Why should we trust leaders who believe in nothing?
Today's degraded excuse for politics only exacerbates cynicism and mistrust.
Why was the Union Flag flying at half-mast for the funeral of defence ministry scientist Dr David Kelly, while, according to reports, church bells also rang for him elsewhere? Why did the police set up a one-mile cordon around the church, send in mounted officers to patrol nearby fields, and sniffer dogs to search between the pews?
Dr Kelly might not have been a ‘Walter Mitty character’ with hero fantasies, but others certainly seem to have developed delusions about his national standing since his untimely death. All of this, and the judicial inquiry run by Lord Hutton, is clearly not a proportionate response to the suicide of a civil servant. The air of high-level panic surrounding the grim Kelly affair is symptomatic of a deeper malaise.
All sides seem to agree that the rows over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the government’s dodgy dossiers, and the suicide of Dr David Kelly, have further damaged public trust in politicians and the media. But their explanations for the problem of trust – ‘too much government spin, too much media sniping’ – miss the more fundamental question. And their proposed solutions are likely to make matters worse.
The fact that people are even less likely to trust politicians today should not be surprising. After all, people seem less likely to trust anybody. Recently published research confirms the trend. In the late 1950s, 60 per cent of the public believed that other people ‘could generally be trusted’. By the early 1980s that figure was down to 44 per cent. Now it stands at a miserable 29 per cent, and falling.
This long-term social trend cannot be explained away by anything that New Labour’s Alastair Campbell or the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan might have done in recent months. Nor do the explanations offered by academics and other experts make much more sense. We are told, for example, that growing mistrust and anxiety is a result of the pressures of globalisation, or the end of the job-for-life employment market, or rising immigration. But how can any of these things seriously explain why we now mistrust strangers so badly that we are scared to let our children play in our own streets?
There are more profound changes at work beneath the surface of society. The most important cause of uncertainty is the breakdown of any common set of values. The moral certainties of yesteryear have been seriously undermined, but no new moral consensus has emerged.
The consequence is that people are no longer responding to events from a shared script. We are not so sure whom we should believe or how we should behave. That is why contemporary culture is such a fertile breeding ground for cynicism and conspiracy theories. It is not just politicians who are increasingly mistrusted, but priests and scientists and almost all established figures of authority. And this is not a healthy climate of critical questioning, but a decidedly unhealthy atmosphere of unquestioning scepticism. People are not so much searching for the truth as dismissing the notion that ‘the truth’ exists.
There has always been an understandable degree of mistrust where politicians are concerned. But that is something quite different from today’s automatic assumption that they are lying. One factor at work is the way that the old political ideologies have collapsed along with traditional value systems.
In the past, public doubts about politicians could be overridden by a belief that they at least believed in something, that politics was ultimately shaped by the pursuit of higher principles. When people felt let down by their leaders, it was usually because they had abandoned the principles for which they stood. Now, by contrast, with the end of the Left-Right divide, politicians have no principles to abandon. They self-consciously present themselves as non-ideological actors, and emphasise instead their worthy moral characters.
Sleaze and character have become the standards by which we are supposed to judge our leaders. New Labour did most to speed these changes, going to war against the last Tory government over its alleged corruption rather than its conservatism. When Tony Blair declared that his government would be ‘whiter than white’, it ensured that politics would be reduced to a beauty contest over who has the most honest face, rather than the most inspiring vision of the good society.
In these circumstances, politicians asking people to trust them means something different than it once did. It is not about trusting their policies or the aims of their party. It is about trusting their personal motives and their moral probity. This degraded excuse for politics can only exacerbate the problem of mistrust. It means that everybody (and especially the media) is always questioning the government’s ‘hidden agenda’ rather than its public policies, always looking for the next cover-up, the next scandal. As we have noted before, to the extent that people are inclined to believe the BBC rather than the government in the current row, it reflects the role that some in the BBC now play as a voicebox for public cynicism about politics.
Lord Hutton’s judicial inquiry into the death of David Kelly is likely to have the opposite effect to that which Blair hoped for. Far from rebuilding public trust in the process of government, it will make matters worse. Political life is about to be reduced ever further to petty squabbling and gossip about who said what to whom when, what somebody really meant or what their secret motives might have been, and exactly what was going on inside the head of a civil servant when he killed himself.
Apart from sending the public into the political equivalent of a coma, this circus is likely to strengthen the suspicion that democratic politics is a crooked business in need of regulation by untainted, unelected, unaccountable figures like Lord Hutton. In which case, why not get rid of the government and elections altogether and let the law lords run the country?
Many in politics and the media clearly feel that, in the words of one government minister, they are ‘going down together’. Yet they seem incapable of halting the downwards spiral. There is no longer a fundamental sense of shared aims and loyalties to hold them together, and nobody is sufficiently in control to put on the brakes. Instead the divisions and bitter recriminations within the establishment continue to be played out and amplified on the public stage, reinforcing people’s worst suspicions.
Trying to scramble on to the moral high ground by accusing everybody else of being liars or having blood on their hands seems a strategy guaranteed to ensure that they do all go down together. It is hard to see how any politician, party or other institution can reverse this destructive process by banging on about trust as some abstract Good Thing.
Maybe it is time for aspirant political leaders to realise that the public would be more likely to believe them if they could offer people some political leadership and principles worth believing in.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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