The necessity of trust

To navigate the many complex, multi-faceted problems we face in this so-called ‘post-truth’ world, a shrug of distrust is not enough. We are going to need to rely on all our accumulated knowledge and wisdom, argues Tanya Jones, in the third of our Assembly election posts.

Tanya’s feet do the talking at the Climate Justice event in Paris, December 2015

There are two kinds of stories for progressives about this year’s Assembly election. Maurice and Stephen have told two of the hopeful ones. As a candidate in the demographically knife-edge constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, I’m perhaps more pessimistic. Those small green shoots pushing through the snow are undoubtedly there, but nurturing them will be a hard task.

I begin in the same place as Stephen, with Mike Nesbitt’s comments about vote transfers, which, whatever their effect upon the vote itself, apparently constituted his own political death warrant.

But what was so egregiously outrageous about what he actually said? Contrary to the impression widely given, Nesbitt did not recommend that Ulster Unionist voters give their immediate post-UUP preferences to the SDLP. He said that he intended to do so himself, but advised others only to transfer to any candidate they trusted to deliver for their “community, constituency and country”.

On the face of it, this sounds so anodyne as to be the political equivalent of a Hallmark greetings card. What other criterion could possibly have a higher priority than trust? And the ambiguous placing of ‘community’ at the head of the alliterative list even looks like a nod towards keeping those transfers largely unionist. In a Northern Ireland context, my ‘community’ might mean the village, town or suburb where I live, but it’s more likely, as Maurice discussed last week, to mean the group of people who share my religious, cultural and political preconceptions.

But, far from the yawn appropriate to Sunday afternoon platitudes, Nesbitt’s comment was greeted, even from within his own party, with howls of outrage. Here in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the UUP was quick to distance itself, advising its voters via Twitter to transfer to other ‘pro-union’ candidates. The content of the advice is explicable, of course, in view of the unionist pact for the 2015 Westminster election which enabled Tom Elliott to overturn Michelle Gildernew’s four vote majority.   The fact that it jarred so glaringly with the rest of the overwhelmingly anti-DUP Twitter feed didn’t seem to surprise anyone.

The odd thing is that, logically, this election ought to have been about precisely the issue of trust. At the heart of the RHI scandal were a lack of transparency and a failure of good governance. It was that betrayal of citizens’ trust, along with the breakdown of trust between the two Executive parties, which caused the election in the first place. But that very soon wasn’t the issue. Neither coalition partner wanted too strong a light to be shone on any aspect of the scandal, from the secrecy of political donations to the dysfunctional relationships between departments and ministers. Instead of ‘trust’ or any of its synonyms, the buzzword chosen by Sinn Fein was ‘respect’, and that played perfectly into the DUP’s hands.

‘I don’t trust you’, is a banal statement of fact, but ‘You’re disrespecting me,’ has an edge of combined victimhood and aggression that worked both to prod nationalists towards the polling station and to goad disaffected DUP supporters back into the fold. And it worked for any issue they chose, most effectively that of the Irish language.

‘Same old, same old,’ say the weary. But there is now a new dimension to the traditional tribalism of Northern Ireland. Only ten months separated the 2016 and 2017 Assembly elections, but those ten months included both the UK’s EU referendum and the election of President Donald Trump. I’m wary of sentences that begin ‘This vote meant…’, for people voted for both Brexit and Trump in smaller numbers, and for more varied reasons than any tidy explanation allows. I think it’s safe to say, though, that a mistrust of perceived establishments, elites and experts played a large part in the rhetoric underpinning both campaigns. The fact that Trump and the triumphal triumvirate of Farage Johnson and Gove are members of all the elite and establishment groups that matter only seemed to bolster their credibility.

It’s a credibility, though, that doesn’t necessarily imply trust. A traditional political polarity will say ‘My opponent is devious, flaky and possibly corrupt, but you can rely on me.’ But these new populists present themselves as mavericks, and their indiscretions, insensitivities and worse are all presented as refreshing evidence of their salt-of-the-earthiness. ‘Follow me,’ they say. ‘I don’t know any better than you where we’re going, but we’ll find someone to kick along the way.’ It’s a style that’s easy and infectious, requiring nothing so tedious as policy, and was used in the Assembly election campaign by both right and left, with ‘Drain the Swamp’, ‘Punish Stormont’ and ‘Elect A Fighter’ prominent on our lampposts.

A post-truth world, as we are reported to be living in, is perhaps necessarily also a post-trust world.

And the implications of that are terrifying. There are times and places when it wouldn’t matter very much, where societies are chugging along much as they always have, and a bit of iconoclasm is positively healthy. Even now, there are plenty of power systems, notably the financial and military, about which we aren’t sufficiently sceptical. But to trust virtually no scientists, no politicians, no lawyers, no economists and no historians, except those who peddle our own pet conspiracy theories, is to take from ourselves every tool with which we might build a better future. And in our global village, with even the liberal media fascinated and obsessed by emergent fascism, there seems little hope of containing the infection.

We face two* huge existential threats: domestic, in the massive shadow of the looming Brexit, and global, from the increasing certainty of catastrophic climate change. (*The uncontrolled belligerence of a nuclear-armed Trump is a potential third that even I, in this gloom-ridden mood, can’t quite bring myself to mention outside parentheses.)

The almost universal response to both has been to stick our heads firmly into the sand, occasionally surfacing to shout ‘Project Fear!’ before burrowing down again. But these are not remote eventualities that might possibly occur, or benign changes that can be dealt with by business as usual, calm-down-dearie and not frightening the horses. These are complex, multi-faceted, many-tentacled problems. In order to navigate them with any kind of success at all, we will need everything we as human beings have ever learned, about science, about ethics and about our own history. To dismiss all that accumulated knowledge and wisdom in favour of a shrug of the shoulders and a gut instinct would be the final confirmation of the Age of Stupid. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a snarky tweet.

But there are signs of hope, some of which have already been identified and explored on this site. A blind fatalism is as unhelpful as any other kind of darkness. In between writing the first and second drafts of this piece, the exit polls came in from the Dutch elections, showing a decline in support for the much-vaunted Geert Wilders and a surge for GroenLinks.   I was joyfully reminded that right-wing populism isn’t globally inevitable, that people aren’t necessarily insular and despairing and that a small patch of hope can spread a long way. And I started reading the paperback edition of Yanis Varoufakis’s And The Weak Suffer What They Must? in the foreword of which he writes of the ‘precious common ground’ shared by all those, whatever their political labels, who are ready to confront the ‘monsters … crawling out of the fault lines’.

And there are answers, at least partial ones, and dedicated, creative and informed people working hard to reach them. But it does need trust; not unthinking allegiance to any individual or institution, but a lively, questioning, thoughtful understanding of what history, science and experience can teach us, allied with a basic belief in human goodwill. It won’t be easy, but we’ve already begun, thousands of us, across the world and across the years.

Tanya Jones, 17 March 2017