We don't trust them an inch

Across the democratic world, governing elites are mistrusted, whatever their policies. Blair's decis

Tony Blair has made the biggest U-turn of his premiership; the draft EU constitution will be subject to referendum in Britain. The unifying treaty, cobbled together in a smoke-filled room by sinister Valery Giscard d'Estaing and various Euro-cronies, will now be scrutinised by the people. A victory for the masses, yes?

Hmm. There is talk of a vote in late 2005, safely after the likely date of the general election, even though the constitution is more or less in place now. That is a suspiciously long time. There is talk of shooting Tory foxes. There is talk - ah, now we come down to it - of restoring the trust of the people for Europe, the government and the political process.

Trust has become the leitmotif, the essential political issue of the 21st century, the boil that will not burst. The usual bogeys - inflation, unemployment, the balance of payments (remember that?) - no longer frighten us. Nowadays all government policy, all opposition tactics, are designed to restore trust.

Across the western world, political elites are distrusted, disliked . . . and are being discarded. Blair and Bush (don't mention Jose-MarIa Aznar) have the mess in Iraq, not to mention silly fibs told in the run-up to the invasion, to haunt them. But it can't just be that war; Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroder, the mainstays of the axis of refusal, are also in horrible electoral straits.

Leszek Miller brought Poland into the European Union while support for his SLD government has slipped from 50 per cent to about 8 per cent; he will quit in May. In Greece, Pasok, the party that had presided since 1981 over high growth, an impressive international profile, the bringing home of the Olympic Games, and even (thanks to euro membership) an improvement in public finances, was crushed by the right-wing New Democrats. According to pollsters, voters were fed up of Pasok arrogance.

Who is gaining from this trend? In general, it is the populists. In Poland, it is the Samoobrona ("self-defence") party, a populist mess that appeals to bigoted farmers. Ghastly VladimIr Meciar lost the Slovakian presidential election, but victorious Ivan Ga-parovic is just Meciar-lite. Jorg Haider is resurgent in Austria, and Jean-Marie Le Pen never went away. The British National Party (latest recruit: Tony Martin) seems unlikely to cause many electoral ripples, thank goodness, but the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein trump the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP in Northern Ireland, while the Daily Mail effortlessly sets the British political agenda.

Political elites are unpopular, and policy only partly explains this, because each country's elite espouse different policies. The problem goes deeper than this.

What are the elite for? There is an obvious advantage to having a cadre of specialists used to (and in some countries, such as France, trained for) running the place. It means that the rest of us do not have to; we can let the civil servants and politicians create policy, lay it before us and execute it if we approve, in the same way that we deal with doctors, car mechanics and the like.

This view of the elite, as governmental experts to whom we outsource our political needs as part of the natural division of labour in society, has the advantage of showing exactly where trust comes in: we trust their expertise is genuine. We trust that the elite will rule better than we would. And (whisper it) perhaps their expertise saves us from short-termism, incoherence and from immigrant-bashing, murderer-hanging brutality.

Indeed, when we look at the comparative records of elites, we do find that the more democratic countries tend to be a touch less (shall we say?) civilised. In the US, elections, referendums and opinion polls are taken very seriously. But then, this is the country where capital punishment is no problem, giant fiscal deficits are built up and military invasions are relatively commonplace.

At the other end of the spectrum, some of the elite are disdainful of hoi polloi. France has been run for years by a cabal of graduates of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration; no right-thinking enarque would dream of taking a punter's opinion seriously.

The EU trumps even France, and has the luxury of being able to move the Union in directions that have little or no democratically expressed support from its citizens. If Switzerland ever joins the EU - its application has been on the table since 1992 - there will be a culture clash with Brussels. The Swiss are used to a democracy based on great autonomy and direct consultation. Britain has usually been somewhere in the middle. The proposed referendum moves us in the direction of the US.

There will always be those who do not accept the elite's position, and their opinions are bound to get an airing in a democracy. Who does the airing? Well, it will depend on the political institutions of the country. In the UK, the obvious rabble-rousers are the press, whose gross simplification of issues can create a crisis out of nothing: for example, about immigration, crime, technology or, indeed, the trustworthiness of politicians.

In other countries, particularly in Europe, the press itself aspires to join the elite. So headbanger opinion is expressed by populist political parties, which retain their popularity only as long as they remain in opposition. As soon as they are confronted with the realities of office, those parties that do not collapse under the weight of their own incompetence start to look and sound too respectable for their voters, and lose support.

Here, then, is the tension in democratic politics. The elite ignore the voters to some extent, and we accept that because we trust that they know what they are doing. We are denied power - deny ourselves power - and enjoy the luxury of complaining when the elite are made to look stupid.

The path the elite tread is a difficult one. They will want to keep to their own ideals and ideologies, naturally. But equally they cannot depart too far from public opinion, because that will undermine the public's trust in their good faith.

One common ploy is the "international treaty": "We can't do that [for instance, restore capital punishment]," they say, "because we are forbidden by treaty." The EU is another good excuse: "We can't do that because those dratted Eurocrats won't let us." A third is the spurious "consultation exercise", where the people are asked their opinion, are given their say, and the government "listens". And then does what it was going to do in the first place.

The elite have developed these ploys as a response to the decline in our respect for them. They do not work. They may fend off criticism in the short term, but people still feel that, in the long term, they are powerless to change anything.

On the other hand, in many cases voters are simply unreasonable. It is unreasonable, as in Germany, to support reform, but oppose every actual reform suggested. It is ridiculous - and every country's electorate is guilty of this - to demand higher spending, and then punish the government when it raises taxes.

This is why Blair has gone for the referendum. Trapped between a rock and a hard place, he had four options. Option 1: no referendum, ratify treaty. Blair gets to be statesman, secures place in history, but risks deep unpopularity and the scorn of the press. Hence he would have to delay a decision as long as possible. but could still lose an election. Option 2: no referendum, reject treaty. Blair gets populist acclaim, probably short-lived. Murdoch and the Mail will simply hound him on the next populist issue. Place in history looks dodgy. Chirac and co furious. Option 3: referendum says Yes. Blair looks good in Europe, a master statesman playing his country like a harp. If things go wrong in Europe, Blair can look Bambi-eyed at the voters and say: "Don't blame me. It was your decision." The Tories' Euroscepticism looks anachronistic. Option 4: referendum says No. Chirac cross, but Blair can look Bambi-eyed at him and say: "Don't blame me. It was the voters." The Tories can say they told us so, but they will find it hard to make political capital from it.

It's a no-brainer. The PM is relearning Harold Wilson's lesson.

Poor Blair is trying to deal with the breakdown across most western democracies in the compact between political elites and the people. Blame it on the increase in our education, autonomy and economic power; as we become wealthier and cleverer, we are ever more reluctant to hand political power over to the experts. We also increasingly resent the feeling of powerlessness that comes from having virtually no political voice. We have power in so many domains nowadays. Why not politics?

It has often been noted that we are at the beginning of a new era, when the old ideologies have ceased to have meaning. We are in the midst of exploring new ways of outsourcing our political decision-making, and the current uncertainty and lack of trust are symptoms of the change. The simplification of the issues that the left-right split allowed perhaps made life easier for the elite and for us. Now that simplification is no longer an option.

Wholehearted trust may not be possible any longer, but if that is true, it is asinine of us to continue to behave as if it is the ideal. We may need to engage more, because our responses to the problems that our representatives have been set need to be more complex. And we surely should act as if we understood the compromises, irregularities and imperfections of a successful politics, as Bernard Crick described in his classic In Defence of Politics.

It may be that the referendum route is a sensible one for a polity in which voters are showing decreasing satisfaction with their representatives. But representation is deeply embedded in the British system; it would take a constitutional upheaval to change this.

That is not, in any case, Blair's intention. Everything about the referendum - the issue chosen, the timing of it, the U-turn that delivered it - indicates that the aim is to extract the Prime Minister from the pickle jar and discomfit a newly resurgent opposition. The reason the referendum cannot go any way to restoring trust is that it is a move in the political game, a sacrifice of a rook to ensure (and disguise) elite dominance.

Switzerland, anybody?

The author is a senior research fellow at the University of Southampton. His Trust: from Socrates to spin is published by Icon Books