Britain could hardly have had a less trustworthy leader than Boris Johnson, and it is tempting to see untrustworthiness as an individual failing, one that can be rectified by a person of greater character. Having worked closely with him, I have no doubt Keir Starmer possesses the integrity that the office of prime minister demands. But a search for the ideal politician can only end in disappointment. And it misses the deep crisis of trust in modern democracies.
Only 37 per cent of people in the UK say they trust government to do what is right, according to the most recent Edelman Global Trust Barometer. The Truss-Kwarteng mini-Budget debacle and the traumas of the Johnson premiership have made a bad situation worse. But comparative countries do little better. In the US, just 42 per cent trust their government; in Australia it’s 45 per cent. By contrast, faster-growing economies enjoy much higher levels of faith in their leadership – for example, 76 per cent in Singapore say they trust their government to do the right thing.
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As voters we are all too aware of the multiple crises we face, both in our personal lives and as a nation. Economic confidence has disintegrated, with the UK especially badly affected. Less than a quarter of Britons expect to be better off in five years’ time, and three quarters believe the government and public services will offer little support in the years ahead, according to the Ipsos global tracker.
Amid the perma-crises of Western democracies, the collapse in confidence in the state to do what is right means questions of trust transcend the qualities of individual leaders. People’s day-to-day experience of government – particularly compared to their experience of accessing private goods and services via digital platforms – merely reinforces a view that the system isn’t working. Or not, at least, working for them.
It is not hard to see why people think things aren’t working for them. They really aren’t. I don’t mean the post or the trains – although some days having a functioning rail system in the north of England, where I live, would feel like progress. I mean the basic contract that says hard work and talent should determine where you end up in life. People just don’t believe that’s true any more, and they’re right.
The social democratic promise that a market economy could be moderated to accommodate the excesses of capital while providing progress in society was blown apart by the financial crisis of 2008. In the intervening years, social democratic parties paid a hefty electoral price for their complicity in a failed consensus. There has been some revival in their fortunes as voters grow weary of centre-right austerity and right-wing national populism – as Jeremy Cliffe has charted in his recent essay “The strange death of the centre right”. Voters are turning to centre-left parties again in Germany, Australia and the US – while in Britain the Labour Party is attracting renewed support. But there is also recognition that, while the old orthodoxy has run out of road, we are not yet at the point where a new settlement is inevitable.
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If there is to be new settlement between citizens, markets and the state, institutional reform must be at the heart of it. It is not just governments and public services that are affected by declining trust: business, the media, tech firms, the police (especially the crisis-ravaged Met) and NGOs need a fundamental reset. Too many are operating without the quiet consent of those for whom they purport to be in business.
But we need more than institutional reform. We need a new economic settlement that raises living standards for the majority of people. That cannot be achieved by a passive government content to stand by as wages stagnate and costs to households and business soar. But neither can it be achieved by an overreaching, unmodernised state. It will come, if it comes, from the new partnerships that are being created out of crisis. Partnerships like those that produced the Covid vaccine in record time, which formed between our scientists, world-leading universities, manufacturers and the government, compelled to collaborate at a pace the crisis demanded.
And just as public faith in the ability of the state to do the right thing is waning, the state at a local and sub-national level is finding new ways to adapt. Take Bristol’s One City Plan, which has helped mobilise hundreds of partners to fulfil City Hall’s long-term priorities. With it, millions of pounds have been leveraged from private and community investors to fund initiatives that will improve Bristol’s economy, public health and environment.
Public research reveals a strong appetite for new ideas. But progress is never inevitable: more people may trust the local over the national, but, according to Edelman’s global research, a worrying number of people with strong opinions would not want to work with someone who didn’t share their point of view. We cannot flourish as a country in an environment of mutual intolerance. As well as securing our economic contract, the centre left must be at the forefront of repairing our social fabric through the commitment to the enduring values of tolerance, community and respect.
Trust comes from learned experience. Trust is about what you do, not what you say. Once we change the condition we are in for the better, our view of politics and even politicians can change too.
[See also: Keir Starmer: This is what I believe]
This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink