Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The problem of trust

Peter Kellner of YouGov has today published an interesting article about the decline in trust, in the light of the current BBC crisis.

YouGov conducted a survey of British opinion after George Entwistle resigned last weekend as BBC Director General. People were asked which media and political groups they trusted to tell the truth. No one comes out of this survey well, although BBC news journalists still came top at 44%.

Liberal Democrat readers will be less interested in the BBC’s fate, however, than the figures for ‘leading Liberal Democrat politicians’. Only 16% trusted leading Liberal Democrats to tell the truth, a drop of 20% from 36% in 2003.

To an extent, there are two mitigating factors for the party.

First, the problem of trust goes far wider than the BBC or the Liberal Democrats, as Kellner rightly observes. There has been a long-term decline in trust in authority, going back to the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Over that time, there has been a decline in deference and a growing assertion of people’s individuality, a product not only of education and affluence but also revolutionary changes in social mores. Traditional authority figures are aware of this process but do not understand it, so have no idea how to respond, veering wildly between the extremes of Tony Blair’s demotics and the increasingly absurd moral pronouncements by the church.

Second, in a survey of this kind, blind party allegiance is at work, since most adherents of a particular party will automatically say they don’t trust any other party.

However, these two factors don’t provide a complete explanation for the drastic fall in trust of the Liberal Democrats. The issue of tuition fees has been significant, not because of the issue per se but because the party’s pledge made it such a totem during the 2010 general election campaign.

But there’s something more. A big part of the Liberal Democrat promise during the 2010 campaign was that the party was different. It was offering a radically different vision of governance from the cynical practices of the Conservative and Labour parties. The party promised it would be an agent of change but, now it’s in government, it is deliberately projecting itself as part of the establishment.

This is why Nick Clegg’s apology in September about tuition fees hasn’t restored trust. And his conference speech, in which he ignorantly dismissed his party’s past, made it clear that he doesn’t understand why.

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