IPSOS Mori’s poll on trust in politics at the end of May should surprise no-one. 3/4 said that Britain’s system of government needed improvement — the most negative view since Mori started asking the question in 1995. At 20%, less than half the number of people believe that the Westminster parliament is doing its job, as compared with the last time they asked the question in 2001. 76% of people do not trust MPs to tell the truth. 62% believe that MPs put their own interests ahead of party, constituents and country — again, the worst that Mori has ever recorded. 2/3 think that MPs use power for their own personal gain. Even so, 80% believe that the system of expenses was to blame, not just the politicians.
52% of people were prepared to vote for a candidate not caught up in the scandal, even if that meant voting against the party they want to win the election.
It’s not hard to see how we got to where we are. But the question is: how do we get away?
Given that only 1 in 4 people have said they trusted MPs in general to tell the truth, and this figure has stayed fairly constant since pollsters began asking the question, we could perhaps say that it is inevitable that voters don’t trust politicians. But this is clearly not universal. 51% of Americans think Obama’s leadership is excellent or good, and 47% think his ethics are excellent or good.
Are the British naturally more cynical than Americans? Most of the world — we are given to understand — still believes British democracy to be above par on its ethics and honesty. Or do they simply believe this because they just don’t pay as much attention to it as we do?
Certainly, right now, everyone who wants to distrust politicians (that is, 3/4 of us) can find lots of evidence for it. But, as Mori points out, even before the scandal, approximately the same number of people still distrusted politicians. It is therefore clear that it is something other than our observation of what politicians do that sows our distrust.
It was said of King John that nobody trusts a man who trusts nobody.
This struck me deeply when I heard it on Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time during the run up to the Euro elections. No-one trusts a man who himself trusts no-one. The more I consider it, the more I am compelled to believe that it is the culture of sowing distrust, innuendo, constant attacks on the character of opponents, and, worse, constant mocking, that makes all politicians (including those who don’t indulge in this, because all are tarred by association) appear to be untrusting, and therefore untrustworthy.
And yet, and yet. If we were to say that politicians were not allowed to be in conflict with each other, and to point out each other’s failings, then we would have no debate, and no means of holding government to account. The duty of opposition is to oppose, and it is one of the things which holds us back from tyranny.
So, are we therefore left with a choice: either our politicians by their behaviour will forever command our distrust, or, by their silence, will appear to earn our trust while, in truth, betraying it? This is a truly Shakespearian conundrum.
The answer, surely, is that there is a middle way. We are now engaged in a national process of hand wringing about standards in public life in relation to expenses. But it would not be beyond our power as a nation to start imposing standards on the the discourse of MPs. It was two elections ago that the Advertising Standards Authority threw its hands up and ceased to police political advertising. You can now, in a very real sense, say anything you want on a political poster, and get away with it. But the imposition of a standard of debate both in and outside the chamber of the House of Commons is something which could be done, and, for that reason, should and must be done.
At the moment, the only thing which limits a politician’s ability to make any accusation they want is the risk of being found out later on.
We are expecting the new Speaker of the House of Commons to reform members’ expenses. But we should also expect and require the Speaker to reform the standard of debate.
We, the electorate, should also seek to vote, in the new parliament, for new MPs who will not stop at nothing to obtain and maintain power. In this, in the past, we have signally failed, and we should therefore, collectively, accept a large part of the responsibility for the politicians we have elected. Because, ultimately, the electorate does not necessarily get the government it wants, but it always, collectively, gets the government it deserves.