed Moynihan’s Law, whereby societies with stronger human rights perceive there to be more rights violations. The better the tools we have to interrogate the government — to probe, challenge or simply observe them in action — the more they will come up short. Fifty years ago, many parliamentarians only visited their constituencies a handful of times a year, for example. Yet a much larger proportion of the electorate trusted MPs’ motives.
Should we, therefore, accept low trust as a by-product of a more open society? As the price we pay for democratic vigilance? I’m not convinced. The first reason why is the one mentioned at the start: a country with rock-bottom trust, left to its own devices, will list towards populism and conspiracism. The poor conduct of those in office since 2019 is, I would say, a sign that this is already happening. Those best equipped for our hyper-democracy are the most brass-necked; those who believe that even a career-ending balls-up can be fronted out in a climate so fast-moving.
But the bigger reason why political trust matters is that it represents a social good in itself. It’s not just a metric to measure something else. A 2008 report by Demos explored this in detail, in relation to local councils. Deferring to sociologist Barbara Mistzal, it identified three benefits to trust. First, trust helps us to work with one another, creating legitimacy and toleration of shared decisions. Trust also brings people together, enabling social bonds. And finally, trust makes life certain and predictable, allowing us to form habits and routines. What’s striking today is how many of these things seem to be in short supply. Especially in a fast-changing, networked world. Especially post-Covid, with society atomised and online.
How do you breathe trust into a political system which has so little of it? If I had the answer then I would long ago have fulfilled Boris Johnson’s childhood goal and become “World King”. So let’s look instead to someone who has become one of the most trusted figures in public life: Martin Lewis.
Lewis is apparently seen by many voters as the sort of person who would be an “ideal UK leader”. The Times reports that he is more trusted than the average bank. What has Martin Lewis, a TV presenter allegedly worth £123m, done to deserve his reputation as a man of the people? I can see why, if you were a state-schooled MP representing the town where you were born, you might feel a little aggrieved.
Yet the truth is that Lewis’s background matters less than his conduct; in my view, the trust people have in him makes a lot of sense. To begin with, Martin Lewis is studiously neutral — independent both from commercial paymasters and from obvious political leanings. People trust him just as they would trust a neutral to give them an account of a football match, over a diehard fan of either side.
His lack of commercial skin-in-the-game is obviously relevant to the trust people have in him. Much of the cynicism about modern politics stems from the sense that politicians are “on the take”. There have unfortunately been many recent examples to corroborate this — the Cameron-Greensill scandal, for instance — and while I suspect these are not as representative as many think, they fuel the idea of vested interests.
But Martin Lewis’s political neutrality is, if anything, more relevant. A big mistake made by some contemporary politicians — driven, I think, by the first of the two pat-answers for low trust described earlier — is to believe they will enhance their trust by showing how much they despise the other side. Recent ONS data shows how flawed this is, with the population even less inclined to trust “the political parties” than they are to trust “parliament” or “the government”. Complete political neutrality is obviously a non-option for a party leader or minister. But double standards or unnecessary partisanship clearly harms trust.
The other key reason for the high trust in Martin Lewis is based on his role as an educator. He unpacks financial systems and products, so that ordinary people can make decisions for themselves — navigating an increasingly complex world. Lewis’s approach here assumes maximum intelligence and minimum information on behalf of his audience. It does not browbeat; rather, it encourages people to understand both the bigger picture and the specific choices and trade-offs available to them.
This role tends not to sit within the average politician’s wheelhouse — the remit being to campaign rather than explain. And there is a fear, too, among decision-makers, of appearing to patronise. But perhaps the biggest way for our leaders to regain our trust is to provide context more regularly and show their workings more willingly.
Can you get the toothpaste back into the tube, when it comes to political trust? If my diagnosis is correct — and cynicism is partly due to a societal opening-up — then this might be harder than it looks. Yet there are reasons for optimism. For one thing, both our main parties now appear to be led by non-populists. For another, tracker polling of public confidence in different professions shows trust rising in many; it is not inevitable that the lines go down.
For UK politicians to rejuvenate, then, they perhaps need to see the decline in trust less as a blip to be reversed than as a phase to be moved through. Like a young person coming of age, and realising that their parents have feet of clay, the scales have — over recent decades — fallen from the eyes of the electorate. This has been exacerbated by several years of crisis, but we are at least now in a position where neither Labour nor the Tories are led by demagogues. As we enter a new year, the politicians most likely to earn back trust will be those who continue this break with populism, in the face of massive challenges. They must level with those they serve, and seek an adult relationship.
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