Battle in Print: Trust in an age of cynicism

Dave Clements, 29 October 2010

Dave Clements examines two influential recent books on trust: Trust: self-interest and the common good, by Marek Kohen, and Trust: how we lost it and how to get it back, by Antony Seldon.

‘It is fundamentally important to a good society’ says Marek Kohn, author of Trust: Self-Interest and the Common Good. It’s an ‘expectation about the acts of others’, an ‘intertwining of interests’ that ‘sustains interactions that would otherwise collapse, enhances the quality of coooperation, and threads the social fabric together.’

In his more conservative account, Trust: how we lost it and how to get it back, Antony Seldon echoes this sentiment: ‘at the very deepest level we recognise that we are all part of each other.’ But although trust implies familiarity and a sense of community, notes Kohn, we have become strangers to each other. We range further and engage more fleetingly. Again Seldon agrees that the ‘scale and pace’ of society makes trust harder to establish and negotiate. But Seldon goes a step further, and concludes we should stop engaging in ‘superficial encounters’ altogether. We should learn to ‘detach ourselves from the noise of modern life’.

Trust is not a relic

But trust is not a relic under threat from modernity. On the contrary, it’s a very modern thing. If we are to trust, we must be immersed in it rather than removed from it. As Kohn reminds us, historically, people had little need of trust because roles and relationships were fixed at birth. There was simply nothing to negotiate. Today, people ‘take their peers as they find them’. This should be cause for optimism not despair. It may require more work than it did when we lived in simpler communities, but in as far as we choose to trust each other at all our ‘intertwining’ is all the richer.

For all that, a lack of trust is actutely felt across society, and not least by the political elite. ‘Distrust is the modern political condition’ says Kohn, and attempts to mend it ‘a platitude of politicians taking office’. In a pre-election speech about the Big Society, David Cameron said his government would be intent on ‘bringing communities together’. It ‘might even restore people’s trust in the political process’ he speculated. Ed Miliband, a new Labour leader drawing a line between himself and his government - and with his counter-rhetoric about building the good society - acknowledged the day after his election that the nation had ‘lost trust in us’.

Seldon describes 2009 as the ‘year of mistrust’. Yet another inquiry into the war in Iraq, and scandals over bankers’ bonuses and MPs’ expenses, combined to bring those running our society into an unprecedentedly generalised disrepute. But there is also continuity, he says. It was Tony Blair’s failure to live up to his promises that ‘fed a bitter sense of disappointment and distrust for his successor’ – and Miliband’s predecessor – ‘and for politics more broadly’. And it goes farther and wider still. Party membership for the Conservatives and Labour alike is a fraction of what it was in the 1950s and 60s, and voter turnout has also gone into a steady but profound decline since then. Yet, while politicians might be regarded with particular contempt in the UK, Seldon shows how almost without exception levels of trust in government fell between the 1970s and mid-90s throughout Europe; and that in America even ‘Obama won in part on the back of the disillusioned youth vote’.

How did we get here?

The difficulty with Seldon’s treatment of the problem of trust - or rather mistrust - is that while he understands the gravity of the situation that the political elite find themselves in, he doesn’t have a coherent explanation of how they got here. Consequently his recommendations for how they might get themselves back out of it are somewhat confused and off-beam. He is right to identify cynicism as a particularly corrosive aspect of our political culture, for instance, but blaming Mock the Week just won’t do. While he argues that our leaders today are little more than ‘followers of public opinion and focus groups’, within a page or so he is advocating a People’s Bill and the use of social media to ‘poll opinion on government policy’.

Seldon’s answer to the problem of trust in the political sphere is, predictably enough, to devolve. This also happens to be the self-serving answer that the politicians (whatever their party loyalties) have come up with. But devolving power to ‘the people’ is not – as Seldon, New Labour and now the Coalition, insist – going to result in the slightest improvement to the quality of that relationship. Quite the contrary. There is nothing more likely to further erode our trust in those running society than their own eagerness to get us to do it for them. Indeed the great irony is that official efforts to rebuild trust in society and in politics, are themselves rooted in an elite cynicism about the capacities and the propensities of ‘the people’. Of course the rhetoric would have us believe that we are being flattered with greater powers to make decisions and influence things. It might even be true in some instances, but not necessarily for the good.

It is not only the devolution of political power that Seldon advocates. ‘The more patients are involved, the more they will trust’ he declares in his contribution to the discussion on how to rebuild trust in the NHS. But it’s no more legitimate to devolve to patients responsibilities which they are not competent to exercise, than it is to offload the responsibilities of political office onto a society that thought it had delegated them. Competence - as Seldon himself says - is a fundamental of trust relations. Our trust in doctors is built on recognition of the expertise which they, the most trusted of professions, embody. It is their personal remove from us and their indifference to our lives that makes them trustworthy. It is not, as Seldon would have it, on account of their ‘emotional intelligence’.

His enthusiasm for devolution in politics and health care is matched by a fondness for codes of ethics. He wants them for government ministers and civil servants, journalists and schoolchildren, communities (‘codes of good manners’) and sportspeople (‘codes of sportsmanship’). While it is useful to draw attention to the absence of agreed moral codes in society, attempts to graft on new ones are bound to fail. By the very fact of their being proposed from without, such codes are sooner or later rejected by the body politic.

Oddly, elsewhere in his book Seldon seems to recognise this is a bad idea. For instance, he tells us that ‘external sanctions and motivations belittle human beings’ dignity, professional pride and imagination, and should be avoided’. Trust cannot be forced upon people or ‘overseen’ he says. Indeed, it is government interference in public services since the 1980s which has undermined people’s trust. Seldon is critical of the target culture and the regime of performance monitoring that promised greater accountability; but instead undermined the public service ethos, and eroded our trust in public servants and professionals to act in a ‘public-spirited fashion’.

Still, there is more to the undermining of trust than disengagement with politics, the assault on the professional, and the managerial capture of public services. As he rightly says, ‘we live in a climate of suspicion which predisposes us to think ill of other people’s intent’. Parents keep their children indoors for fear of the consequences of letting them out to play and only half of us would trust a stranger to be truthful. He understands that our fears can be fuelled by official over-reaction that actually fosters mistrust and promotes anxiety, rather than protecting those most at risk. And yet, he doesn’t seem to realise that despite the tendency of the authorities to exploit people’s sense of fragility and to confirm their worst fears, just how exaggerated is the loss of trust in society. What he misses, and what is most striking, is the tendency on the part of the political elite to project onto society problems that are very much their own and of their own making.

A sense of direction?

As Seldon puts it, ‘only when challenged or violated does trust become a visible issue.’ The difficulty is that it’s the political elite itself - with an endorsement from Seldon - that is doing the challenging and the violating. Like them he appreciates, all too keenly, that we need what we lack – a ‘sense of direction’ and an ‘agreed moral purpose’. But one is left asking what direction to take or what this purpose might be? Seldon doesn’t really have an answer. His search for an ‘overarching idea’ ends with trust itself. While, as Kohn argues, trust should be ‘sought for its own sake, and because it keeps good company’, it cannot be a substitute for a wider vision. In this sense, it can never be an object in itself. It does not constitute a political project or a big idea around which we might cohere. Trust should spring from our humanity and our natures as necessarily social beings.

The ‘public feel mistrusted by the government and in turn find government to be unworthy of their trust’, Seldon argues. But this is to get things back to front. It is the breakdown of our trust in the elite and their grappling with the implications of this, which has leaked out into society - not the other way around. Their belated interest in ‘engaging’ our trust – in what are truly ‘superficial encounters’ – is symptomatic of their failure to come up with something in which we might invest our trust in the first place. 

At the same time, in the very attempt to engage us in this way, there is a tendency to further undermine our sense of ourselves as political subjects. We become objects of an elite politics of trust, rather than entering into solidarity with each other ‘off our own backs’. It is only when we make such a shift that a greater trust in society can be established, and a politics of any substance will truly emerge.


Dave Clements, social policy writer; convenor, IoI Social Policy Forum; co-editor, The Future of Community.

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