The age of mistrust


Once upon a time, a politician stumbled across the secret to life, the universe and everything.

What did he discover? That doesn’t really matter. Let’s just say that it was something marvellous. It was something that would revolutionise the world. It would end poverty and hunger, improve the environment, stop wars, bring happiness and peace. Oh, and lots of other good things besides.

It might be something that you already know. Or it might be the polar opposite of your beliefs.

How did he find it? We don’t need to know that either. Written in an ancient book. Computer research. He found it under his pillow. Maybe he thought it up for himself. Something. Invent your own plot device and insert it here.

The point is that we have a politician who knows a wonderful secret.

Right now, I expect you are thinking that the politician was a dishonest and money-grabbing character who wanted to use the secret for his own advancement. Actually, no. He was an honest and sincere person. Selfless. Giving. He was as good a person as you could imagine to receive this secret.

Okay, okay, I know. That might be the biggest stretch of the imagination so far in this story.

Being a dutiful politician, the first thing that he did was to take it to his political party.

The chairman of his party was unimpressed. “We can’t use this,” he said. “It wasn’t in our manifesto. It won’t appeal to our core supporters or the marginal voters. Our financial backers won’t like it. The focus groups clearly show that we should be talking about immigration and the cost of living. I am sorry, but … no. Forget about it.”

Crestfallen, our hero slinked away slinkily. Or slunked if you like your verbs mangled.

He took his idea to the Chief Executive of a mighty multi-national corporation. She listened carefully and then said. “I’m sorry. It’s a great idea, but it’s not for us. We make a lot of money from the world’s problems. We don’t want anyone solving them. That would hurt the bottom line.”

The Union boss said: “This will put some of my members out of work.”

The Church leader said: “We are not in the market for a new secret to life, the universe and everything. We have already got one.”

In frustration, he started talking to people in the street. Ordinary citizens. People like you and me.

Some of them said: “I already know what the answer is. What this country needs is to get rid of all the foreigners, sack the fat cats, shoot the so-called environmental scientists, lynch the bankers. And we don’t need you politicians neither.”

Others said: “What’s in it for you? You’re only saying this because you want to profit from it.”

“I don’t like it. It would mean changing the way we do things. I prefer things the way they were back in the old days. Things were so much simpler then.”

“It won’t work. I’ve got no evidence to prove it and I have absolutely zero expertise in this field, but I am 100% sure that it won’t work.”

In desperation he talks to a journalist. “I have found the answer to life, the universe and everything. It would make a great human interest story. The world needs to know about this.”

At last, he had found someone who would listen. The journalist licked the end of his pencil and started to take notes. I have no idea why he licked his pencil. That’s just something that reporters always seem to do, just before they yell into a telephone to hold the front page. And other clichés.

Our hero – for a hero he was, of sorts – was delighted. At last the idea was going to get out into the wide world. He was making progress.

Several days later, the story appeared in the paper.

Prime Minister slams “crackpot” idea

The Government will not implement a new idea being proposed by maverick politician, John Doe.

Speaking today at number 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister said that the idea was “utter claptrap” and was that John Doe was acting without party support.

The leader of the Opposition said that they opposed the idea even more utterly than the Government.

The Archbishop of Canterbury said…

Our hero telephones the journalist to ask him why he wrote the story like that.

“What did you expect?” said the journalist. “Conflict sells newspapers. No-one wants to read a story about people agreeing with each other.”

Soon other newspapers start to tell the story. They dig up dirt about our politician’s past. They find scientists to debunk the idea. Television comedians crack jokes about it.

The politician gives up.

What’s that? You were hoping for a happy ending? Sorry to disappoint, but not all stories that start “once upon a time” end with “and they all lived happily ever after.”

The moral of this story is that we live in an age of mistrust.

There is a core principle at the heart of both democracy and capitalism – the good stuff should naturally rise to the top.

Democracy ought to mean that we choose the best people to be politicians. If they do good work while they are in political office we vote to keep them in. If they do bad work, we vote to get them out.

It should be the same with capitalism. The companies selling the best products for the lowest price should make the most profits.

It’s a nice and simple theory.

But what is actually happening is that competition is forcing us to mistrust everyone. Opposition parties pick fault with Government policies. That’s what they have to do if they want to be elected in their turn. No opposition party ever got elected by agreeing with the Government.

Newspapers focus on stories about sleaze and mistakes rather than celebrating successes. Big businesses have to manipulate their customers to persuade them to buy more.

It makes us think that everyone is sleazy. There is no-one we can trust.

Right now we need strong leaders. Across the world we face massive problems, whatever your views about the environment, the economy, terrorism, poverty, hyper-population, corruption …

The answers are almost certainly going to involve some pain, because there are no simple solutions here. But how do we find someone we can trust to take those decisions, if the systems that we live in automatically generate mistrust?

Here’s the sting in the tail. The secret that the politician discovered may not have been a new idea. Others may have thought it already.

But no-one trusted them either.


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