Dan Devine and Viktor Orri Valgarðsson reflect on the findings of their recent study looking at what affects levels of trust in politics over the long-term, highlighting that trust levels are less impacted by particular events than might be imagined, but that young adults’ attitudes are much less stable than older adults.
The premiership of Boris Johnson was rocked, and eventually ended, by a series of scandals and failures of public integrity. The unlawful prorogation of Parliament, COVID lockdown parties and fines, undeclared money for refurbishments of Downing Street, the ill-considered defence of Owen Paterson, flippant comments about deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher, who was accused of sexual misconduct – the list goes on.
There is substantial concern that Johnson’s government, as well as the Brexit-related political turmoil that preceded it, and the upheaval that followed him in the form of Liz Truss’s short-lived premiership, has shattered public trust in government, politicians, and the political system more broadly. Restoring trust in the wake of Johnson has been said to be one of the knottiest, most important issues for government to deal with.
Yet these claims make big assumptions about the dynamics of political trust. Does it respond to events, or have people already made their minds up? Can distrust be ‘dealt with’ in the short-term, and what exactly does that entail? We ask these questions in a recent study which looks at data which follows the same people over time in five different countries, including Britain, between 1965 and 2020.
We find that, on average, individuals’ trust judgements are relatively stable over their lifetimes. In the longest panel we have, which follows the same individuals in Switzerland over 19 years, about 55% of respondents answered either the same or one category different (out of 11 categories) on their responses to survey questions about how much they trust government, 19 years apart. Whilst, of course, some people do change their judgments (sometimes dramatically), most people provide similar responses over their lives.
We also find, drawing on the data from Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the UK, that large life events, like becoming unemployed or going to university, are statistically unrelated to political trust. What this means, we argue, is that people’s judgements of trust are much more deeply rooted than is often proposed in public debate.
Yet, that is not to claim that nothing matters. The graph below shows the level of trust in ‘MPs in general’ in Britain across the different waves of the study, from 2014 to 2020, which we separate by how people voted in the 2016 referendum. What we see is that trust did indeed change following the referendum, initially dropping for most respondents before increasing around the 2019 general election. At this point, Leave voters become more trusting than they previously were, and Remainers’ trust levels decrease again.
But we also need to consider the scale, which is on the left axis. The potential answers people can give range from one to seven. Between the referendum and the 2019 general election, Remainers on average reduced trust by one point on this scale. Leavers gained 0.25 of a point on the scale.
These are relatively small changes compared to what people had the scope on the scale to answer. Even during unprecedented upheaval, people are quite conservative in terms of how much they change their trust judgements (although some people may of course change those judgements more radically). Of course, this doesn’t include the COVID pandemic nor the end of Johnson’s tenure, but given our analysis, it seems unlikely that this would change these overall conclusions.
Put simply: events may change people’s judgements in the short-term, but even these are relatively small changes, and trust judgements would likely return to a long-term average.
Does this mean nothing can be done, or that there is nothing to worry about? Quite the opposite. Trust attitudes don’t come from nowhere. In our research, and consistent with lots of others’ work as well, we find that trust appears to develop in early adulthood: we find young adults’ attitudes are much less stable than older adults. Although we don’t explore what causes these attitudes to develop, it is plausible if not likely that the political context at the time of socialisation fundamentally shapes individuals’ attitudes for the long term.
What this means is that what is happening now has a strong influence on the future of political trust. Evidence from Italy shows that young voters who entered the electorate during a corruption scandal exhibit substantially less trust in politics nearly 30 years later.
And that brings us back to the events since Cameron called the 2016 Brexit referendum and, ultimately, the tenures of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Government has been characterised by rolling scandals and, perhaps more importantly, all whilst pursuing policies – such as leaving the EU – which are largely viewed unfavourably by younger, soon-to-be voters.
Whilst our research suggests that the medium-term consequences of the rocky last few years may be fleeting, we would expect the generation coming of age in that period will carry a lower level of political trust throughout their lives, leading to an overall decline in public trust, and all the potential consequences that entails.
It is essential to act quickly and steady the ship. What we do now may change our politics decades in the future.
By Dr Dan Devine, Associate, University of Oxford, and Dr Viktor Orri Valgarðsson, Research Fellow, University of Southampton.