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28 January 2019

Breakdown of trust has turned us into Disunited Kingdom

Written by: Ed Williams, Chief Executive Officer, Vice Chairman Europe at Edelman

News, Trust

We are often reminded that there’s never been a better time to be alive than today. In Britain there are more people in work than ever before. Across Europe we’ve enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace since the end of the Second World War. We live in a completely interconnected world.

The fabric that underpins that success is fairness and trust. Fairness is hard-wired into the human psyche. It underpins almost everything we do – the central founding principle of any society and the glue that allows human beings to work together. It has enabled us to trade. And with trade comes trust.

Yet today that fabric of fairness and trust is under threat. Only a minority of Britons questioned in Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer – 14% – feel that Britain is working for them. These aren’t just the feelings of those struggling to get by. They are held by all groups – young and old, rich and poor, metropolitan and country.

We are it seems, a Disunited Kingdom. Our only remaining commonality? That Britain today is increasingly unfair, unjust and on the wrong course. We worry our country will be poorer and less tolerant. Our divisions are multi-layered, and increasingly fractious. But it’s not simply about Remainers vs Leavers; Tory vs Labour; millennials vs baby-boomers.

It would be a mistake to assume Brexit is entirely to blame, and that the fractures it’s exposed are binary. Brexit is of course a symptom of a bigger underlying problem – a problem that people believe the Government is unable and incapable of solving. A majority, across all strata of our society, say that the institution of government is broken. That it does not listen to “people like me”. 

The future is no longer the place of opportunity for many. People increasingly fret about the future – not only for their economic prospects but also, to an extent, for their safety. Since the referendum four in ten say they see violent protests as more likely and seven in ten say we are angrier about politics and society. One in six even say it’s led to fallouts with family and friends. 

In unprecedented times, people are looking to other actors and institutions to fill the leadership gap. Here the opportunity is with business and business leaders. Business is today more trusted than government, than the media and viewed on a par with the third sector. In pursuit of the fairness on which all trade rests, it is not an exaggeration to say because of its scale and resources business has a responsibility to respond.

Whether it’s about the perception that some people are allowed to play by a different set of rules, or the belief that the way an employer treats its staff is critical to trust, business must step up. It must respond to societal concerns.

Half of us now look to our own employer to be a trustworthy source of information about social issues. To lead where there is little consensus elsewhere. 

At a time when many businesses feel they are operating in a world that looks increasingly out of their control, action on the things within their gift is a pretty good place to begin the re-set. The challenge is immense, but it cannot be ducked.

A version of this article first appeared on The Times

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