Brexit and the collapse of trust

Brexit and the collapse of trust: another casualty of an unequal Britain

 For many people the UK referendum vote in favour of leaving the European Union has been shocking, depressing and even frightening. 17 million Britons felt so angry and disenchanted with the status quo that they were willing to vote against the European Union, a project itself rooted in the European continent’s collective desire after the Second World War to find ways to work together that didn’t involve killing each other.

Of course there are 17 million different sets of reasons that explain why 17 million people put a particular cross in a box to answer a simple question (about a most complicated issue). There has been so much already written about the Brexit result, about the population’s attitudes, about deceitful politicians with false promises. However it seems to me there are multiple and deep connections between what has happened, what to do about it, and economic inequality. One strand of this is a profound breakdown in public trust: in institutions, in society, even in evidence of what the world is actually like.   

Trust, especially public trust is complex and fragile.  At the personal level, trust in relationships takes a long time to win and can be easily lost. In mental health services it is well known that gaining trust from patients is vital for long-term recovery. Working with homeless people, I know that when someone’s life has been characterized by repeated extreme betrayals of trust, for example through sustained abuse in childhood, the long-term psychological consequences can be devastating, affecting peoples’ ability to form successful relationships throughout their lives.  It’s so hard to trust anyone when your experience is of repeated betrayal. Abuse, betrayal and visible unfairness undermine trust.

But the relationship works the other way too.  Where trust is already low, suspicion and fearfulness between people will be high. People respond to difficult circumstances by trying to protect themselves.  The collapse in trust in our society reflects long-term collective feelings of betrayal, of being misled, deceived and disrespected. Societies characterised by low levels of trust are frightening and depressing places in which to live. Human society depends on trust, trust in the value of money, in the doctor who looks after us, in school teachers who look after our children, simply in other drivers obeying the traffic lights.

Societies that are relatively more equal have higher levels of trust between people. More unequal societies have lower levels.  An interesting illustration of this effect is the amount of wealth different developed countries spend on guards, security and surveillance.  The more unequal your country, the more is spent on ‘protecting’ one person from another, often keeping us apart from each other (gated communities are just one example of this), and so further compounding a fall in trust between people . In very unequal societies it feels like someone may always be coming to get you or your stuff: you can’t trust the people around you.  Incidentally it seems to me that the children of the rich may be particularly harmed by these effects – how can you form real relationships when your peers might only be interested in your stuff and what they can get from you?

So what about Brexit? A couple of weeks before polling day I was struck by the results of a YouGov poll that asked who potential ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ said they would trust when thinking about the European Union vote. The question offered a list of possible sources of advice or information.  Among voters backing ‘remain’ there was a spread of views, with academics, people from international organisations, and economists all scoring positively, ahead of charities, businesses, and think-tanks. Only actors, sports-stars, politicians and journalists scored negatively.  They were on average not trusted by ‘remainers’ for advice on this important question. Not that surprising I guess. 

However among people intending to vote leave all the scores were negative. People grouped together by their intention to vote to leave the European Union generally trusted no-one in public life.  Some ‘remainers’ have suggested that people who voted to leave were at least ill-informed, if not foolish.  But maybe what the trust data tells us is that many, many people in Britain today are fearful, if not paranoid? They feel betrayed and misled and do not believe ‘experts’ or ‘commentators’.  Over 40 years our society has been dominated by an ideology that said that everyone must be out for themselves, the market is king, if you or your community fail, it can only be your fault.  The ‘leavers’ trusted nobody and ‘want their country back’. They hark back to a time when the gap between rich and poor was far narrower and levels of trust much higher. There’s a certain irony that Cameron and Osborne, harsh supporters of austerity economics and long-term protectors of our grossly unequal society, have themselves been undone by the extreme inequality, and resulting low levels of trust, over which they have most recently presided.

In ‘The Spirit Level’ Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket observed just how strongly levels of trust correlate with levels of inequality in a society. The more unequal we are, the less trust we trust each other, the more equal the more chance we will benefit from the kindness of strangers. Among all the other Brexit analysis, the result seems to firmly illustrate this effect.

Politicians on the right, bankers, international financial institutions are all now talking about inequality. However inequality has become a problem not because of the behaviour of ordinary people, but because of the behaviour of the rich. Our politicians have allowed (and many have actually made it an aim of public policy) people at the top to take too much.  In Brexit, as in so many other parts of life, the harm done will most likely be felt most severely by the people with least. In or out of the European Union, to rebuild trust within our society, we of course need a more honest, even a more honourable public life, but much more fundamentally, and to create the conditions that will foster such changes in behaviour, we must narrow the gap between rich and poor. 

[Professor Richard Wilkinson presented some of the data on security and trust when he gave the Aidan Halligan memorial address at ‘Homeless and Inclusion Health 2016’, the fourth international symposium of the Faculty for Homeless and Inclusion Health.  Watch his presentation here]


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