Political trust in the UK: Trust in who to do what; what does trust really mean?

Sippitt, Amy

Look at any survey data on trust, and you’ll see that the majority of the UK public generally says they distrust politicians, journalists and the government. Despite reports to the contrary, this has pretty much always been the case. But, what do we really mean when we say we distrust politicians, or indeed any other profession or institution? Measuring trust is hard. For starters, our stated amount of trust depends on what we’re asking them to do. Asked if we trust the government to do “what is right”, more of us say we trust them than when we’re asked if we trust politicians or government ministers to “tell the truth”. It also can be a difficult concept to measure through self-reporting. The philosopher Baroness Onora O’Neill has commented how, “where we can do nothing to check or investigate sources of information and their credentials we often, and reasonably, withhold trust and suspend both belief and disbelief in favour of cynicism and half-belief. We may end up claiming not to trust, and yet for practical purposes place trust in the very sources we claim not to trust”. That said, some preliminary experimental research by the international economic body the OECD suggests what we say in surveys about our levels of trust in government might not be completely far off from our levels of trust implied by our choices.