Suspicious policy

Why is Downing Street so bothered about whether people trust each other?

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

‘Britons are more suspicious of one another than ever before’, began a feature in the Sunday Times (London) on 18 May. (1)

The article reported new research by Cambridge academic David Halpern, for prime minister Tony Blair’s Downing Street strategy unit, on levels of trust in Britain and around the world. The results are disturbing.

While, in the late 1950s, 60 percent of the British population thought that people ‘could generally be trusted’, today that figure stands at 29 percent. This is down from 44 percent in the early 1980s, and is thought to fall further in the near future. Two-thirds of us, then, feel that our fellow man might be out to get us. Never mind the pensioners’ nostalgia about the days when you used to be able to leave your front door unlocked: in 2003, it’s surprising that we are even able to leave the house.

The decline in levels of trust are not unique to Britain. Halpern’s study shows a similar decline in English-speaking countries such as America, Australia and Ireland; it was Robert Putnam’s seminal study Bowling Alone, about the fragmentation of community life in the USA, that brought the trust issue to the fore (2). But what it is about the amorphous issue of trust that so bothers the political elite?

Libby Purves, columnist for The Times (London), argues that the elite is bothered by its unpopularity; and that while there are very good reasons why we ‘canny, savvy’ Brits don’t trust ‘politicians who broke election promises, pension funds that jeopardised our future while their directors swanned off with bonuses, stars who turned sleazy’, on an everyday level we trust each other more than we think (3).

‘Every time you get on a train or plane you put your life into the hands of unseen engineers and designers, drivers, pilots and traffic controllers’, she says, and adds many more examples about ways in which we are ‘blithely trusting distant strangers all day long’.

To a point, of course, Purves is right. How people respond to surveys is not a straightforward indication of how they actually behave: it often tells us more about the way they think they are expected to think. On a daily level, society depends on relationships of trust; and two-thirds of people do not exhibit such high levels of fear and suspicion that they refuse to leave the house.

But that does not mean that the response to declining levels of stated trust should be, ‘So what?’. Even if people think that they are less trusting than they are in reality, this says something significant about how we view our relationships with social institutions, and also with each other.

What bothers the political elite about the trust issue is the knowledge, deep down, that the rot starts at the top. As Putnam’s work skilfully revealed, declining levels of social trust are linked to declining levels of political and civic engagement – falling voting levels, falling membership of voluntary clubs, campaigns, churches and other organisations, an increase in individuation at every level of society.

As people become more detached from the institutions of public life, it is harder for the elite to cohere society around a shared mission, or sense of values. Put bluntly, if nobody votes for politicians, what legitimacy do politicians have to push forward their ideas and policies? Without a sense of public trust, the elite is insecure in its position; and this, in turn, exposes it to a greater sense of mistrust.

So, for example, it was New Labour’s obsession with the problem of sleazy (Tory) politicians that turned the spotlight on all politicians’ behaviour, which led to the assumption that all politicians are sleazy – which only compounds the notion that they are not worth voting for in the first place.

But the elite’s concern with trust goes beyond the problems caused by mistrust of its own institutions. There is a recognition that, in fact, the decline in trust does have a profound impact on people’s everyday lives and their relationships with one another.

Trust relationships that would once have been taken for granted – between parents and teachers, patients and doctors, homeowners and neighbours, and so on – become warped by suspicion, and less able to function. Even the most informal of family or friendship relationships, between sexual partners or between parents and children, are conducted in a more calculated, instrumental fashion. The net result is that society becomes more individuated, suspicious, and scared. But why is it happening, and what can be done?

There are a whole load of reasons bandied around for why this is happening. The Sunday Times article sums it up as follows: ‘Experts variously blame the demise of the job-for-life culture, greater social mobility, the rising divorce rate, greater immigration and a more aggressive dog-eat-dog commercial ethic.’ (4) Robert Putnam is quoted on the ‘terrifically negative’ effect of TV: ‘People are watching television rather than being connected with each other and that is making them more mistrustful’, he says (5).

But these changes are at best overstated, and at worst, tautological. There may have been a demise of the ‘job for life’ culture: but for the most part, as the 2003 edition of Social Trends, produced by the UK Office for National Statistics, explains: ‘Average job tenure has remained relatively stable since 1975.’ (6) In any case, how could such a narrow change in something like job tenure possibly explain why parents don’t let their kids play outdoors, or why people don’t take part in community functions?

The same goes for TV. Social Trends claims that UK adults spend just under three hours a day watching television, and while by far the most television was watched in the individual’s own home, adults spent twice as much time watching TV with other household members as they did watching it alone (7). You can make all kinds of things out of these figures – but they surely do not indicate a nation of lonely full-time telly addicts.

No doubt increasing individuation has resulted in more TV watching, but that does not amount to saying that TV causes individuation. Likewise, the increased divorce rate could just as easily be seen as a consequence of social fragmentation as its cause. The latching on to such features of modern society as explanations for the decline of social trust relations represents an avoidance of the more profound changes that have given rise to this problem, and a misplaced attempt to broker solutions at the level of individual behaviour and attitudes.

There is no straightforward reason for the decline in trust, and the solutions are even less so. From the culture wars of the 1960s to the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the end of the past century was characterised by a corrosion of the traditional institutions and solidarities of Western capitalist society, resulting in a widespread sense of political and moral disorientation.

From the erosion of the traditional nuclear family to the decline of the church, from the end of the politics of left and right to the rise of moral relativism and the politics of multiculturalism, there were many key features of this transformation – none of which was decisive in its own terms, but all of which, taken together, made a profound impact. The decline in social solidarities, leading to a broader decline in social trust, can be seen as one key outcome of all this.

To recognise the extent of this process, however, the political elite would have to confront its own role in it: namely, the inability to promote any shared set of values, morals or social solidarities to replace those that have been swept away. There is no obvious reason why, for example, the demise of religion or the traditional family should confront society with a problem, rather than an opportunity to organise around better, secular values or more open, socialised forms of child-rearing.

But having destroyed the old, the new elite can offer nothing to put in its place. And rather than facing up to this fundamental problem, it looks to pin the blame on TV or divorce rates, and seeks solutions at the level of personal lifestyle.

The pet theory used to explain this process of heightened individuation is that of ‘social capital’: the notion that society should be measured according to the quality of interpersonal relationships, and that the role of the elite is to rebuild these relationships at the most intimate level. Instead of focusing on society as a whole, and the need for a shared vision about where society should be going, the elite is caught up in a frenzy of think-tanking and policy-making about how best to make people talk to their neighbours, trust school-teachers, keep their intimate relationships together and raise their children.

The wishful thinking seems to be that, if only the state could enable people to be nicer to one another, they would trust each other more and thus improve their ‘social capital’. The actual consequence of all this, however, is only to make things worse.

Measures such as new vetting procedures, designed to counter parental distrust of teachers and voluntary workers, increase levels of suspicion by branding all those who work with children as a potential danger. State-sponsored advice on all aspects of parenting, from taking your son to football games to helping your daughter with her homework, formalise the relationships between children and parents.

Initiatives aimed at creating ‘safer communities’ do not encourage people to trust their neighbours, but fuel the notion that we are all at risk from each other. Attempts to build bonds between children and older teenagers or adults through ‘mentoring’ schemes and other such ‘informal’ relationships turn the interactions between generations into a calculated, contractual relationship based on obligation and outcome.

In short, every attempt to bolster informal relationships through official intervention formalises and weakens these relationships. Far from cohering a society of lonely telly addicts around a set of ideas and principles, the kind of strategy proposed by those who concern themselves with building social capital fuels individuation and suspicion of others.

Which is why, when it comes to trust, the political elite should worry rather more and do rather less. Left to their own devices, people will always trust each other to some degree: not least, because they have to. But the more their interactions with each other are conducted through official, ‘trustworthy’ channels, the more they experience life on their own.

Read on:

Down with social capitalism, by Jennie Bristow

(1) Britain is getting less trusting, Sunday Times, 18 May 2003

(2) Bowling Alone, Robert D Putnam, Simon & Schuster 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(3) We do trust each other – take my word for it, The Times (London), 20 May 2003

(4) Britain is getting less trusting, Sunday Times, 18 May 2003

(5) Britain is getting less trusting, Sunday Times, 18 May 2003

(6) Social Trends 33 (.pdf), p85

(7) Social Trends 33 (.pdf), p231-232

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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