UK Politics

After the scandal, the battle to be trusted

Bank of England
Image caption Some pillars of the establishment are on firmer foundations than others

For the last few years, one after another, pillars of British society have taken a pounding.

First, it was politicians with the MPs' expenses scandal. Next, it was banks with the credit crunch. Then it was the newspapers with phone hacking.

The currency of trust with the public, so vital to the credibility of all three, has been severely devalued. And for the bankers, it is happening all over again.

It is that battle over trust, claiming it and then keeping it, that explains why there is so much venom in this row over the interest rate fixing scandal at Barclays.

Forget for a moment the multimillion pound fines. At stake here at Westminster, and down the river in the City, are priceless reputations.

The polling organisation Ipsos Mori has just published some research on the reputation of the banking industry. They spoke to people in 24 countries, in the first three months of this year, so before this latest scandal.

Depressing, but predictable

Trust in the banks in the UK, it suggests, was already lower than in every one of those other 23 countries, excluding Belgium. It was marginally higher in Spain, which is suffering its own banking crisis. It was significantly higher in America, and even higher still in Turkey, India and China.

Almost 70% of people in the UK, the poll also suggests, would like tougher regulation of the banks.

Add to that, according to a Populus poll for The Times last month ( pdf ), this: two thirds of people in the UK say risk-taking by British banks was an important factor in landing the country in its current economic mess.

So, to say bankers need to go on something of a charm offensive is to rather understate their public relations challenge.

Enter next, the politicians. Their task, as ever, is to be seen to be doing something about it, and emerging with a better reputation individually than they had at the outset.

The political class as a whole, on this, starts from a low base.

A ComRes poll for ITV News over the weekend was as depressing for politicians as it was predictable.

Just 10% of us trust bankers to tell the truth, it suggests, while four in five do not and 12% aren't sure.

'Low esteem'

It is barely any better for our elected representatives. 77% of the population do not trust them to tell the truth and just 10% do, the poll suggests.

For the record, and as a reporter myself I write this sentence humbly, just 13% think journalists can be trusted.

That compares to 85% of people trusting doctors, 73% judges and 59% the police.

"The poll reveals a public that is thoroughly disillusioned with the people who manage their money, who make their laws, and who supply their news," ComRes chairman Andrew Hawkins said.

"It is hard to see how the public could get any more sceptical than it is now. Public confidence in them will years to recover, not least because the entire political and commercial class is being dragged through the mire. It also calls into question the extent to which politicians can hold others to account when they themselves are held in such low esteem."

It is these figures that are central to Labour's claims that the best medicine to treat the banking scandal is an inquiry led by a judge and not by Parliament.

Politicians investigating bankers, when both are somewhat lacking in the credibility stakes, the argument goes, would be laughed at by the public.

The government response is to say people will expect a quick response from them to this scandal and an inquiry led by a judge would take too long.

Ultimately, they are both arguments staking a claim to the same outcome: securing that most precious currency: Trust.