What a week for the Liberal Democrats.
I can imagine that there must be plenty within the party who are glad this week is over. Despite Chris Huhne’s impending prison sentence, Lord Rennard’s alleged exploits and Nick Clegg not being entirely open about what he knew had been reported, somehow they’ve got away with a by-election win that’s left them with much less to worry about than both the Conservatives and Labour. Who’d have thought it?
What the outcome suggests is that voters decided not to punish the Lib Dems as a party just because a couple of high-profile members have brought themselves into disrepute. Maybe it’s because those who voted for them in Eastleigh appreciated that the new candidate, Mike Thornton, had nothing to do with the scandals that the party has been caught up in, or maybe it was because we’re so untrusting of politicians that another personal scandal or two isn’t going to have a great effect on our voting preferences.
As the analysts continue to attempt to make sense of the results, one thing is clear; when it comes to people the public trust, politicians are right down at the bottom of the list. In this year’s annual survey by Ipsos MORI published last month, which asks the public which figures they trust to speak the truth, politicians came last of all, even below journalists and bankers, with only 18 per cent of respondents trusting them to do so.
It’s ironic that though politicians are in the business of trying to win the public’s trust in order to gain votes, they consistently fail to do it successfully. So often we end up voting for what we see as the least worst party rather than being inspired to vote for one that fills us with confidence. In last weekend’s Sunday Times, BBC Radio presenter, Simon Mayo asked Nick Clegg the following question:
Mayo: In the years I covered Westminster for 5 Live, I found MPs overwhelmingly honest, decent folk trying their damndest to represent their constituents and argue for what they thought was right. Why isn’t that reflected in the public’s opinion and what can you and your fellow MPs do about it?
Clegg: Politicians may be rightly sneered at some of the time, but the vast majority of MPs from what ever party are sincere people, working hard trying to pursue their own particular idea of how Britain should be run in an aggressive political culture. I think we just have to try harder to make people aware of this fact.
Politics is undoubtedly a dirty game and the nature of party politics means that no party politicians will manage to please all the people even some of the time. Even so I have this nagging feeling that it doesn’t have to be as bad as it is. If you have a political culture where one of the primary aims is to constantly destroy the reputation of opposing parties, no party ends up being the good guys. The result instead is that the public is mostly left not knowing what to believe and trust is left languishing in the gutter.
We might feel like politics is going through a particularly difficult patch at the moment, but it’s not obviously worse than its been in the past. You only have to cast your mind back to the previous scandals, economic crashes and industrial strikes of the last few decades to be reminded that calm, stable times in politics are few and far between. Ipsos MORI first carried out their trust poll in 1983 asking the same question. Politicians scored 18% that time too, exactly the same as in 2013. It goes to show that things really don’t change a great deal in British politics.
Interestingly, if you look at the 1983 poll what you will see is that the group that was most trusted to tell the truth was church leaders (clergy and priests). The 85 per cent figure was higher than doctors, teachers and judges. The church rightly or wrongly was, in the eyes of our society, a bastion of trust. So has that trust been maintained over the last thirty years? Well, as the chart below indicates, you’ll see that the answer is a resounding ‘No’.
Following the red line, you’ll see that in the last thirty years the number of people who generally trust clergy and priests to tell the truth has fallen from 85 per cent to 66 per cent. That means that almost a quarter of the number of people who trusted church leaders in 1983 now don’t. However, if you look at all the other groups in the chart the levels of trust have either remained steady or have in fact increased. Even journalists, despite the recent phone hacking scandal have seen trust in them increase slightly since 1983. This does not look good for the church. If the current rate of decline continues, then within the next three years clergy will be less trusted than the ordinary person in the street. That is a terrible thought, especially given that the Bible has a great deal to say on truth and trust. Christians are expected to be people who speak the truth and live lives that reflect God’s character of holiness and love. Psalm 15 reads:
Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain?
The one whose walk is blameless,
who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart;
whose tongue utters no slander,
who does no wrong to a neighbor,
and casts no slur on others;
who despises a vile person but honors those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind;
who lends money to the poor without interest;
who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things will never be shaken.
So where has it gone wrong for the church? I believe this trend confirms the way in which the Church’s influence has continued to wane over the last few decades. How many people now actually come into contact with priests and clergy? For many now it’s rarely if at all. When their main form of exposure to the church is seeing repeated stories in the news of child and sex abuse within the church being covered up or not dealt with appropriately, as has been the case with the allegations made against Cardinal O’Brien, or infighting over the roles of women or gay people, the picture painted is one of an organisation more concerned with self-protection and divisive arguments than serving and meeting the needs of others. How can an institution that says it holds the keys to the truth be trusted when people see these sorts of issues being dealt with so badly?
The rise of secularism and to a lesser extent, vocal atheism has challenged truth as the Church and the Bible see it. I suspect that few people outside of the Church these days would be likely to say that trusting in Jesus is a good thing or that they believe the Bible is full of truth. Belief in objective truth has rapidly declined as morality defined through religious frameworks is increasingly rejected, being replaced by much more subjective and personal views of right and wrong.
The church is notoriously slow to change, so despite the scandals that have dragged some parts of it through the mud in public not doing anything to help, the decline in trust towards it is much more likely to reflect the way society has changed than any fundamental failures by the Church. Perhaps where there has been noticeable failure, is the lack of attention to the ongoing challenge for the church to engage with our culture effectively and restore some of the respect it once had without compromising its faith in God and the gospel. When Christians effectively live out the truth they believe and deal with failure and conflict humbly and openly, I am convinced that the truth will speak for itself. When the Church hides it away, failing to speak up when it should and allowing internal arguments to set the agenda of how it is viewed, then with loss of credibility comes loss of trust. We see that in politics. The worst thing for the Church is to deny there is a problem. It needs to be honest enough to hold a mirror up to itself and realise that as things stand it doesn’t look anywhere near as good on the outside as it really should.