At what point did we start to mistrust governments? At what juncture did politicians become widely derided? I suppose that depends on how old you are. For my generation it could have been Watergate or closer to home, the miners’ strike. Before that was it the Profumo scandal or the Suez crisis? The truth is it feels like there have always been reasons to mistrust politicians in the UK. And yet in other countries trust still exists, mainly because there is a culture of transparency. In the UK we are currently experiencing a new period of openness. We know that there are issues over who paid for the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s flat, we know that the Secretary of State for Health benefitted from contracts handed out during the Covid crisis, we also know that UK government ministers have bullied members of staff and that senior civil servants have stepped down because of cabinet ministers behaviour. And beyond that there are a series of other allegations that for legal reasons I can’t mention. But our knowledge of these actions is not because the UK government has suddenly thrown open their doors and started to act in a more transparent fashion. It’s because of whistle blowers and they may be disgruntled individuals with an axe to grind. And that’s where the media come into play. Headlines often proclaim wrongdoings as if they are fact when they are only allegations. I often attend meetings where people speak openly and frankly. Good ideas and bad ideas can be discussed equally without fear of ridicule or retribution and that’s valuable. But if parts of those discussions are taken out of context and trailed in the media then we all end up looking foolish. We need to find a balance where private means confidential, for all the right reasons, and the machinery of government is open for scrutiny. Historically we have sought to achieve this through principles but sadly there are too many, a minority but a powerful one, that seek to abuse the system for their own aims. Elected members and senior civil servants should never use their position to line their own pockets or grant grace and favour to friends and family. And the culture that perpetuates entitlement to a chosen few while seeking to manipulate the media and avoid scrutiny is well past its use by date.
But as I said earlier, not all countries are like this. While the OECD reports that trust in the UK government is 34.7%, Denmark, Netherlands and Luxembourg are over 70% and Finland, Norway and Switzerland sit at over 80%. I can’t help but notice that they are all small European countries that take their democracy seriously and in doing so cultivate trust and openness in their society. We can do better than be shackled to the corrupt, narcissistic, edifice of bygone days that is Westminster. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to start that journey and ensure that Scotland’s parliament grows to reflect the society around it, free from the chains that bind us.