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Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Blind Trust

David Blunkett is under renewed attack from the UK blogosphere. Although many of the anti-Blunkett blogs that Technorati throws up are called things like David Davis for Leader and The Conservative Victory (so no political bias there then), Blunkett is also unpopular with his own side. Home Secretaries are rarely popular, especially among the chattering classes, but Blunkett was responsible for a series of particularly illiberal actions and proposals during his tenure. See the Into The Machine weblog (formerly known as "Blunkett is an Arse") for endless examples.

Robin Wilton comments.

It's very strange ... to hear Mr Blunkett‘s party spokesman defending him on the grounds that “everyone who knows David thinks of him as someone with great honesty and integrity”, when based on the last year or two, the dominant public impression of Mr Blunkett is that he's an adulterer who has had some very visible lapses of political judgement and stepped down from office as a result.

This illustrates a very common contrast between public and private persona, and raises some interesting questions about trust. The spokesman's argument seems to be that a good character in private should help to negate a bad public reputation. But this is rubbish. When adultery is involved, there is at least one person (in this case the cheated-upon husband) who has every reason to mistrust. And people who cheat on their spouses, or murder their patients, are often perfectly charming in social settings. Or so I'm told.

If charm is often dangerous (as Clinton's enemies argued) then is it safer to trust people who are lacking in charm but appear to have honesty and integrity instead? Not necessarily. Even if we take the assurances of Blunkett's friends and colleagues at face value, we must surely ask on what basis were they able to assess his honesty and integrity. These are generally not observable traits. (All we can ever observe is the double negative - no evidence of dishonesty has yet come to light.)

In general, it is safest to trust people who don't ask us to rely on their honesty and integrity, but practice transparency in all their dealings. Like following the parliamentary rules. (Especially if you were a leading member of the Governing party that wrote them.) Sometimes public really is better than private.

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