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The Decline of Popular Trust in Political Leaders

Michael Hogue

The Financial Timesfinds that popular distrust of and contempt for political and financial elites is driving a lot of British support for leaving the EU:

“Much of the establishment has no idea what working-class people outside London think,” says Charles Grant, director of the Centre of European Reform, a supporter of the Remain campaign.

In return, Mr Grant says: “Our parliamentary class is treated with contempt, so when the establishment says ‘vote for this, we know what is good for you’ that has little effect. And the same is true for the City of London. The financial services industry is pretty unpopular.”

Indeed, Leave campaigners argue that interventions from “experts” do more to help than to hinder their cause. Tom Banks, the Vote Leave regional director for Yorkshire, says his campaign office saw a spike in interest and support after Mr Obama’s speech against Brexit and the publication of Brexit-critical reports from the Treasury and the IMF [bold mine-DL]. “All these reports and doomsday predictions are only going to make people believe politicians even less,” he argues.

The U.K. has seen the same erosion of public trust in political leaders and institutions that we have seen here in the U.S. over the last sixty years, and it has reached a point where there is so little trust that many voters will instinctively back whatever their leaders tell them to reject. Given the shabby record of costly failures in just the last fifteen years in both countries, it is hard to fault people for reacting this way. The political classes in both countries have neglected their constituents and dismissed their concerns (especially on immigration), presided over multiple debacles for which almost no one was held accountable, and then expect the public to believe them when they say that they know what is in the best interests of the country. Our political leaders have squandered the public’s trust often enough that few will listen to anything they say, or will immediately assume that what they’re saying is false.

This article included a remarkable statistic: a survey of British opinion in 2014 found that almost 80% of respondents said that politicians were out merely for themselves or their party, and just 10% said they were out for their country. Even if they weren’t running a campaign designed to terrify voters into submission, Cameron and his allies would be having a hard time persuading voters that assume that the politicians are mainly out for their own interests. In that sense, the content of the campaign message is almost irrelevant when most voters aren’t going to believe what they are told.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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