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Britain is at its lowest ever position in a global table of trust among the mass populations of 28 countries. Only Russia is a less trusting society. That is the stark finding of the 20th Edelman Trust Barometer, the largest survey of institutional trust in the world, which surveys a total of 34,000 people – including 3,000 Britons polled in separate research either side of the General Election.

The Barometer reveals that three in five Britons say they are losing faith in democracy as an effective form of government, and over half believe that capitalism does more harm than good. Institutions are seen by Brits as less competent and more unethical compared to the global average. The public blame politicians for creating an environment of fear for their own political gain.

But while the public ferociously condemn political leaders who lie – with a quarter of people even wanting them jailed – a significant proportion of them take a much more pragmatic attitude and strikingly, this moral flexibility and complicity is almost twice as likely to be found among the better-informed and wealthier people in society than in people on the lowest incomes.

Despite all of this, there are signs that the nation has turned a corner on Brexit and there is an opportunity to build trust. While Brits may feel that the they are divided on issues facing the UK, evidence suggests that the public are in fact united on the issues that matter most. The NHS, crime, improving the standard of living are all concerns shared by between 80% and 85% of the population. And they believe that healing divisions in society is one of the most urgent tasks of government.

Last year, 43% believed they would be worse off in 12 months’ time; this year that figure has dropped significantly to 33%. The proportion of those who think they will be poorer in five years also dropped from 32% in 2019 to 28% this year.

There are glimmers of hope and indications that political leaders have much to play for: Edelman’s latest research, conducted since the Prime Minister won his mandate in December’s General Election, shows a big drop in the number of people saying that the country is on the wrong track, from 65% last year to 52% this year, and trust in government has risen by 10% since Britain went to the polls.

 The Conduct of Politics and Politicians is Harming Democracy

Despite some signs of optimism, evidence suggests that government has a long way to go to convince the public that it represents their interests.

For instance, in 2020, the Barometer reveals that only 9% of people say their views are “well represented” in British politics today and only 19% believe that their fellow citizens are interested in the views of other people.

61% said the UK was a divided country and two-thirds (67%) said they believed the conduct of politicians is making society more divided. Similar proportions agreeing that the behaviour of the political classes undermined trust in government (66%) and stunningly that politicians deliberately

set out to undermine national institutions for their own gain (61%). Also, around six in 10 thought that political parties undermined democracy by acting as they do (61%) and that in general the behaviour of our politicians makes things worse in Britain (57%).

Capitalism Under Pressure

Like many developed countries, Britons are asking questions about the effectiveness and fairness of our economic system.

Just as 60% of people said they were losing faith in the effectiveness of democracy, so too is capitalism coming under sceptical scrutiny by Brits. A majority agreed with the statement that capitalism does more harm than good in the world (53%).

People want business to change how it operates and, as an institution in the UK, it is seen as unethical. Many people feel powerless to influence the behaviour of business and believe that it is essentially self-interested. Asked about whether the various institutions acted fairly, government scored -41 points and business -32.

Three in five of British people believe the pace of technological change is too fast (60%), with technology making it impossible for people to know whether what they are seeing or hearing is real (67%). A similar ratio believe that the government is inept and unprepared for effective regulation of technology (72%).

But the inherent trust in employers’ shines through, more than four in five of those in work say they believe it is important that their bosses speak out on the issues above. In more general terms, the relationship with “my employer” remains the most trusted of all relationships that people have with the outside world.

The growing movements in different parts of the business world to make businesses work more for the community at large win strong support from British people. Asked which group should be the priority for companies to serve, only 7% said shareholders, with the rest choosing local communities (8%), employees (47%) or customers (38%).

A Complex Relationship with the Truth

For the first time, Edelman asked people for their reactions to the idea of politicians lying to the electorate and the figures are revealing.

More than half (56%) thought that politicians today were more likely to be dishonest than those in the past. Britons believe that their political leaders exploit issues mainly to attack opponents (67%) genuinely committed to solving the problems of the nation (29%).

Political lies should be more firmly punished than they are, people said. While clear majorities said politicians caught lying to the public should resign (59%), apologise (57%) or be banned from public office (52%), minorities were prepared to go even further. More than a third wanted mendacious politicians fined (34%) and a quarter thought they should be jailed (24%).

Yet when asked about their own principles when it came to telling the truth, double standards emerged. Almost half (48%) of the general population agreed that there were circumstances in which it would be justifiable for a politician to lie with the highest level of support for national security reasons.

One in five people said it would be acceptable if a politician lied to “Get Brexit Done” (20%), while almost as many (17%) thought it would be OK to do so to “Stop Brexit”. The same proportion said they would have no problem if a politician misled the public “to get the party I support elected”.

Intriguingly, these figures jumped significantly when asked of people in the informed public* category, compared to everyone else.

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