Brits: trust each other, or else…

Anthony Seldon’s book on how to restore trust in Britain is a hastily put together manual for how to coerce people into having faith in each other and institutions, relying on anecdotes, pop-philosophy and polls. It’s not to be trusted.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Books

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Anthony Seldon’s Trust: How We Lost it and How to Get it Back is a neat summary of studies into levels of trust in British society today, covering areas like politics, the media and business. For Seldon, ‘the duty to be trusting and the responsibility for being trustworthy are incumbent on all’.

But today, warns Seldon, Britain faces a major political crisis: a ‘trust deficit’. He draws on a list of recent events, including the MPs’ expenses scandal, Climategate and footballer John Terry’s infidelities, in order to back up this claim, and he takes it upon himself, not just to describe today’s high levels of interpersonal and institutional distrust, but also to offer a string of solutions for how each and every one of us can help improve trust so as to ensure a better, more positive, future.

The book starts with a personal anecdote that, Seldon says, typifies the ‘trust deficit’. He describes travelling to work for several years as a teacher in south London and watching a man build an ever-greater wall around his property, eventually cementing shards of wine bottles onto it to deter would-be intruders. This sight triggered in Seldon a process of questioning why ever greater physical and metaphorical defences are deemed necessary in Britain today, and asking what can be done about it.

Curiously, Seldon never appears to have considered simply talking to the man, whose actions had such a profound impact on him, in order to find out why he was building the wall. Perhaps Seldon was afraid he’d be attacked? Sure enough, Seldon eventually came to see that he, too, has internalised the current culture of distrust. ‘Only now, years later, do I realise the man building the wall has been me’, he writes in the closing chapter.

The anecdotal style that introduces and ends the book makes it appear more as a personal exploration into the state of trust in the UK today than as an authoritative inquiry into the subject. And this, perhaps, makes the reader more inclined to be sympathetic to the many contradictions Seldon gets himself entangled in. For instance, Seldon goes on at length about modern life being too fast, urging individuals to take more time to reflect on various issues: think before you distrust. But the book itself was written at break-neck speed: Seldon, with the help of a team of eight undergraduates, completed the whole thing in seven weeks during a school summer break.

As a result, many of Seldon’s ideas come out half-baked. The token theoretical section, which canters through the history of Western philosophy in a flurry of soundbites and cherry-picked ‘lessons’, is embarrassingly crude. And in his rush to offer pointers for action there often remains an unfathomable gulf between his descriptions of events and his practical proposals for remedying them. For example, Seldon cites numerous reports outlining the breakdown of trust in communities and then proposes that all 18-year-olds should spend an entire year in ‘national and community service’. This would involve things like looking after the elderly, repairing fences and picking up rubbish. Quite how this would generate trust, rather than simply anger and resentment amongst young people forced by the state to spend a year doing chores, is not clear.

Indeed, Seldon both admits that trust is an abstract notion that is not quantifiable and obsesses about ways to measure it. This contradiction is neatly summed up when Seldon writes: ‘Impossible to quantify, the feeling of unhappiness and mistrust might be said to be 20 times more powerful than the goodness that would be created by the kindly act.’

The book is littered with statistics and proposals for quantifying well-being, happiness and trust levels further. For instance, Seldon comes up with the idea of a ‘trust footprint’ and proposes rewards for those who ‘increase the quantity of trust they generate each year’. He also suggests introducing a trust test, which individuals, politicians and organisations can use to tell whether a particular action will generate trust between individuals.

These tests and measurements are not only crude and instrumental, they are also creepy. And they completely misunderstand how trust is achieved – through real people working and living together. It’s not something that can be conjured up through stiff questionnaires. Moreover, Seldon, in his fetishisation of trust, disregards the content which forms it and assumes trust is good, regardless of how it is achieved. For example, a war or a natural catastrophe could generate high levels of camaraderie and trust. Would that be a desirable way in which to boost the UK’s ‘trust footprint’?

The book certainly goes on at length about measurements and targets, and in light of this the dichotomy Seldon attempts to forge between those prioritising quantitative and qualitative measures – arguing that this will be the great dividing line of twenty-first century British politics – seems particularly tenuous. What appears to be behind this distinction is a desire to promote anti-materialist values through increased emphasis on well-being and happiness instead of wealth maximisation and consumer goods. Seldon believes that, today, we are obsessed with material goods and this is generating a culture of distrust. He goes as far as to argue that the man building walls to protect his property would benefit from being burgled as it would make him realise ‘that nothing more valuable had been taken from him than his goods’.

In one respect, Seldon might be right in saying that sometimes it’s worth slowing down. For instance, had he spent more time writing this book, he might have avoided the many loopholes in the ‘evidence’ he presents to support his case, but which in fact only end up supporting his prejudices and often even undermine his own arguments. The first chart in the book, showing data from polls surveying public trust in numerous professions over the past three decades, actually demonstrates that, overall, public trust has either increased or stayed the same. And, ironically, one of the professional groups in which public trust has declined the most is pollsters, whose work Seldon relies on so heavily.

When examining trust in business, Seldon presents a graph that demonstrates that the public is far more likely to trust a business if it does its job well than if it develops a corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy. Yet Seldon believes that businesses need fully to ‘integrate their CSR responsibilities’ into their operations.

The greatest tension in the book is the incompatibility between what Seldon dubs his ‘libertarianism’ and his ‘social authoritarianism’ (a ‘shove’ rather than a ‘nudge’ is required in some areas, he claims). He astutely observes the way in which surveillance society intrudes upon public spaces and undermines trust. Equally, where he draws heavily from lived experience, for instance from teaching, he often hits the nail on the head. He recognises that forcing those who work with children and vulnerable adults to undergo criminal record checks is intrusive, and asserts that ‘teachers should be trusted to teach’. But he is just too distrusting of contemporary society to maintain this ‘libertarian’ outlook with any consistency.

For every measure that gives us greater freedom, he proposes another that takes it away. Journalists, for example, cannot be trusted to self-moderate but need to have a strengthened Press Complaints Commission and should be required to take journalism exams. He has even less faith in parents, arguing that the state should dissuade certain people from having children until they are deemed ready and that schools should play a much greater role in rearing children. Young adults, for their part, should be forced into a year’s compulsory service, including Emotional Intelligence classes, in order to become more trustworthy citizens.

In suggesting that we are unable to rear our own children, to understand our emotions sufficiently or to write articles without guidance from ‘experts’, Seldon helps further to undermine individual agency and to institutionalise the culture of distrust.

Had Seldon spent more time reflecting on the issue of trust before churning out this book, he may have been able to produce more than a personal portrait of one man’s struggle to comprehend the contemporary culture of distrust by analysing a bunch of polls and coming up with quirky ways of forcing people to trust each other.

Patrick Hayes is a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum and one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival.

Trust: How We Lost it and How to Get it Back, by Anthony Seldon, is published by Biteback. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Books


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