Teachers, journalists, pollsters - who can we trust these days?

The story of a generation - lied to, again and again, yet ultimately powerless.

The thing I used to dread about being a teacher, above all, was Parents’ Evening. Especially if the child was struggling. Then it seemed there were only three types of parents. There were Group A - the ones who made you feel sorry for the kid: (“Sorry he’s so crap. Shall I ground him?”). There were Group B - the belligerent:

“I’m afraid I think your child’s dyslexic.”

“He’s not.”

“But I sent him to the Special Educational Needs supervisor and had him tested.”

“He’s not.”

“He can’t spell his own name.”

“He’s not.”

And then there were possibly the worst, Group C - the ones who, quite rightly, put absolute blind faith in you: “You know best, you’re the expert, you just tell us what to do.” Well: actually I’m in my mid-twenties, I spend my evenings playing FIFA on my Playstation and wondering how spending hours in the company of your recalcitrant child turned out to be my life, and frankly I’m scared I’ll screw him up to such an extent that he’ll end up like, well, me. I’m the last person I’d ask.

And that’s the thing about professionalism. Half of it is resisting the urge to say to Group A either, “Everything’s fine” or “Yes. ground him for as long as you can – till the age of 21, preferably”, to say to Group B “Everything’s fine” or “Get out of my face, you bumptious little arsehole”, and to refrain from breaking down in tears in front of Group C and asking them why your girlfriend left you.

According to YouGov’s latest poll on trust, 70 per cent of us trust teachers to tell the truth – a steep decline from 2003, when apparently 88 per cent of people were happily taking me at my word. I’d say that’s probably right – not because 30 per cent of teachers are untrustworthy, but because teachers are people, trying their best, and, being human, sometimes choose to evade, equivocate, or maybe tell a white lie from time to time.

I’d been wanting to write a blog about the breakdown of trust in public life for ages, but I realised there was a problem: most of you don’t believe a word I say. Only 38 per cent of people trust journalists on "upmarket newspapers" to tell the truth. And I’m being disingenuous by putting myself in that category, what with most of my stuff appearing online these days and the New Statesman not being a newspaper. You probably need to extend the chart a few columns down, so "bloggers" can slot in behind Jeffrey Archer and Bernie Madoff.



But let’s see what this poll tells us about society. What it paints is either a depressing picture, or a heartening one, depending on how you look on it. Our faith in every single institution but one has, over the last nine years, dipped. Judges, journalists, doctors, policemen, teachers – we’ve lost faith in all of them. 

As I said, you could frame an example like teaching in a positive light – our populace is more skeptical; less credulous. Our faith in newspapers is inversely proportional to their circulations: this week the Sun ran an information box containing the figures on the huge decline in trust of BBC journalists (from 81 per cent to 44 per cent), but neglected to mention that red tops had also declined - to 10 per cent from an initially meagre 14 in 2003. It’s that sort of behaviour that means, well, only one in ten people trust you. Yet this doesn’t stop the Sun having far and away the highest circulation. We know it’s full of balls, but we buy it anyway: that’s us Brits, reading the news while taking a pinch of salt with our tongues in our cheeks.



But I think a far sadder picture lurks behind this chart. I am 31 years old this month. It feels to me - perhaps older readers with a different historical perspective will have another view  - like the last few years have drastically undermined my view of the Britain in which I grew up.



Of course, nine years ago I wouldn’t have said the media or the Met were squeaky clean - but I never dreamed of the scale of corruption and illegality that’s been exposed in recent times. Likewise we’d had parliamentary scandals before, but the sheer arrogance of those involved in the MPs expenses scandal still shocked me. I didn’t march in protest over Iraq. I thought the intelligence services and Cabinet knew something I didn’t.

And on it goes, with the systematic cover-up over Hillsborough, the scale of Savile’s debauchery, the crisis at the BBC – all happening at a time when we’re suffering the greatest betrayal of all. This young man believed we’d cracked the balance of economic growth and social equality. He deferred to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – without realising, he also deferred to Fred Goodwin. Look at the world our young face: sky-high youth unemployment, student debts, worse pensions, a lack of affordable housing – what would I say at those parents’ evenings now?

That is the story of my generation – lied to, again and again, yet ultimately powerless, until all that’s left is nihilistic cynicism. I wanted to believe in the big society, because I felt that endemic to many of these scandals was a centralising of power. It was another dream that fell by the wayside. It’s all so horrifying we barely know which way to turn – as Nick Cohen says of Occupy, it was “representative of our directionless times when reformers have no coherent ideology.”



That’s what I read from the YouGov chart, anyway. But then I could also ask why our faith in judges rocketed in 2006; why our faith in directors of big companies has gone up. It seems to make no sense. Maybe the methodology’s flawed. But at least we can trust our polling companies, can’t we?



 

Judges, journalists, doctors, policemen, teachers – we’ve lost faith in all of them. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder