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Trust and institutions in age of mass affluence

Within my lifetime this society knew a sort of coherence which has gone. It united classes, and regions, and generations. Broadly speaking, there was agreement about various things which mattered a good deal. These included ideas about public behaviour (on trains, in the street); about holding the monarchy and Parliament (meaning both the Houses of Lords and Commons) in a degree of awe; about respecting authority in general (the police, the army, public officials of any kind); about believing the Civil Service was fair. There was respect for learning, and in particular academic authority. And there was respect, too, for any religion - and especially for the religion of the Books (Bible and Talmud, even the less-known Koran). This last was a trust based - not on polite and strategic regard for awkward difference - but respect for similarity.

Now, all these were all nuanced by scepticism, and it bordered on the cynical. There were tensions between the economic classes, the Royal Family and House of Lords were mocked as faintly absurd, there was a mantra about politicians looking after their own interests. The young of succeeding generations mocked the stuffy shibboleths of those they were succeeding.

So the old understandings weren't rock solid. And neither have they even now entirely disappeared: this is still a recognisable (and partly civilised) society.

In any case, civilisation is not predicated on the old understandings. Indeed, some of them - an easy-going racism, a casual jingoism, a light-hearted snobbery - were not particularly attractive at the best of times, and sometimes were downright ugly.

Nor could the old understandings survive: mass education and mass affluence have banished any willingness of one class to feel itself subordinate to another. Darwin fatally wounded the ideas of "divine right" and nobility when he scuppered both the idea of God and the idea of serious difference (a difference, as people might have said, of degree - meaning a difference in quality) between people. Religion and deference went early on. Trust in institutions was bond to follow. More surprising was the death of reserve.

More perhaps even than the decline of deference, the rise of mass affluence has made for dramatic change. Politeness and forbearance became victims of equality fatally allied with spending power. A considerable majority of people in this country have felt themselves the victims of snobbery as they certainly were of stifled ambition. They were poor and put-upon (as they felt it) and now they are rich and free. No wonder they are assertive.

Naturally, the new tendencies were celebrated by the media: the young lions of the 60s thought they were instituting a wonderful revolution of sex and society and like all revolutionaries they didn't much care how destructive they were. Many of them now regret the ensuing rootlessness and unruliness they unleashed.

Still, we probably needn't mourn too much. Firstly, British society has often mourned a new sloppiness and has usually either rediscovered its old values, or noticed that they are peculiarly still available - submerged, transmogrified, but in fairly decent shape.

None of the new vulgarities need matter, because they may not last.

The point is: how are the new unruly, petulant, demanding British to be ruled?

Consider our recent populist politics.

Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were probably the most brilliant of the politicians to understand what the British wanted. Macmillan and Wilson did too, but not with the visceral grip of Thatcher and Blair. Thatcher had the audacity to chuck-over socialism (and the idea of the protective state): she thrilled and shocked all classes. And Blair pulled off something more amazing: he spoke and wooed us like a therapist or a counsellor: he promised he could rebirth the nation. He produced the effect of recovered memory: he took us back a generation or two and showed everyone how abused they had been by the Forces of Conservatism. He felt our pain, as President Clinton taught him to.

Thatcher and Blair both despised and undermined the sources of authority in society. They played to the gallery. They implored us to trust them, as against the stuffy forces they were over-throwing. Parliament, the Cabinet, Whitehall, Town Hall - all of these were at a discount.

In the end, though, some of them will stage a comeback. However much we privatise our public services, or the media become the main location of debate, we will need laws and regulations and oversight and various forms of rationing of public service, and these will all require that we locate authority somewhere.

In a complex society, the mass have to have systems in place by which trust is generated, and representation achieved. Law-making and law-enforcement - let alone standard-setting and redistribution of resources - require trust-worthy locations of power. So too does policy-making.

Tony Blair has in the last year or two understood this. He has pursued unpopular policies and declared himself out of love with popularity. He has perhaps left it too late to rebuild a Cabinet and a serious interest in how government generates policy. And yet it is quite possible that as the first Post Modern Prime Minister (one who obsessed on appearances) he has realised that it was his job to obsess on policy.

I am not at all sure what new means people will find to channel authority - to confer it, trust it, abide by it - but I am pretty sure they will. That means that much of the rhetoric of my own generation - in the media, academia and parliament - will be rewound, and some much older habits examined, not to be imitated or resurrected, but to be mined for tips as something modern is built.

My instinct is to say that populism will go out of fashion. Experience, adulthood, seriousness, trustworthiness, education: these will come back into style. So, quite possibly, will institutions. I have a strong feeling that the idea of professions and professionalism will regain sway in our minds.

My reasoning is simple: our complex society generated institutions and respect for formal representative democracy as means to govern complexity within increased accountability. If we sense a good deal of chaos and disorder around us - and I think we do - then we will seek workable imitations or substitutes for these old vehicles. We won't have them in stuffy, gartered and wigged style, perhaps. The Reform, Carlton and Athenaeum - the Lords and Commons - may not be the style of power or the places where power is exercised. But there will be clear locations of power and authority - and there will be a reluctant but voluntary deference shown them. That, or misery.

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