Who can you trust?

Politicians frequently agonise over whether voters find them trustworthy. But the more important que

Trust, David Trimble observed recently, is "overrated and frequently misplaced. The issue in politics is, rather, can you do business with the other side?" The Northern Irish politician was discussing efforts to put the Good Friday Agreement into practice, a process which, in Northern Ireland, has also illustrated that the greater issue is not whether trust is built among politicians, or whether people trust politicians, but whether people trust each other.

That question is overshadowed in public debate by politicians who are more concerned about the degree of trust they themselves enjoy. Thus we hear, expressed frequently and hollowly, concern about loss of public trust and avowals of intention to rebuild it. The emotional undertone to these protestations is that people should feel warmth towards, as well as confidence in, those who govern them. In other words, people should feel the same way about their relationships with those who seek or hold political power as they do about their relationships with each other.

This personalising of civic relations, overestimating their emotional content, then spills over into ideas about relationships within politics. It may underpin views such as one expressed by Jonathan Powell, which sees trust as a means to achieve co-operation rather than an outcome of it (which Trimble was criticising in his Guardian review of Powell's memoir when he made his remark above). But where trust is concerned, relationships among politicians and relationships among people are fundamentally alike. Trust is an expectation that others will incorporate one's interests into theirs, as the American political scientist Russell Hardin insists. Sometimes that will be with love or goodwill; sometimes it will just be business.

By starting off from self-interest, the real value of trust becomes clearer, and so do ways to build it. Throughout history and before it, across geographical and cultural distance, trade has proved its worth as a starting point. One party wants to eat; the second has food to sell. If the buyer pays the agreed price and is happy with the goods, the exchange may be repeated. As the exchanges proceed, mutual trust will develop, opening up possibilities for more extensive co-operation: the buyer may be prepared to make larger orders, for instance, and the seller may offer credit.

Beyond that, the relations between the two of them will be relaxed rather than tense, tolerant rather than suspicious, and cordial rather than impersonal. Much of what is meant by quality of life is expressed in these contrasts. If everyday exchanges typically have these qualities, society is in good shape. The individuals who enjoy these exchanges are also likely to be in better shape. Lives led at odds with those around one, continually stressed and on the defensive, are likely to be not only unhappier but shorter. Stress tells on the arteries as well as the mind.

The chances that any particular exchange succeeds are heavily influenced by the success of everyday exchanges in general. Where suspicion prevails, individuals will find it hard to co-operate no matter how rationally they calculate it would be in their interests.

The sociologist Diego Gambetta describes the failure of taxi drivers in the Sicilian city of Palermo to organise an efficient radio-despatch system, in contrast to their counterparts throughout mainland Italy. In these systems, the despatcher announces the customer's location and nearby drivers report their positions; the job is allocated to the driver nearest the fare. For the arrangement to work, drivers have to trust each other to report their locations truthfully. A driver who frequently claimed to find himself close to customers would arouse suspicion, because, "in Sicily, there is nothing as suspicious as luck".

Eventually the drivers agreed a compromise under which they gathered in car parks to be allocated customers, who paid the price of endemic mistrust in higher fares and longer waits.

Palermo drivers were not necessarily more mistrustful than drivers in other cities, but they were, in fact, less likely to act on their suspicions. Elsewhere, drivers could police cheating by going to announced locations: if they got there before the driver who had claimed the job, they could report him, and he could be punished by disconnection from the radio network. Gambetta suggests Palermo drivers may have been unwilling to check out fellow drivers in case the cheat turned out to be under Mafia protection.

Mafias, however, were not the cause of social mistrust. According to Gambetta, they originally arose as a solution to it. He quotes a rueful 19th-century Naples coachman lamenting that he had bought a useless horse because of the absence of his camorrista (Neapolitan Mafia) protector, who would normally have overseen and guaranteed the transaction. Protection was originally a genuine service, rather than a racket, offered in conditions where levels of dishonesty were so high that buyers and sellers felt unable to make arrangements between themselves.

There are those - particularly, in Italy, to the north - who are inclined to blame this kind of dysfunction on collective character flaws. Others find the roots of dispositions towards trust in culture or patterns of social structure.

Francis Fukuyama notes how Catholicism's fervent invocation of the family can encourage families to trust family members but, in socially adverse conditions, hardly anybody else. The result may be a tense social ecology of mutually suspicious clans. Fukuyama attributes the industrial success of Japan, from among east Asian countries, to the readiness of its companies to form strategic alliances: this, he argues, has its roots in a traditional pragmatism that allowed Japanese families to co-opt competent outsiders into enterprises. By contrast, he suggests, Chinese enterprise is limited by a more rigid adherence to family limits.

Trust is an outcome not just of tradition, but also of policy. Gambetta points to the destructive effects of the Spanish Habsburgs and Bourbons, who controlled southern Italy in the 18th century through "the promotion and selective exploitation of distrust". If their efforts to divide and rule can be blamed for the failure of Palermo taxi drivers to organise themselves efficiently more than a century after Italian unification, it bodes ill for societies whose more recent communist rulers also did their best to prevent citizens from making arrangements among themselves. In Cuba, for example, it may be easier to let a market economy arise than to undo the effects of neighbourhood Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, which enforce party discipline in place of civil society.

In liberal societies, policy tends to be preoccupied with how best to promote healthy social relations between people of diverse outlooks and backgrounds. The political scientist Robert Putnam notes, with regret, that in the United States, the more diverse a locality, the less likely its inhabitants are to say that by and large they trust other people. In highly diverse San Francisco, the figure for people who trust their neighbours a great deal is about 30 per cent; but it is around 80 per cent in a rural South Dakota county where "celebrating 'diversity' means in viting a few Norwegians to the annual Swedish picnic".

There is nothing particularly surprising about such findings. As trust is the expectation that others will take your interests into account, much depends on having confidence in your ability to predict how others will behave. This confidence will be supported by shared culture and norms: if you know that others have grown up with similar ideas about how to behave, you can answer the question of how they are likely to act by asking yourself: "What would I do if I were in their position?"

Without this confidence, people may be discouraged from interacting with those different from themselves.

Diversity and poverty

Nothing in these findings implies that trust cannot be achieved within diversity. Thinking about trust in terms of respective interests suggests the obvious strategy: promote it by minimising conflicts of interest. Since diversity often correlates with poverty, it may require material investment. The larger the cake, the less people's interests in pieces of it will conflict. And it may be just as important to reduce inequality as to reduce deprivation, particularly when inequalities are perceived between groups.

Measures to reduce inequality have to be seen to be opportunities for all, not handouts for some, particularly, for example, where everyday trading relationships are blighted, such as mistrust between customers and shopkeepers from a different ethnic minority and the belief that one is prospering at the expense of the other. The promotion of trust does not sit comfortably with encouraging identity politics.

Even if true, the reports of warmth between Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and the Democratic Unionist Party's Ian Paisley affirm that rule. Northern Ireland's agreement for politicians to share power permits their constituencies to share the province while having as little to do with each other as ever. If the politicians trust each other to uphold the deal, it is so their constituents don't have to trust each other in everyday life.

In the province and in cities around the world, trust will develop when people see that it is in their interests to build relationships with others of different cultures. They will have to build on the elements in their cultures that they have in common - which may mean building a new, shared, culture. This does not mean facing in surmountable barriers in human nature, despite what those who dislike diversity frequently imply; just the normal difficulties that arise in any relationships that are worth building. Trust is the reward of self-interest properly understood.

Marek Kohn's "Trust: Self-Interest and the Common Good" is published by Oxford University Press (£10.99). He will take part in "Trust in Me?", an event at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, London W1, on Monday 30 June

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror