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A world without trust

Doctors, lawyers, accountants aren't trusted. Nor are politicians, churchmen and journalists. Charles Moore on what we can do to restore confidence in our institutions - and each other

7 December 2002

12:00 AM

7 December 2002

12:00 AM

Have a look at the current ten-pound note. ‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds,’ it says. The ‘I’ who is speaking appends her signature. She is someone called Merlyn Lowther. She describes herself as Chief Cashier, and she signs, as the note states, for the Governors and Company of the Bank of England.

This note strikes me as an interesting and important example of how trust works. To the sceptic, after all, there might seem to be nothing to trust at all. What is this ten pounds that Mrs Lowther promises to pay me on demand? The word ‘pound’ was originally a word describing the weight of sterling for which the note stood. But if I walked into the Bank of England today and asked for Mrs Lowther to come to the till and redeem her promise, I expect I would be shown the door. What I am holding, the sceptic could say, is just a piece of paper which prints a lie, no less of a lie because it has a pretty picture of Charles Darwin and a humming-bird on the back, and the Queen on the front. In principle, perhaps, it would be quite hard to argue with this sceptic; the ten-pound note is only a piece of paper, and it makes a promise that it will not literally keep. And yet we all know he is wrong, and he would have to be a very extreme sceptic indeed before he tore up the ten-pound note and threw it angrily into the wastepaper basket.

In other words, we trust this note. We do not worry that we have probably never met Mrs Lowther. Her position, not her personal character, is what matters. We know that we know what we need to know – that this is a piece of paper which signifies a value. If you think about it, such trust is a very extraordinary social and political achievement. It shows that we believe what the public authorities tell us about value and that we believe that everyone else believes it too. The value of the note is not in the piece of paper, but in the mind. Its value comes from trust alone.

I choose this example to begin with because it is rather encouraging. The value of money is an area in which trust, in Britain, has actually improved over the past 20 years. In the late 1970s, a ten-pound note would have ended up worth about £8 if you had kept it for a year. Now it is worth very little less than £10 after the same period. This control of inflation – the symptom of the abuse of monetary trust – is a huge public benefit. To trust your currency is a great mental relief and a strong spur to trust in the future in general. As a result, the status of the governor of the Bank of England has actually grown in recent years. There aren’t many other examples of the growth of trust, though.

Accountants aren’t trusted. Arthur Andersen has effectively ceased to exist because of its involvement in the Enron scandal in the United States. The police aren’t. Sir William Macpherson says they are institutionally racist; guilty, in other words, until proved innocent. Politicians aren’t. It is generally assumed that they rely on spin, rather than truth, to do their work. Although the Queen had a magnificent Jubilee, the royal family still encounters problems of trust. Some of its members are attacked for their personal relationships; others are accused of freeloading off the public purse. Prince Charles is accused of meddling in politics, and of keeping a disorderly court, peopled by spin doctors and favourites. The European Union represents a high ideal of international co-operation, yet the word ‘Brussels’ in the public mind denotes bureaucracy, remoteness and interfering regulation.

Professionals have a worse time than in the past. People sue doctors; they sue schools; they sue financial advisers; they even sue lawyers. The armed forces retain an enviably high reputation, yet even they appear almost every week in the papers because someone is suing them for sex discrimination or personal injury. The Church is much less trusted, particularly over child abuse. There are police inquiries into the conduct of the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster for his role in an alleged cover-up in the case of a particular priest in his former diocese. I notice that two other once trusted institutions – the BBC and the Times – have had no compunction about repeating as fact unsourced allegations against the Cardinal.

Was it ever thus? In the sense that some people in public life have always done wrong, yes. But in another sense, I think, no. There is now a different presumption about trust. For the generation now old, who lived through the war, trust, by and large, was assumed. So huge and obvious was the external threat that not to trust someone was virtually to brand him a traitor: there were some traitors, but very few. Everyone else was treated in quite a friendly and trusting way. The sources of Winston Churchill’s private finance, for example, would not have withstood the scrutiny of today’s Nolan rules for five minutes, yet no one would have thought it right to make him submit to such inquiries. If you worked on the assumption that people all wanted Britain to win the war, that assumption was proved right 999 out of a thousand times. That was enough.

As that time has receded, people naturally and rightly pursue far more divergent aims. And with that pluralising process has come a breakdown of deference. People were once brought up automatically to trust a clergyman or a doctor or an MP or a headmaster or a police officer or a gentleman. Indeed, it is inherent in the very concept of the gentleman that he is someone whom you can automatically trust. It is not an accident that the concept has declined almost to the point of non-existence. Today, many people would be taught that it was definitely wrong to trust such people automatically. To do so would be considered immature. Each of the categories mentioned might end up being trusted by you, but all would have had to earn your trust. Children are even told that they should never let a teacher touch them. Such a rule is a daily reminder of mistrust. And this questioning, this mistrusting, is applied most strongly to those areas to which it used to be applied least – in institutional settings. Church, school, army, police, parliament, surgery, court, bank used all to be words that had only to be deployed to put the honest citizen’s mind at ease. Now there is the implication that they all represent institutions with their own agendas (a characteristic coinage of modern debate), their own selfish interests, their own dirty secrets.

Indeed, the people we are invited to trust tend to be people seen as outside these institutions – victims because of their race or sex or sexuality or ill health. According to this scale of values, Mo Mowlam was the right person to persuade television viewers that Churchill was the greatest Briton ever, in a way that, say, Iain Duncan Smith or Lord Guthrie would not have been.


The benefit of the doubt, one of the most important concepts in a civilised society, is now withheld from those institutions which once enjoyed it. What was once considered a childlike – and therefore good – trust in people who had a body of knowledge and professional experience, is now considered childish, and therefore bad – an ignorant and ill-grounded abandonment of one’s own rights and judgment.

The first thing to say about this scepticism is that much of it is justified by the facts. There have been too many paedophile clergymen and sadistic schoolmasters and MPs on the take and doctors who ignored their patients and bent or biased policemen and farmers who polluted the land or cheated to get the subsidy and public-service workers who took the money and didn’t do the work and pension-sellers who misrepresented the product. And so on and on. There may even be journalists who have sinned. It is good that real abuses have been exposed. But I still think that what is happening may be making things worse.

This is,
in part, a practical point. As the aptly named Onora O’Neill, this year’s excellent Reith Lecturer on the subject of trust, has pointed out, not to trust is, in many respects, impossible. We have to spend most of the time trusting the water in our taps, the driver on our bus, the information on our bank statement. We have to work on the assumption that the teacher is trying to make sure our children learn something, that the doctor is trying to make us better. Life is simply too short to question the motives of most of the people with whom we have to deal. If that is so, perhaps life is telling us something. Perhaps it is telling us that trust is the best presumption. Like the presumption behind the English law that you are innocent until you are proved guilty, the presumption of trust will often prove mistaken, but the counter-presumption will be wrong far more often. People can be naively trusting, but they can also be naively cynical.

One could argue, indeed, that the entire idea of manners, on which tolerable life in society depends, is an idea that must presume trust. In behaving politely towards people, you presume that their motives are decent, that they are worthy of respect. You often, usually indeed, do not know that this is the case, but to assume the opposite without good reason would be insulting, and would mean that you, in return, were insulted. I think that such a vicious circle is now being unintentionally established in many fields by the systems of accountability, transparency and so on which have been established on the basis of a lack of trust. Take the Nolan rules which form the basis for monitoring the financial interests of MPs and other people in public life. They were set up with good intentions because several MPs had been exposed as selling services that they should have given free. But the consequence of these reforms has been to supplant the role of conscience with that of compliance. MPs no longer have to ask themselves, like adults, whether they are behaving well: they simply have to make sure, like schoolboys, that they are doing what they are told, that they are ticking the box. One result is that fewer and fewer politicians have any outside interests and experience of life beyond politics because all interests are now considered suspect. The consequence is not greater honesty: it is greater separation between politicians and the rest of us.

Or take the idea, prevalent in so many government initiatives today, that public trust must be won by meeting targets. What seems to happen is that the targets, measured usually by statistics, become ends in themselves. Hospital waiting-lists must come down, says the department, and so huge administrative effort is put into moving the figures around until it looks as if this has happened. It does not follow that real people have to wait any shorter time for real operations.

The current crisis in A-levels, on which Tomlinson has just reported, is an even more extreme example. Because of grade inflation over recent years, people had come to mistrust the standard of A-levels. The introduction of AS-levels, and their contribution to the final A-level marks, meant that even more high grades would be achieved, giving rise to greater public doubt. The examining boards, probably under bureaucratic and political pressure, panicked and decided to fail some pupils in some papers, even though those pupils had already been given A grades by the examiners, in order to make the figures look better. In short, they decided to lie about particular pupils in order to look, overall, as if they were telling the truth. Compliance was busy; conscience was silent. And now trust really has been undermined because pupils can no longer be sure that writing good answers will win good results.

Again, take the vexed question of spin. Alastair Campbell will say – and I am sure that he is right – that any government, to survive in today’s fevered media climate, must have a ruthless press operation to fight back against attack. But his own mistrust of the motives of the media has led him, in my experience, to preside over a system which no longer sees it as its first duty to tell the truth. This came to an astonishing head earlier this year when some papers, including The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph, reported that Mr Blair’s office had tried to get a more prominent role for the Prime Minister in the ceremonies for the Queen Mother’s lying-in-state. Alastair Campbell took this magazine and other papers to the Press Complaints Commission, saying that they were lying. The Spectator knew it was not lying, and knew that Mr Campbell knew that it was not lying; but he appears to have been surprised when Black Rod, the relevant official, refused to confirm his version of events to the PCC. He then dropped his complaint. His habit of mistrust had come to corrupt his own behaviour. It is not an accident that, before taking up his post, Mr Campbell was a leading tabloid journalist. He transferred the skills he had learnt there to the business of government. Automatic mistrust, including the character assassination of individuals, is a stock-in-trade of tabloid journalism. Nowadays we have a lot of tabloid government.

One of the consequences of the obsession with accountability which comes from an atmosphere of public mistrust is that the people made more accountable have less time to serve the public. If you are sinking under an avalanche of forms about how and whom you recruit, what is your workplace diversity policy, what are your mission statement, your core values and your statistics of compliance, answering these requests will become central to your job. You will prosper in your career because you answer all these questions well rather than because you are loyal to your institution or good at delivering the service. The Home Secretary is currently proposing that the police keep a record of every occasion on which they stop someone in the street. This is bound to mean that they will stop far fewer people or, if they do stop them, that they have far less time to do anything else. It means that they are not trusted in their basic, day-to-day duty.

A further consequence of people not being trusted is that they become less trustworthy. It is almost a definition of a position of responsibility that you are trusted. If this trust is removed by constant invigilation, you are, in effect, demoted. Having observed people in public life for nearly a quarter of a century as a journalist, I would say that they have become more orderly in their behaviour, but less trustworthy. Twenty years ago, many politicians used to get drunk at lunchtime and not manage much work in the afternoon. Very few do that today, but the old soaks were generally more ready to make decisions and be held to account for them. Today’s abstemious and ambitious put in enormously long hours behind their desks, but huge amounts of their mental effort is devoted to avoiding blame. It has now become quite common for ministers publicly to criticise their own officials who, constitutionally, cannot answer back. This happened in the Jo Moore/Stephen Byers affair. One can only imagine the atmosphere of trust in the Department of Transport at that time.

In some areas of life, such as voluntary activity, the assumption of a lack of trust threatens to undermine the activity itself. If, for example, you are approached to serve as a trustee of a national museum, you will be asked to fill in forms and justify why you should be appointed. Why should you have to justify it? You are not being paid. If people do not trust your motives for doing it, why are they asking you? And if your motives are being questioned, why would you want to do it in the first place? Similarly, it has now been decided that if you want to be a parish councillor you must declare any political allegiance you may have, any interest in the parish, and even record what gifts worth more than £25 you may have received from fellow parishioners. The truth is that no one is fighting for these positions; there is a shortage of peopl
e wanting to do the unrewarded, worthy but often dull work of the parish councillor, yet the new compliance procedures seem designed to scare people away.

What is behind this lack of trust? Certainly the decline of religious faith must have a good deal to do with it. The monotheistic religions enjoin a trust in God which is unqualified. The Book of Job expresses this in the most demanding form with the text, ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.’ And the whole story of Job is the story of a man whom we are invited to admire because he trusts God apparently against all reason and experience. If human beings are made in God’s image, a Christian will believe, they too will be considered worthy of presumptive, though not absolute, trust; and because the two main duties incumbent upon a Christian are to love God and neighbour, each human being will see trust as something which, even when broken, should, if possible, be restored. Trust will be seen as the natural condition. A world that does not believe in God’s all-seeing eye will be a world in which people feel a greater need to look over their shoulder. Perhaps that is why, despite the separation of Church and State in the American constitution, the words ‘In God We Trust’ appear on every dollar bill, for even Mammon cannot survive on his own. Without God, trust may be recognised as a benefit for human society but it will not be cosmically validated. And it will be clear to many people that they can, in selfish terms, benefit from abusing trust. For some, if they can, they will.

But the public obsession with trust and the lack of it does show that the idea still matters to all of us. Criticism of public figures and institutions is based on the premise that things could improve. How could they?

I return to the example of the currency with which I began. The control of inflation started to succeed when politicians recognised that it was the job of central bankers, not theirs. For years and years, politicians had fiddled with the currency for political reasons. In recent years, both parties came increasingly to the view that the money men should run the money. If trained people are charged with a clear task and trusted to do it, they generally perform well. That is what has happened at the Bank of England, which now has the power, the authority and the remit to control interest rates with an inflation goal in view.

A comparable letting-go by central government in all sorts of other areas of public service would have comparable results. If a hospital could run itself independently, it could be trusted to do so. If local government became really local once again, including raising its money locally, it would have to act responsibly if it wished to stay in office. If a head teacher could hire and fire his or her staff, allocate money as he saw fit, teach in the way he thought produced the best results, he would have the incentive to get it right.

The example of the huge growth of owner-occupied housing in modern times shows that most people can be trusted to look after something important that is theirs. The difficulty with public service and public institutions is to create a comparable feeling of ownership on behalf of the public. My argument, which goes strongly against the present trend, is that it can only be done by more trust, not less.

This article is based on the Dedham Lecture recently given by the author. Charles Moore is the editor of the Daily Telegraph.


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