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The gap in the smile of power

16 September 2016

Trust in politicians is lower than ever, with good reason, says Barbara Ridpath


Could not tell a lie? Portrait of George Washington, whose integrity was enshrined in the cherry-tree story

Could not tell a lie? Portrait of George Washington, whose integrity was enshrined in the cherry-tree story

IN THE summer, the EU referendum campaign, and the final report of the Chilcot inquiry did little to encourage us to trust our Government and our politicians. This is a shame, because, as in many walks of life, it is the few that damage the reputation of a sector as a whole.

We now have annual surveys from the Edelman Trust Barometer of 28 countries around the world, which tell us how low levels of trust have descended. The 2016 survey reports that government is the least trusted of the four sectors surveyed. The other three are: non-governmental organisations (NGOs), business, and media.

In the UK, there was a significant and growing gap in trust in government between the wealthy, who continue to believe in their government, and the disadvantaged, for whom trust in government continues to decline. It is possible that improved transparency permits us to know more, both good and bad, about our politicians.

Regardless of the relative trustworthiness of today’s politicians, many of them do the population a disservice by misrepresenting issues to the electorate. The ways in which they do this fall into at least three categories.


FIRST, they represent opinions as facts. “I believe we will be better off outside the European Union” becomes “We will be better off outside the European Union.”

Second is the use of “lies, damned lies, and statistics” (“three kinds of lies”, in a phrase attributed to Benjamin Disraeli). The statistical prevarication that we pay £350 million a week to the European Union was true, as far as it went, but neglected to tell the voter the amount that the EU spent in the UK. The outright lie to win votes was that all that money would be spent on the NHS if people would only vote to leave the EU. That was retracted almost as quickly as the campaign was won.

Misleading with statistics is so widespread that, in 1954, the book How to Lie with Statistics was published by the American freelance writer Darrell Huff; it continues to be used in classrooms around the world.

One of the most infamous lies of recent years was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In matters of national security, citizens most need to trust their governments, as disclosure can compromise sources. Yet, once the cover of “state secret” is used to dissimulate, all subsequent national security interests become more suspect.

Lack of popular support for military intervention since the WMD débâcle must be attributable, at least in part, to widespread uncertainty about what we are told.

Third, there is the truth that becomes a lie when circumstances change. One recent example was David Cameron’s promise to stay on as Prime Minister, regardless of the outcome of the referendum, and then his resignation on the morning of the result; a second is the changing views of Labour MPs, who initially supported Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, but, a year later, think that Owen Smith is better placed to challenge the Conservatives.

We miscategorise these as lies, because, as the American economist Paul Samuelson said: “When events change, I change my mind.” Changing one’s mind is not necessarily a bad thing to do, as long as the reasons for that change are clearly articulated.


THESE three categories ignore two others at the extreme ends of the spectrum of prevarication. At one end is the treachery of confused loyalties and self-interest which causes politicians to switch horses in a leadership race. The winner in this category is Michael Gove’s decision to run for the leadership of the Conservative Party, after having supported Boris Johnson. At the other end of the scale is the white lie to avoid hurt feelings, such as “Your new hairstyle suits you” when clearly it does not.

Hovering over the whole of the political arena is the difference between the public statement and private sentiment. Kenneth Clarke’s view, expressed to Malcolm Rifkind when he thought the camera was off, that Theresa May was a “bloody difficult woman”, and his suggestion that Michael Gove as Prime Minister would go to war with three countries at once, were private sentiments unwittingly made public.

The problem with all of these various forms of mendacity is that they encourage distrust and cynicism about the political process, to the point where the public distrusts anything said by politicians. The enhanced ability to check facts, spread rumours, and publicise disputes which is due to both the rise in social media and the 24-hour news cycle exacerbates this problem.

Mr Corbyn’s recent claim that he could not find a seat on a northbound train, which Virgin trains disputed with CCTV images, presents a prime example of this. In the summer news lull, even this relatively minor dispute over the facts was given huge media attention. This particular incident demonstrates both the importance of telling the truth, given the ease with which social media can catch a politician in a misrepresentation, and the way in which politicians’ use of spin to pitch a story as it suits them can further reduce trust.


DISILLUSIONMENT can lead to the public’s withdrawal from the political process, decreased voter turnout, and increasing factionalism driven by distrust of the “other”. It can also lead to extremism, fed by the sense of a lack of representation.

Fuelled by the politics of mistrust, there are only a few steps towards hatred of the “other”, whether that other is our neighbour, an immigrant, or someone in a country far away. The worst of our political class play to these fears.

Propagating such fear can encourage withdrawal and isolationism in foreign policy, treating all countries with whom we differ as the “other”, and, almost by definition, inferior.

Historically, politicians have long stirred fear of the foreigner as a way of gaining political power at home. This was simpler when we were both less exposed to, and less dependent on, other nations. Today’s media and social media make the individual foreigner more real to us, and the increased level of economic interconnections and dependencies makes it more difficult to live alone on our island. The consequences of diminished trust are both more expensive and more explosive.

The appearance (or creation) of a common enemy can be used to unite a nation: the Cold War is a classic example. It is a risky strategy, which worked during the Falklands War, but backfired spectacularly over Iraq. We should look elsewhere for solutions.

Trust is a vital component of a functioning democracy, but it should never be unfailing or uncritical. If we are to live together well, new ways to foster trustworthiness in our institutions and in each other will be vital.

It starts with truth-telling by politicians. Andrea Leadsom may have been naïve, but her willingness to apologise publicly to the future Prime Minister was laudable. The media need to concentrate on informing and explaining rather than inciting anger and confirming existing prejudices.

But the public, too, have an important part to play. Citizens need to hold both media and politicians to account. We have an obligation to think beyond our own self-interest to a larger common good. Neither “Me first” nor “What’s in it for me?” is an attitude that permits a diverse society to serve the needs of all well.

People have a right to expect honesty, integrity, and truth-telling from both politicians and the media who report on them. In turn, each of us has an obligation to think beyond our narrow self-interest. If we do not, then we get the government we deserve.


Barbara Ridpath is the Director of the St Paul’s Institute, in the City of London.

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