How sceptical are people in Britain?
Politicians are often accused of misrepresenting reality in order to sell their policy wares. Yet their perceptions of a lack of trust in the political system can hardly be viewed as a distortion of the way British citizens think about their government. Since 1986, the British Social Attitudes survey has regularly asked:
How much do you trust British governments of any party to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their own political party?
As shown in Table 3.1, the responses reveal a sharp decline over time in levels of trust. The proportion saying they trust governments "just about always" or "most of the time" fell from 40 per cent in 1986 to just 16 per cent in 2009, following the MPs' expenses scandal. Over the same period, the proportion saying they "almost never" trust government rose from 12 per cent to 40 per cent. The decline has not been straightforwardly linear. In particular, trust is consistently higher just after an election, perhaps because casting a ballot gives voters the feeling they do have some influence over their politicians. Even so, the degree of trust recorded in 2010 was much lower than after the 1987 election. Meanwhile, levels of trust have actually improved a little since the nadir in 2009 and are much the same now as in 2006. It appears that despite the furore it evoked at the time, the MPs' expenses scandal has not contributed to any significant, further long-term erosion of trust. Even so, it is evident that Labour did not achieve its aspiration to reverse the decline in trust that had become marked during John Major's 1992-97 administration. If anything levels of trust fell away even more during its time in office.
However, previous studies have shown that people's expressed levels of trust are sensitive to the way survey questions on the subject are worded and the particular aspects of trust that respondents are asked to evaluate (e.g. Citrin and Muste, 1999). We can check whether the picture of low levels of trust we derive from our regular question on the subject is, in fact, a valid one, by examining responses to a new set of questions asked for the first time in 2011. These questions asked respondents how much trust they had in the Westminster parliament, British politicians, British governments and - as a non-political point of reference - the police.
As seen in Table 3.2, the results confirm the picture painted by the original measure. Only around one in six people trust either British governments or the Westminster parliament "a great deal" or "quite a lot", while less than one in ten trust British politicians. By contrast, almost six in ten (59 per cent) indicate "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of trust in the police.1 Equally, whereas 57 per cent do not trust politicians "very much" or "at all", just 11 per cent say the same of the police.
We have, thus, found solid evidence of public scepticism towards politicians and governments. Levels of trust have fallen over the past 25 years and, despite some recovery since the MPs' expenses scandal, remain at a relatively low ebb. So how likely is it that the Coalition's constitutional reforms will succeed in reversing this trend?
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- This picture of low trust in politicians relative to other professional actors, such as the police, is confirmed by data from other polling organisations, such as MORI's 'Trust in Professions' surveys (Ipsos-MORI, 2011).
- Readings are indicated by data marker; the line indicates an overall pattern but where there is no data marker the line cannot be taken as a reading for that year.
- These figures have been collated from various House of Commons Library papers supplemented by data from the New Local Government Network.
- Nor have attitudes to elected mayors improved since their introduction in 2000. The same questions about speaking up for the area, getting things done and giving too much power to a single person were also asked on British Social Attitudes in 1998 and 2000. The proportions agreeing that mayors speak up for the area and help gets things done were no higher in 2011 than in 1998, while the proportion agreeing that mayors give too much power to a single person fell by only 10 percentage points, from 45 per cent in 1998 to 35 per cent in 2011.
- Two other of England's largest cities, Leicester and Liverpool, had previously decided to introduce a directly elected mayor without holding a referendum. In four other referendums on directly elected mayors held since the 2010 general election, the proposal was approved in two cases (Salford and Tower Hamlets) and rejected in a third (Great Yarmouth). Doncaster voted in May 2012 to keep its elected mayor.
- The Coalition's proposal is that a referendum should be held when a council wishes to increase the level of council tax by more than a limit specified by the government. To simplify matters, we couched this as referring to an above inflation increase. Note though that voters are not necessarily keen that decisions about the council tax should routinely be referred to them. Only 43 per cent say that decisions about the council tax should be made by voters in a referendum, while 52 per cent would prefer the decisions to be made by their elected council. It would appear that, while voters are happy to have a referendum as a potential bulwark against a particularly large increase in council tax, they are not sure they trust their fellow citizens to make decisions about the tax on a regular basis.
- Strictly speaking this provision would apply to custodial sentences of 12 months or less, as longer sentences already result in automatic disqualification from membership of the Commons.
- The full question wording was:
It has been suggested that sometimes voters should be able to force their local MP to resign and fight a by-election. First of all, say that the MP has broken the rules. How much do you agree or disagree that in those circumstances voters should be able to force their MP to resign?
Respondents were invited to answer using a five point scale ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree".
- The full question wording was:
And what if the MP had not broken any rules, but voters thought he or she was not doing a very good job? Should voters be able to force their MP to resign?
Again respondents were invited to answer using a five point scale.
- The scale was created by adding the scores (ranging from 1 to 4) across the three items and dividing the resulting total by three. Multi-item measures of complex concepts like trust are usually held to be more reliable and valid than single item measures (Zeller and Carmines, 1980: 48-52; Heath and Martin, 1997). Cronbach's alpha for this particular scale is 0.90.