The London Conference

Plenary Session Two: People vs Politics: Building and Breaking Trust

Monday 23 October, 1145 – 1245

Session Report

In this session, the panel discussed the importance of trust in politics at a time of growing distrust between governments, the media and the public. 
 
Michael Stewart, global vice chairman at Edelman, began by exploring the findings of a study where over 50 per cent of the people surveyed said the existing system wasn’t working for them. Similarly 49 per cent of the elites asked, said they felt the system was also failing. The results, he argued, demonstrates a fundamental desire for change which he explained was played out in 2016 with the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of US President Donald Trump. Fear had a significant part to play in both cases, where during the UK’s EU referendum and the US election, 54 per cent and 67 per cent described themselves as fearful respectively. However, of the 28 countries surveyed, there was one country where the public thought their system was working and where there was still a trust in its leaders – India. 
 
M J Akbar, minister of state for external affairs of India, discussed why this is the case in India, where following the vacuum left with the collapse of the British empire, the will of the people became imperative. However, he explained why this might not be the case in other countries, such as in Spain, where although Spaniards across the country might believe in the Spanish state, the Catalonians have lost their faith in it. Akbar outlined why he believes the biggest threat to the nation-state today is Salafi jihadism. When the idea of man fails, he explained, religion can become the basis of nationalism. By creating a religious ideology that sponsors fear, ISIS were able to develop a political agenda which challenged the idea of the nation-state altogether, therefore using fear as a poison to destabilize the existing system. 
 
Nick Pickles, head of public policy and government for the UK and Israel at Twitter, went on to explore the discussion California is currently having around fake news, social media and digital technology. Political and traditional media circles are increasingly out of touch with the public’s views, he explained, creating a challenge for governments who have been able to rely on this system for years. 
 
Ida Auken, member of parliament for Denmark, argued why democracy is not just about voting: it’s about leaders having conversations with the public. But who are they talking to in these conversations? Is it just with other political parties or is it actually with the people? 
 
The panel also discussed the question of corruption and how ordinary people have lost their faith in the ruling elites. Akbar narrated an anecdote of Mahatma Gandhi, where in 1915, his mentor told him, ‘If you are going to enter public life, you need to keep your mouth shut and your ears open for a year and listen to the people’. Ida added that despite Denmark not being on the top of the list of the most corrupt countries in the world, maybe it should be because there is little social mobility between ordinary people and the ruling elites.
 
The panel concluded by exploring both the democratization and weaponization of social media and digital technology, the impact of artificial intelligence, how tech companies are beginning to decide what is true and what is false and also who is ultimately responsible for the deficit in trust between leaders and the public? On the last question, Michael Stewart argued that the responsibility rests with everyone. M J Akbar added that the international community will have to win the argument – not just the battle – when defeating radical groups because, as the case of the Taliban in Afghanistan showed, although it was defeated, it was allowed to come back because the argument wasn't won with the Afghanistani people. Ida Auken also added that trust cannot be forced – it must be built – but patience is needed in order to do this. Nick Pickles then concluded by saying that there is currently a global battle of values taking place across the world and it’s up to whomever to win. 

Speakers

Key Quotes

M J Akbar: ‘In Catalonia, they lost faith in the Spanish state. We are seeing a rise in distrust in the nation-state globally.’

‘The idea of a modern nation-state formed when, in the post-war order, the will of the people became the most important thing. Today, we have discovered that the will of the people is a dynamic thing that can change. Therefore by the will of the people, governments also change.’

‘In 1915, Mahatma Gandhi’s mentor told him, ‘If you are going to enter public life, you need to keep your mouth shut and your ears open for a year and listen to the people’.'

‘When the idea of man fails, religion can become the basis of nationalism which is what helped to propel the rise of Islamism. ISIS, sponsoring fear, developed a political agenda and challenged the idea of the modern nation-state. The use of fear is a potent poison that disturbs the harmony that people have achieved and destabilizes the people-to-people relations which therefore challenges the system as we know it.’

Nick Pickles: ‘Political and traditional media circles are increasingly out of touch with the public’s views, creating a challenge for governments who have been able to rely on this system for years.’

‘There is currently a global battle of values happening and it’s up to whomever to win.’

Ida Auken: ‘Democracy is not just about voting: it’s about leaders having conversations with the public. But who are they talking to in these conversations? Is it just with other political parties or is it actually with the people?’

‘Trust cannot be forced – it must be built – but patience is needed in order to do this.’

Michael Stewart: ‘Who is ultimately responsible for the deficit in trust between leaders and the public? It is the responsibility of everyone and everyone should realise that this lack of trust is real.’

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