You may not think that a crisis can be simultaneously heartening and ridiculous, but the ‘crisis of trust’ in politics proves otherwise. Across Europe and America, we are said to be exhibiting a frightening decline of trust in our politicians. According to Gallup, in 1972 20% of Americans trusted politicians ‘a great deal’. Today only about 8% do. Across the Atlantic in Great Britain, Ipsos Mori reported in January this year that we had reached the frightening stage where ‘politicians are still trusted less than estate agents, journalists, and bankers’. Strangely, nobody appears to ask why ‘trust’ is meant to be the natural state of affairs in the first place.
In early 2010 the then opposition leader David Cameron stood up in East London to discuss ‘rebuilding trust’ in politics. The issue was crucial to the Conservatives, who had moped around on the opposition benches for almost 13 years. To gain the trust of British voters, Cameron announced that ‘we [Conservatives] are a new generation at ease with openness and trust… we will ditch the political culture, the political approach that has done so much to break politics and breach people’s trust’.
Now we’re six years on. Britain is in the midst of a review into Freedom of Information, in case we are too at ease with openness, and electoral boundaries are about to be redrawn to favour the Conservatives. Cameron also finds himself frighteningly close to the Panama Papers, which may suggest that he has personally benefitted from questionable fiscal practices.
In 2015, his Labour rival Ed Miliband audaciously attempted to build trust by chiselling his party’s policies into a giant rock. Under its long shadow, he asserted that ‘Nick Clegg and David Cameron have helped erode trust in all political leaders … If I am prime minister, I will keep our stone in a place where we can see it every day’. This approach was more effective in gaining ridicule rather than trust.
In early 2015, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon took the blunt approach by simply asking voters to simply ‘trust us – trust me – to always do the best for you, for your family and for your community’. Since then, problems in policing, healthcare, education, and transport have come to light in Scotland, alongside accusations of her MPs improper behaviour resulting in the suspension of two SNP MPs.
None of these strategies seem to work. Trust in politicians remains low. In Britain, Ipsos MORI found that we trust hairdressers to tell the truth more than we trust politicians. Across Europe, only 31% of people say they trust their government, the lowest levels being in Spain at 12%.
When exactly was the golden era of trust meant to be? In 1983, 33 years ago, only 18% of Britons trusted their politicians to tell the truth. Hardly a ringing endorsement. Perhaps the worry is pointless. Perhaps we were never meant to trust politicians.
We have known our fellow citizens to be potentially untrustworthy for only a couple of thousand years. In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon makes us imagine that we possess the magical Ring of Gyges, which grants us the power of invisibility. With this, we are gifted the ability to do what we like without fear of being caught. Glaucon expects, quite plausibly, that most of us would act unjustly ‘for everyone will do evil if he can’. Perhaps some might think this to be overly pessimistic, even paranoid. To them I ask; who on earth trusts someone without good reason?
Almost three-hundred years ago, David Hume wrote that ‘in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest’. Why? Because politics is ultimately the means through which different interests are pursued. If we can get our way, normally we will. In a democracy we know that those with power over us have an interest in using it for their own ends. If trust is the expectation that those with power will act how we want them to, distrust is the knowledge that there is a chance they might not.
If we were meant to trust politicians, why would we need to vote for them every five years? Why would we need freedom of information or independent auditors? We do not make power so difficult to wield out of an expectation that those who govern us will be honest and benign. We assume, instead, that those in power may be self-serving, incompetent, and inconsiderate. Democracy is, in itself, a system of constitutional distrust.
After all, who loathes distrust more than those who seek to abuse power? In any autocratic state, one can only imagine the depth of corruption, the networks of cronies, and the unflattering statistics which are all hidden away from their citizens. Illiberal regimes need a false façade of competence. For them, when truth seeps out and citizens grow unhappy with their governments it is the people, not politicians, who are punished. Democracy is brutal in showing honesty: dictatorship is brutal in enforcing dishonesty.
Putin’s reaction to the Panama Papers show how distrust is his anathema. His media are silenced on the suggestion of corruption, his opponents are threatened and the leaks are painted as a “western plot” to undermine his country’s pristine morality.
What should worry us is not our distrust in politics, but the ease in which some people place their trust in the anti-establishment establishment. “If we just default on our debt, we’ll all be fine”, says one. “If we just split ourselves off from this larger political unit, we can be more prosperous”, says another. “Trust me”. Trust should be earned. It should be reasoned and rational, built by deeds and not declarations. It is pitiful to ask a voter to trust you.
We cannot simultaneously be expected to treat government with a deep scepticism but trust the alternatives. The populist’s insecurity is clear when any criticism is dismissed as ‘negativity’, or when critics are branded ‘unpatriotic’, or even ‘fearful’. How dare we not trust hard enough? It is our responsibility, as voters, to treat any of those who seek our vote with a deep scepticism. After all, it is power over our rights, our services, and our lives which is granted alongside our votes. We have a responsibility to vote: When we do, we should vote for people who prove they can be trusted.
It is scepticism which we use to curb the abuse, and misuse, of power. We should be proud of any political system which is open about its broken nature. If populists and dictators want to show that Western democracy is ‘broken’, then they are welcome to open up about how dysfunctional their systems are. We know our democracy isn’t perfect, we don’t trust it, but we should love our freedom to feel that way.