Britain feels broken

This is one of the few things we seem, as a country, to be able to agree on.

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  • Mark McGeoghegan Corporate Reputation
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From the New Statesman’s ‘everything in Britain is broken’ to The Telegraph’s ‘Britain is broken – and nobody can be bothered to do anything about it’, every major newspaper and magazine in the UK seems to have had at least one article in the past six months arguing that Britain is broken – and that there is little hope of fixing it soon.

The state of Britain, whether a result of Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, or any other cause you might wish to champion, has had the obvious effect of making politics and government substantially more fraught.

When Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister last October, his first speech outside Number 10 acknowledged the difficulties facing the country and the failures of recent Conservative governments to tackle those difficulties.

He promised that his government would restore “integrity, professionalism, and accountability”. He remarked that “trust is earned,” and promised to earn the UK’s trust after a year of incessant scandal and chaotic government.

The Prime Minister was right to identify trust as a key problem facing his government. He came into the role with the lowest-ever personal net satisfaction rating (-8) of an incoming Prime Minister that we have on record, going back to John Major in 1990. The net satisfaction rating of the UK government (-60) was likewise the lowest on record for an incoming government.

And further, the proportion of the public who feel that politicians can be trusted to tell the truth – while historically low, going back to 1983 – fell to an all-time low of 12%.

The political agenda was dominated by concerns about the economy and inflation. The proportion of the public mentioning inflation as a top issue facing the country peaked in August (54%), and as Sunak began his premiership in November concern about inflation (45%) remained at its second-highest level since 1980.

The situation, both in terms of Sunak and his governments’ political fortunes and the concern about and impacts of inflation, has not improved since then.

Trust in government UK - Ipsos

The Ipsos Global Trustworthiness Monitor has found that Britain was among only a handful of countries to have bucked a general trend of slightly improving government trustworthiness in 2022. While the proportion of the British public who say that the government is trustworthy fell just four points, from 21% in 2021 to 17% in 2022, growing trust elsewhere led to Britain falling from the 8th of 19 countries to the 17th.

This is not the only area in which Britain is slipping in comparison to international standards. Ipsos runs an annual ‘broken system sentiments’ survey designed to measure the strength of populist beliefs in a population.

From 2021 to 2022, average agreement with each of the five statements used in the survey grew by six points in Great Britain to 62.8%. In contrast, across the 28 countries surveyed average agreement with these statements fell by 4.4 points to 58%.

Britain, in fact, was the only country surveyed in which overall broken-system sentiment grew between 2021 and 2022. As a result, Great Britain rose from the 20th most populist of 24 countries surveyed in 2021 to the 5th most populist of 28 in 2022.

    2022 +/- v. 2021
The economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful Global Average 64% -7
Great Britain 71% 5
Traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me Global Average 63% -5
Great Britain 65% 7
[Country] needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful Global Average 59% -5
Great Britain 67% 5
Experts in this country don’t understand the lives of people like me Global Average 59% -6
Great Britain 61% 5
To fix [country], we need a strong leader willing to break the rules Global Average 45% 1
Great Britain 50% 8

Britain’s positioning is even worse when we look at established democracies in particular, those countries that the Varieties of Democracy project scores above 0.5 (on a zero to one scale) on each of its high-level democracy indices . Among such countries, Britain ranks as the most populist of the 15 surveyed, and the second least trusting of government.

The relationship between populist sentiment and trust in government is clear. The greater the degree of populist sentiment in a democracy, the lower trust in government. Excluding Argentina, where inflation hit 88% in November 2022 – by far the highest of any established democracy – while the broken systems survey was in field, the relationship is even clearer.

Government Trustworthiness and Brken system sentiment - IpsosGovernment Trustworthiness and Brken system sentiment - Ipsos

Backsliding government trustworthiness and rising populist sentiment, in the context of an overriding sense that everything in Britain is broken and won’t be fixed any time soon. It is important not to overstate the case – for the most part, the shift in Britain’s relative position internationally is as much a result of improving or stable government trustworthiness, and declining populism, as it is a result of significant changes here.

But this speaks to forces that other countries and governments are benefitting from that Britain’s is not. Mr. Sunak was right both to identify trust as a key challenge for his government and to note that trust is earned.

But it is earned over the long term and can only be earned by fixing the problems that affect Britain today. Many of those challenges are deep-set, and some are intractable.

Establishing greater trust in government is a laudable goal, and society as a whole would benefit from addressing the causes of rising populist sentiment, but if he hopes to earn Britain’s trust before the next election the Prime Minister may have set himself an impossible challenge.

The author(s)
  • Mark McGeoghegan Corporate Reputation

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