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Book review: the Anthony Seldon solution to restoring trust in national life

10 January 2010 , ,

Written over last summer by Professor Anthony Seldon and a mini-army of assistants, Trust is at heart both an optimistic and a pessimistic book.

Optimistic because one of Seldon’s arguments is that “trusting and being trustworthy are the sovereign human virtues we need today [and] trust is natural: we were born trusting and the state of nature is to be trusting”. Pessimistic because his formula for restoring trust is not a simple checklists of policies but rather a harder and more fundamental shift in how individuals behave and a recipe of broad change across nearly every part of public policy.

Anthony Seldon writes that, “the duty to be trusting and the responsibility for being trustworthy are incumbent on all: no one can opt out … we call for nothing less than a revolution in thinking: a shake, not a nudge. We do not imagine that all these trust-based proposals would be executed within a single government’s life.” Setting the bar so high is almost dooming yourself to disappointment.

This mix of optimism and pessimism infuses the whole book, as with the analysis of historic trends of trust in different professions in the UK which concludes that there is a current crisis that is short-term and may well not be the ‘worst’ crisis ever (optimism) but also that for some professions there has been a longer-term more deep seated decline (pessimism).

Although written well after the recession started to bit, there are parts of the book that feel as if they were written earlier, as with Seldon’s claim that, “whichever party wins the election should heed that the old paradigms – large versus small state, liberal versus authoritarian, and progressive versus conservative – are redundant. The new debate is between those who see the prime objective of life as maximising quantity – gross domestic product, corporate profits, exam results, throughput of patients and solved crime – and those who highlight quality of life issues.”

The argument that quality is about to supplant quantity has been a staple of pundits for three decades and more, and now seems a particularly weak moment to be making that case again.

Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will always find a way around the laws

Despite this weakness, the book has a good exploration of the roots and causes of trust, using Plato’s provocative but highly relevant musing that, “Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will always find a way around the laws.” Seldon goes on to argue that,

Society has fallen back on a whole panoply of middle ground trust developers. We refer here to contractual understandings, financial incentives and bonuses, regular inspections and measurable targets, all designed to boost accountability. None of these are wholly satisfactory as a way of generating trustworthy behaviour as they deny trust in the first instance … There is a presupposition that the individual is not able or willing to perform at their best professionally without targets or accountability. They are motivated by suspicion, and do not have a belief in human nature at its best.

Targets often bring out the worst in human nature: even good people will sail as close to the wind as they dare without missing them.

Seldon’s concept of trust is not one of blind faith in the goodness of others though:

The trust was advocate is an active trust, with critical faculties consciously engaged, and where the trustworthiness of others is fully assessed. It is the opposite of blind trust. Trust has to be earned.

Indeed, he quotes Stephen King’s saying: “the trust of the innocent is the liar’s most powerful tool” (printed on the page opposite a large photograph of Jeffrey Archer).

The cause of lost trust

Anthony Seldon puts loss of trust down to a decline in religious and moral codes, the decline in family and sense of community, continued social exclusion for some, corporate greed, the rise of consumerism and a rights culture, the rise of suspicion fostered by the rise of violence, disappointment in politicians, the media’s search for sensationalism and the rise of the internet, government targets and surveillance and a dehumanising scale and pace to much of modern life.

That is quite a list – and it is rather uncritically presented. For example, whilst it is true that the internet sees the circulation of numerous unfounded conspiracy theories, the internet also spreads debunking information widely. What Seldon’s book lacks is a solid argument that the net effect is really detrimental. (Personally, I find the opposite: it is now much easier for me to find solid evidence to doubt conspiracy theories. Perhaps I am not typical. But Seldon doesn’t present evidence to make the case.)

The solution to lost trust

The solutions to this mammoth list of causes? A universally accepted moral code, support for families and communities, greater social inclusion, greater corporate responsibility, civic virtues to be taught through the education system, reductions in crime and the fear of crime, better political leadership, more honesty and responsibility from the media, a more trusting state and a more trustworthy population and a more human scale society.

At times the list is little more than saying “an all round much nicer world is all we need to restore trust”, though Seldon does present a good set of examples from history of trust being restored or built up, such as in post-apartheid South Africa.

The book then goes on to look at different areas of public policy in turn, including proposals in each – but again the breadth is so broad that the book skirts perilously close to just saying, “Get everything right and have most people change how they behave, and all will be ok”.

For example, Seldon writes in one chapter that, “Our final recommendation is to float the proposal that the government adopt positive employment policies”. But wanting to cut unemployment is nothing new, nor restricted to one small group of politicians. The debates are about how. Even the most free market, hands off politicians want unemployment to be reduced; they just have a very different prescription than those elsewhere on the political spectrum. Likewise there will be few who disagree that in schools, “all children should be known individually”. The question is how to bring that about.

Saying that in order to restore trust we have to crack long-running and controversial problems does little to advance the cause of restoring trust. But in the end, despite its long sections advocating particular policy outcomes, this book too concludes that restoring trust is not about policies:

We will never see the decisive change towards a more trusting and trustworthy country until we stop pointing the finger at other people and start taking responsibility for our own actions.

That could have been the stirring conclusion to a moving piece of rhetoric, but in this book it sits slightly oddly at the end of several chapters that are instead full of exhortations for others to act differently. The mixed, even contradictory, nature of the book makes for an interesting and nuanced collection of ideas and evidence, even if it leaves the book overall more a collection of thoughts than a route map for restoring trust.

You can buy Trust by Anthony Seldon from Amazon here

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