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Who do we Trust?

 

Some time ago, I began a short series of Blog posts (see here and here) under the general theme of ‘hitherto neglected aspects of public attitudes to devolution’. These drew on detailed survey evidence gathered by the Wales Governance Centre here at Cardiff University, particularly the 2011 Welsh Referendum Study and 2011 Welsh Election Study. Although these studies are now slightly dated, they provided by far the most detailed information yet gathered in any surveys about various aspects of public attitudes towards many aspects of devolution and government here in Wales.

I had intended there to be three posts in the original series. I published two of them, and in the latter briefly previewed the third, but then got side-tracked by the fever pitch of political excitement that was the European Parliament election. Apologies for that. Anyway, making a somewhat belated appearance here is the third piece in the series. It concerns Trust. To what extent do the people of Wales have trust and confidence in their elected representatives, and those who govern over them?

The 2011 studies covered these issues in two main, slightly different ways. First, one question, which was included in the post-referendum wave of the Referendum Study asked the following:

‘How much do you trust the following to work in Wales’ best interests?’.

The table below summarises the (%) responses obtained for two levels of government – the UK and the Welsh governments – and also for two categories of representatives – MPs at Westminster and AMs at Cardiff Bay.

 

UK Government

Welsh Government

MPs

AMs

Just about always

5

21

3

18

Most of the time

22

45

18

45

AT LEAST MOST OF TIME

27

66

21

63

Only some of the time

44

21

51

23

Almost never

22

6

21

6

Don’t Know

7

7

8

7

What is immediately striking about the table is the disparity in trust of government and political representatives in London and in Cardiff. Those in London are trusted at least most of the time by roughly one-quarter of all respondents, whereas around two-thirds are willing to give that level of trust to those in Cardiff. This is a very large difference.

The initial inclination of social scientists looking at apparently interesting survey findings like this is nearly always to find ways in which we can ‘explain away’ the differences. There are several potential such reasons here. First, and perhaps most obviously, is our old friend question wording. It may well be that the wording of the question (‘to work in Wales’ best interests’) tends to lead people to offer responses more favourable to those within manifestly Welsh institutions. In addition we should consider partisan politics: at the time this survey was implemented, the UK government and the majority of members in the UK parliament represented political parties with only minority support here in Wales. Third, we might also bear in mind that in March 2011, when this survey question was asked, many memories lingered of the 2009 Westminster expenses scandal, which would hardly have helped elevate reported trust in UK-level politicians. Nonetheless, even with all these caveats entered, the difference in reported trust between UK and Welsh political institutions and those within them is stark.

Partly to compensate for any potential problems related to one particular question format and wording, elsewhere in the Referendum and Election studies another types of question was asked about trust. Here, respondents were asked to rate different institutions and those within them on a 0-10 scale, “where 0 means no trust, and 10 means a great deal of trust”. Four separate questions were asked, concerning levels of trust in people within those institutions to ‘Tell the truth’, to ‘Do what is right’, to ‘Be concerned with the problems of people like you’, and ‘to conduct their work with honesty and integrity’.

 Taken together with the question above about ‘Wales’ best interests’, these different questions potentially tap into several different dimensions of political trust: a concern with Wales, a connection between representatives and represented, and personal probity. We should not, therefore, necessarily expect that answers will be wholly consistent across the different questions: one could quite imagine people believing some politicians to be personally honest yet utterly out of touch, for instance.

To help place answers about politicians and governments into some sort of broader context, some of these questions were also asked about other institutions like The Courts and The Police. The table below shows the mean average ratings (out of a maximum of 10) obtained for the four questions:

 

 

Tell Truth#

Do Right#

Concerned Problems*

Honesty/

Integrity*

UK Government

3.74

3.88

3.94

3.76

Welsh Government

5.19

5.31

5.50

5.44

Westminster MPs

3.53

3.72

3.93

3.70

Assembly Members

5.04

5.20

5.53

5.41

Your local council

4.31

4.38

The European Union

3.40

3.28

The Courts

6.49

5.94

The Police

5.42

5.60

# Source: 2011 Welsh Referendum Study (post-referendum wave); * Source: 2011 Welsh Election Study (post-election wave).

 

It will surprise no-one, I suspect, that politicians and political institutions generally scored lower in terms of trust than those involved in the justice system. Indeed, if anything I might have expected the gaps to have been even greater. It will also surprise no-one that the European Union attracts low levels of trust.

What again stands out perhaps most from the findings on these questions, however, is the disparity in responses regarding MPs and the UK government on the one hand, and AMs and the Welsh government on the other. Although the differences on this types of question format perhaps look a little less stark than in the ‘Wales best interests’ question discussed above, they remain substantial. However the question is asked, it seems, those at the devolved level attract much greater trust than those at the UK level.

Why might this be? There is some general tendency for people to prefer political representatives who are closer to them; hence, surveys across Britain generally find greater levels of trust in local councils and councillors than the national government and MPs. Yet here we find greater trust in the devolved level even than in local councils. It may be that the proximity of the surveys to the 2011 Assembly election helped raise the reported standing of the devolved institution and its members somewhat; even so, the differences between levels of trust in the devolved level and the UK level is both so consistent and so substantial that it is very difficult to believe that conducting the survey at another time would have made very much difference to anything.

Comments

  • Dave

    Interesting. Thanks Roger. Would be fascinated to see proper polling comparing levels of popular trust in each of the devolved countries governments and the province of Northern Ireland.

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