Opinion

Let’s invest in trust

by | 24 Nov 2023

The consequences of the public losing faith in public institutions are dreadful. It is happening everywhere, and that includes Scotland - so we should make sure that the public has reason to trust its leaders.

First published by Common Weal

Forget all the scam artists on the internet, when you stop and think about it, investing is a pretty noble thing. Investing means that you sacrifice something now with the hope and faith that you will eventually gain something worth more than what you sacrificed. I want to make the case for a political leader in Scotland to make that sacrifice, to invest – in trust.

There are very particular reasons why this is on my mind just now. Earlier in the week I wrote that there are ominous signs across Europe that the collapse in trust in the political structures which have dominated for decades are causing a swing to the far right. I wrote that piece before the Dutch elections, but with them in mind as a case study.

If you have read any analysis of what has been happening in the Netherlands (I’ve been reading quite a bit about the state of European politics in the last week given that I spent it at meetings of various continent-wide coalitions), nothing about the election result there would surprise you. A series of cack-handed mistakes and a number of scandals have eroded trust in politics very substantially.

This is repeated everywhere you look in Europe and it has proved to be a political tipping point for many. It isn’t really the scandals which have caused much of the disillusion – neoliberal capitalism and its ability to push massive wealth in your face while most people have barely seen their income keep up for decades now has left a system that people do not feel is working for them.

But the political centre is responsible for this and the left has been dreadful at capturing an effective narrative in response, largely because of the sheer effort that centrists put in to smearing left politics. So the latent anger needs somewhere to go, and it is finding an easy outlet in anger at political corruption and dishonesty. It is the further edges of the political right which has been harnessing that anger and directing it.

The situation in Scotland is not the same, but the problem exists in increasingly concerning ways. Unless you are entirely blinkered by party allegiance, you can’t help but have noticed that in the last 20 years we’ve gone from a position where politicians resigned for what were fairly basic mistakes to one where the only accountability offered by politicians is performative PR.

In the last few weeks there have been three incidents which provide a legitimate reason to ask if the Scottish Parliament and public were misled – statements about WhatsApps that ‘stretched the truth’, answers on iPad expenses which were straightforwardly not honest and the use of renewable energy statistics which might have been ‘just politics’ had they not been repeated after they were shown to be an overstatement.

You can provide all the defences you want in each case, but what you can’t realistically do is argue that these are of lesser importance than the incidents which resulted in the resignation of Henry McLeish, David McLetchie or Wendy Alexander (although in her case, not disclosing donations she received is a fairly substantial contravention of the rules).

We will all have our own take on how we got into this position, but at its heart is a political culture which believes in trying to talk its way out of everything, all the time. In the pettiness of inter-party politics in Scotland, it seems that ‘losing someone under fire from the other side’ is the one thing that must never happen.

The outcome of this is not just that no-one believes what they’re being told, it’s that they’re angry

This is the point; sure, we all exist in our own social bubbles, but the bubble in which politicians and the media exist in is as self-referential as it gets. They all judge everything according to constantly shifting norms that they themselves are creating.

The politicians are finding more and more ways to shift accountability in comparison to the early promises of the Scottish Parliament, and the journalists are too often reporting what is happening based on those changing norms. There is almost a kind of journalistic awe at the escapology of politicians.

And that is exactly, precisely what was happening across Europe. A rather too smug political insider class knew there were more dodgy things going on but were content with it because they thought they were getting away with it. They weren’t getting away with it, they were taking big chunks out of the trust that the public had in the whole political system.

But trust ratings don’t get the coverage that GDP figures get, because the insiders just didn’t think their system was at risk. They knew that eventually one lot get bumped out and the other lot get a turn in a never-ending cycle. The belief was that the system wasn’t at risk because this toing-and-froing between political parties would be the release valve for built-up cynicism.

Except once you’ve to-ed and fro-ed a few times and you keep getting lied to and failed, you can’t help but lose faith in the system. And when you do, those outside or on the fringes of the system are empowered.

In Scotland we conclude that we’re better. Well, by many measures we are – the far right doesn’t get much purchase here. But don’t kid yourself on about what is happening. I don’t know a single person in the real world who believes what they’re being told about iPads and WhatsApps. I mean literally no-one.

What they are seeing is a parliament in which, if you have a pliant majority, nothing but nothing seems to be able to hold you to account. Our system is based on a historical sense that politicians are people of honour who will police themselves effectively. It means that if they choose not to police themselves, the system breaks.

The outcome of this is not just that no-one believes what they’re being told, it’s that they’re angry. They see themselves being led by people who just aren’t held to the standards they themselves are being held to in their own workplace. Seriously, in my personal life I don’t think I know anyone who isn’t heavily party-aligned that has any confidence in any of the parties right now.

This is a nightmare, because it’s not just about who is in power, it’s about their ability to do things effectively. It is startling that if a patient trusts their GP they can recover as much as a third faster than if they don’t. We are a social animal; trust is fundamental to how our society works. A politician who is not trusted can achieve much less than one who is.

And dear goodness we need our politicians to achieve things. The world, the country, our democracy, our public services, our land, our seas, our communities – right now they are all fixer-uppers. We need visionary politicians to lead us with courage. But to follow courageous leaders we need to trust them.

The hidey-holes in our existing rules which contain the bodies of far too many politicians sheltering from accountability would be gone

This all creates a trap. The politicians with the power to increase the scrutiny they face and the sanctions for malpractice are the very politicians with the vested interest in minimising scrutiny and sanctions. In the last decade of Common Weal we’ve been knocked back over and over again while trying to push measures to increase scrutiny and accountability.

The Lobbying Register is weak because the politicians all told us ‘we don’t need to monitor this because I’m honest’. The Freedom of Information system is being eroded and our calls to strengthen it are moving so slowly we should probably call it ‘going nowhere’. Campaigning for democratic reform to create more counterbalances to centralised government faces off against an iron political will to not allow it.

And when virtually everyone independent of mind agreed that the Scottish Parliament’s Salmond Inquiry revealed numerous flaws in the accountability procedures of the Parliament, lots of people called for change. Instead we got hard-core stonewalling.

Yes, we know, the politician wants to draw a line under [insert misdemeanour] and now considers the matter closed. They do emotional pleas about how they’re ‘pretty honest kind of people’ and constantly foreground their own anguish to distract from the question at hand.

So nothing is going to change. It’s going to get worse and worse. Trust will flow out the room like heat from a Scottish tenament. The mistrust will grow and the anger will fester, and it’ll find some kind of way out eventually.

Or we could have a politician, a single politician, ready to invest in trust. It would genuinely be an investment, because in the short term it would involve genuine sacrifice. The hidey-holes in our existing rules which contain the bodies of far too many politicians sheltering from accountability would be gone. The politician who did it would be held to a higher standard of accountability than those who came before.

But it’s an investment because the long term outcome is worth so much more. The pay-off is the trust that lets the world get better, not worse.

Make the Lobbying Register and the Freedom of Information legislation much stronger. Create what Craig Dalzell calls ‘glass walls’, the assumption that everything can be seen by everyone unless there is absolutely crucial reasons for secrecy. Reform the committee structure of the Scottish Parliament. Give more money to Audit Scotland so it can do more. Create a fund to support more journalists.

Take the gravy train off the rails and find a way to make sure that civic Scotland can’t be bribed out of its own scrutiny role through lucrative grants and contracts. Create a second chamber of the Scottish Parliament made up from members of the public and give it the power to hold the existing chamber and its politicians to account properly. And restore our local democracy.

What would save Scotland more than anything else right now is a brave politician who will step forward and make a real investment in the civic trust on which Scotland’s future will rely. Please, where are you? We really, really need you.

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