A dispiriting lack of trust, and not just in Britain's politicians

People profess broken trust but carry on with life. Is there another choice?

Satirical artist Kaya Mar holds a painting depicting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, outside the Houses of Parliament, in London. AP
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It’s been quite the week in politics in the UK. After a seemingly unending series of scandals from No 10, Downing Street, a flurry of resignations has been making headlines, not least of all the Prime Minister's.

One of those who stepped down was MP Laura Trott saying, "trust in politics is – and must always be – of the upmost importance, but sadly in recent months this has been lost."

Trust is very much the buzzword. And in recent days, it has been plastered in headlines and punctuated discussions. A loss of trust in government seemed to be the last straw this week in Britain.

The Chinese philosopher Confucius told his disciple Tsze-kung that three things are needed for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler can't hold on to all three, he should give up the weapons first and the food next. Trust should be guarded to the end: "without trust we cannot stand.”

But this is about more than just the current scandals in government in Britain or domestic politics. Trust is seemingly nosediving.

Poll after poll makes for depressing and disheartening reading. In the West, people are suffering a crisis of trust in institutions. Think of protests in the US to "‘defund the police", because black people understandably feel their trust has been undermined. The mistrust is potent and appears rampant. Whether it is in the police, big public organisations, leaders, Supreme Court judges – notably in America, to a lesser or greater degree, in more than one country, trust seems to be broken.

Most often people have little choice but to simply get on with life

But is this crisis in trust new? Haven’t we seen it before?

An internet search of "crisis of trust" throws up headlines from varying eras and contexts. Human society, it seems, has on one too many occasions experienced similar crises. But even as we profess broken trust, by and large, the majority of us carry on with daily life. Do we have a choice?

This is the great paradox of asking ordinary people how much we trust institutions of society: there is a notable difference in how much we think we trust versus how much we are required to exercise trust. After all, to conduct daily life we constantly, and by default, trust people – in assuming that others will do as they say, that services we purchase will be delivered, that food we buy will not be poisonous, that employers will pay our wages, that the government will continue to keep the country’s wheels turning, that businesses will continue powering the economy, etc.

But take the example in the west of low trust in the media. The Digital News Report 2022 by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that just 34 per cent say they trust UK news. There is an irony of newspapers being trusted to report the lack of trust. So we may say we don’t trust, but we continue with our lives in ways that do. Because otherwise it requires us to make alternative choices. But to even have the choice to trust or not and to exercise that choice, or to find an alternative, is a privilege.

Globally, people assert certain standards and beliefs about the kinds of behaviours that are expected of politicians, businesses and public institutions. People have the right to have those expectations met – of communication, accountability, integrity and transparency.

In the UK, what feels most poignant and heartbreaking in discussions about trust is magnified by the current cost-of-living crisis. If for hours and days your attention and energy are all occupied with putting food on the table and keeping a roof over your head, then it's not easy to prioritise whether or not to trust politicians, businesses and other public institutions. Conversely, the matter of whether on a day-to-day basis, considering everything else that people have to think about, they actively decide to withdraw trust and direct it elsewhere are moot points. Most often people have little choice but to simply get on with one's job and get on with life.

Which is why resignations and declarations on the grounds that trust has been lost, despite a collective feeling that it was lost long ago, seem so dispiriting.

As the 20th century British novelist E M Forster writes in Howards End: “To trust people is a luxury in which only the wealthy can indulge; the poor cannot afford it.”

Published: July 08, 2022, 8:00 AM