Political leaders in trouble frequently play the trust card in the hope of getting out of jail free. With great humility, they play it talking over the heads of their captive audience to the country at large via the TV cameras. The deeper the trouble, the more exuberant their claims become that trust is the solution to the country’s – and the party’s - individual and collective woes. Everything will be fine, the leader says, when there is trust. Trust makes great sound bites. Don't trust him, trust me, see how 'umble I am, says the political wolf in Heep's clothing.
I’ve just been watching a report on Channel 4 News of Michael Howard’s trust-focused speech to his party’s Bournemouth conference this afternoon. Personally, I’ve never had much sympathy with him or with the politics he’s been involved with over the past twenty-five years or so. Today was no different. But he, more than anyone in the country I reckon, must know that he’s talking through his hat.
British politics is an adversarial, zero-sum affair. For all involved, it runs on publicness, comfort and asymmetric power. And whatever trust is, however it is defined, by Michael Howard or anyone else, it is none of the above.
Immediate concerns determine behaviour in adversarial politics, leaving no space for trust. Trusting behaviour is punished. And worse, the more the trust card is played, the more adversarial the politics becomes. And so the spiral spins down. Ego, not trust, is what’s needed to play zero-sum games.