Every scandal is one of one thousand cuts to our institutions


Last Wednesday, I Whatsapp’d my mum a screenshot of a BBC Breaking News article with the headline “Nicola Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell arrested in SNP finance probe”, along with the message, “What a way to start the day!”.

As someone deeply involved in politics and with some strong opinions on the SNP, I will admit I was rather gleeful. The news came just a day after Donald Trump was arrested over “hush money” payments, Robert Jenrick was disqualified from driving for 6 months for speeding, and on the same day that Blackpool South MP Scott Benton was was reported to have been involved in a lobbying “sting”.

For politicos everywhere, scandals like these just add to the excitement of what we do.

Yesterday afternoon, after keeping one eye on BBC and Sky News’ streams to get as much detail about the Murrell news as possible, I went to get my hair cut. During my conversation with the barber, I mentioned I worked in politics. The disappointment in the institution felt by my barber was clear when he said, “politicians promise you everything and then they do whatever they want.”

This view of politicians has always existed, but recent events have fuelled this sentiment and do our institutions no favours. Polling by YouGov in 2021 found that 63% of politicians are “in it for themselves”, and the graph above shows how worrying the trend has been since the question was first posed in 1944.

Faith in politicians is at an all-time low, and if action is not taken, this trend will keep getting worse.

To add to this, this years’ World Values Survey found that while support for the principle of democracy has risen in the past two decades, the faith that the British public has in the political system is depressingly low – just 17% are “highly satisfied”. Furthermore, the UK is only mid-range in terms of perceptions of how democratically we are governed, and while support for “experts” making political decisions is at a record high – this is undoubtedly a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Corruption is a significant issue in the public perception of politicians and institutions. In 2023, Transparency International revealed that the UK fell to its lowest ever ranking on perceived corruption, at 18th place, and was one of only 5 countries to see its score drop by more than 5 points, the others being Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Oman, and Qatar. This comes in the wake of a seemingly endless cycle of sleaze scandals which, while zhuzhing up news coverage, further bakes in the disappointment expressed by my barber – scandals such as “Partygate”, tractor porn, PPE procurement, lobbying by Owen Paterson, Barnard Castle… the list goes on.

These perceptions and the basis for them are nothing new, nor are they merely confined to politicians. The 2009-2010 expenses scandal rocked confidence in politicians, but there is also little confidence in the press, the judiciary, and notably the Metropolitan Police. A poll conducted by YouGov between 27th and 30th March 2023 found that 42% of Londoners distrust the Metropolitan
Police as an organisation, versus 29% who trusted it. It also found that a majority have a negative perception, with 43% more negatively now than this time last year, and 63% not confident that corruption can be tackled by the Commissioner.

These findings should be extremely worrying for politicians and parties of all stripes. What is even more worrying is that scandals in the political sphere embolden populist actors. In the wake of the Murrell arrest, SNP supporters have called on people to donate to the party. While in the US, the Trump campaign has weaponised his indictment to raise over $4million in the 24 hours. The political capital gained by those wishing to disrupt our institutions is a danger to our democracy and to the West as a whole. Erosion in institutions drives people to quick fixes, be they parties, politicians, or “gurus” such as Russell Brand and Andrew Tate.

For our institutions to be effective and to uphold democracy, the public must be able to have trust that they will work effectively in their interests and represent their values. While there is nothing that can be done to prevent newspapers like the Daily Mail crowing about “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE”, or Rishi Sunak talking about “lefty lawyers”, counter-measures can be taken.

As a party we are campaigning on a broad vision of a reformed UK which will rebalance the way our institutions work to address some of these issues. However, we must go further to ensure bodies such as the police and our political sphere are trustworthy to the public.

Some of this we can do ourselves: we can get out and talk to voters to make sure they feel listened to, we can make policies and start campaigns, but we cannot do it all alone. We should work with like-minded people from other parties and independent organisations to shape the frameworks needed to rebuild trust in institutions.

Only by facing this issue head-on with a consensus-based approach, will we be able to restore faith in our politics, and reverse the tide of people, like my barber, Thomas, thinking that “politicians promise you everything and then they do whatever they want.”.

* Jack Clark is the former Chair of Scottish Young Liberals, and was candidate for Paisley & Renfrewshire South in 2019.

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18 Comments

  • Matt (Bristol) 11th Apr '23 - 12:57pm

    Fair point. I think the impact of FPTP as a voter-suppressant is also a factor here. But in terms of Lib Dems crowing about the corruption elements of what appears to be an SNP collapse, members may need to ask themselves where they have seen this before: a party with a centrist none-of-the-above appeal and a catch-all approach to a specific constitutional reform issue (which involves endless hope about a reform that may never happen, alas), is undone by a fundamental fracture between its moderately-socially-conservative voters and its ‘radical’/progressive activists and the latter’s desire to disown the former, resulting in a fractious leadership contest that creates a faultline the media can chip away merrily at for years.

  • George Thomas 11th Apr '23 - 1:22pm

    I think your barber is pointing out that our lives are very much a game to those deeply involved in politics, with the worst continuing childhood rivalries on a grander stage, and that as consequence of this things are said with no intention of delivery in order to win the game.

    While I would argue that the poll linked is flawed in that it implies politicians have one intention for their actions, to me, you describing yourself as being “gleeful” about someone being investigated by the police because of your opposition to their politics suggests, on some level, that you also see it as a game.

    I am quietly content that the police are acting responsibly and that those who appear need investigating are being investigated. I’m saddened by fact that there may be further improper behaviour at top of UK politics, and by my suspicion that some needing investigating are put through that process a lot quicker/slower than others depending on how many friends they have in high places.

    Schadenfreude is best kept for sports supporters. Not for those wanting to restore faith in politics.

  • Mel Borthwaite 11th Apr '23 - 1:40pm

    It is interesting that the ‘corruption’ being alleged in the case of Peter Murrell is that funds that were raised to finance a second independence referendum campaign may have been spent on general SNP campaigning costs. To my knowledge, no one is suggesting that he may have personally benefitted from the money. While I understand some sections of the media loving the story and milking it for all it is worth, I am a little concerned by the Police thinking it was necessary or proportionate to send 20 police officers round to search his house – I’m not sure Fred West got as many officers at his address!

  • David Evans 11th Apr '23 - 4:56pm

    Matt (Bristol),

    Your thoughts harking back to the collapse of coalition are interesting, but erroneous in one factor. The gap wasn’t between our Left of Centre activists and a Right of Centre vote, but between LoC activists and voters and a RoC ledership with its drive to disown the latter. There was an interesting piece of research published by Electoral Calculus shortly before the 2010 election that showed while we had lost 5% vote share to the Right – 3% to the Conservatives and 2% to UKIP, we lost 9% to the Left – 6% to Labour, 2% to the Greens and 1% to the SNP. Most of the growth in UKIP came from the Conservatives – 5%.

    Comparing things now the split seems to be between a radical progressive young activist base and a traditional centre left old activist and liberal vote. After the collapse in 2015 the leadership left, having refused to go in 2014 when it might have made a difference. A similar failure next time could be much more problematic.

  • Matt (Bristol) 11th Apr '23 - 5:47pm

    David, I wasn’t thinking about right or left of centre (in economic terms) I was thinking more about the differences on social policy that were a characteristic of the 2015 Tim Farron leadership election. I think the gap between the ‘radical progressive young activist base and a traditional centre left … vote’ goes back that far (even though there was a more overt slightly ‘right of centre’ faction in amongst them at the time muddying the waters).

    With regard to Clegg I think its possible to say that Kate Forbes is simultaneously the SNP’s Clegg and Farron.

    With the Lib Dems it was different, Farron being to the left on economics and Clegg being more liberal (in the current usage of the word) on some aspects of social policy.

  • Steve Trevethan 11th Apr '23 - 6:13pm

    Thank you for an interesting and important article!

    Why is our country classified as a democracy when about 30 % of our children are underfed?

    Over the span of time over which junior doctors tell us that their pay value has dropped by 35%, by how much has the pay of M. P.s fallen or risen?

  • Simon McGrath 11th Apr '23 - 6:24pm

    “Why is our country classified as a democracy when about 30 % of our children are underfed?”

    I have no idea if that it a correct figure but why would there be any connection between the two points ?

  • Steve Trevethan 11th Apr '23 - 6:54pm

    Here is some detail on U.K. child hunger/starvation:
    https://www.theguardian.com/society/2023/mar/01/number-of-uk-children-in-food-poverty-nearly-doubles-in-a-year-to-4m

    If our [alleged] democracy cannot prevent/chooses to let so many of its children go hungry and suffer other deprivations, how is it democratically serving all its people?

  • Steve Trevethan 11th Apr '23 - 7:02pm

    Here are some more comments on possible corruption in our politics:
    https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/

    Might part of our corruption problem be poor/consensual questioning and/or reporting by the M. S M?

  • @ Simon McGrath. “I have no idea if it is a correct figure……… “

    The figures are those of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an organisation founded on strong research and with strong links to the Liberal Party going well back to the early years of the last century.

    As to democracy, I always thought the liberal ideal was of a participatory democratic society made up of an emancipated citizenry……. Something made impossible when there is widespread deprivation. It’s that basic, Councillor McGrath.

  • @Ian….Sadly Ian, the last paragraph in you’re post are not high up on the public’s agenda – & never have been.. There’s some hefty Tory majorities to overcome, & Starmer is no Blair. Not sure how solid that current poll lead is + the Cons always get their vote out.

  • James Fowler 12th Apr '23 - 9:36pm

    Thank you Matt (Bristol) for some very insightful analysis.

    Re: the general levels of trust in politicians, I wonder how the public perceive themselves: ‘Do you think that British people are out merely for themselves, for a wider programmatic set of ideals, or to do their best for their country?’ I wonder whether the dislike of politicians is really a cipher for a distrust of society at large.

  • @ Martin Gray. “Starmer is no Blair”.

    Martin, you might find that for many thoughtful progressive people that is probably a good thing. Blair toadying up to Bush in the Iraq War and the introduction of academies in schools (with an oppressive OFSTED regime) was not the most progressive legacy.

    It’s not just the winning of an election, it’s what you do with it – something which Lib Dem’s should reflect on.

  • Laurence Cox 13th Apr '23 - 10:14am

    @Jack Clark’s graph copied from The Guardian only illustrates the innumeracy of that publication. Had they instead used a uniform scale of time for the x-axis, we would have seen a belief that politicians were only in it for themselves slowly rising from around 35% in 1944 to just below 50% in 2014, and then rocketing to 63% in November 2021. That would have been a true indication of the damage done to our democracy by Cameron, May and Johnson; although Nick Clegg probably contributed to increasing the 2014 figure.

  • Nonconformistradical 13th Apr '23 - 11:25am

    @James Fowler
    “society at large”
    Maggie Thatcher claimed “There is no such thing as society”
    Is there one giant society?

    Or are there different communities? May be a group of people, an area where a group of people live etc….

    Are some people totally disaffected from whatever form of society or community exists around them? Why for example would someone commit this wanton vandalism?
    https://www.itv.com/news/anglia/2023-04-12/gardener-heartbroken-after-thugs-destroy-allotment-crop-to-feed-hungry

  • John Bicknell 13th Apr '23 - 1:45pm

    ‘Starmer is no Blair – you might find that for many thoughtful progressive people that is probably a good thing’
    Anyone who considers that the man who is ‘100% behind’ those recent grotesque Labour attack ads, is worthy of the support of ‘thoughtful progressive people’, is surely deluding themselves.

  • I happen to share John Bicknell’s dislike and disapproval of the recent poster attacking Mr Sunak. There is, though, a huge difference between an unpleasant poster and a war in which many thousands of innocent people were killed or maimed and a poster produced in the backroom of a party Headquarters by media staff.

    One could also add that to imply someone is deluded could be described as similarly unpleasant.

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