Image of two people shaking hands
Trust as a necessary condition for all human cooperation. Photo ©

Rawpixel on Unsplash, adapted from the original.

June 2018

New British Council research explores the importance of trust to the UK's future prosperity. Alice Campbell-Cree, author of the report, discusses the findings. 

WHAT IS TRUST?

In Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama argues that prosperous countries tend to be those where business relations between people can be conducted informally and flexibly on the basis of trust. Numerous studies indicate the dividends of trusting relationships. Some show that, at the least, trust is robustly related to economic growth and, at most, that the relationship between trust and growth is statistically significant. One study demonstrated that as mutual trust between the populations of two countries increases by 1 per cent, exports increase by 0.6 per cent and the stock of foreign direct investment increases by three per cent. The theoretical basis of these findings is that high-trust relationships have lower transaction costs. Lower transaction costs stimulate investment, production and trade, which in turn lead to economic growth

As the UK pursues the opportunity to become even more outward looking, how can we ensure other nations are looking favourably at us?

Brexit has given urgency to the UK’s quest to be a major international trading partner. As the UK pursues the opportunity to become even more outward looking, how can we ensure other nations are looking favourably at us? A trustworthy reputation internationally – the status of ‘partner of choice’ among 7.5 billion people – will be central to this. But in international relations, what is trust and how is it earned?

In international relations, trust is often equated with an assessment of a country based on their behaviours, qualities, values. Trust is a confidence in the expectation that another country will do ‘what is right’.  The alternative to trust is force. Adopting from his predecessor the maxim that ‘trust is good, control is better’, Stalin famously declared: ‘I trust no-one, not even myself’. Yet the paranoia which resulted from this attitude was a disaster for millions and, in the end, for himself. Trust could be seen as a necessary condition for all human cooperation. 

New British Council analysis, based on a survey of almost 20,000 people in all G20 countries, found that the perception that the UK upholds the values people considered important was strongly associated with reported levels of trust in the UK. Some 76 per cent of people who consider the UK to uphold and support important values said they trusted the UK, while only 10 per cent of those same people said they distrusted the UK.

Using stepwise regression, we were able to determine the values or qualities which contribute most strongly to trusting the UK. They include the perceptions that the UK is open and welcoming, that it contributes to international aid, that it has an un-corrupt justice system, a free press, and world-leading arts and culture. 

HOW IS TRUST EARNED? 

If trust in the UK is strongly associated with the belief that the UK supports important values, and values such as openness, contribution to international development and co-operation are the strongest drivers of trust, then the key to earning trust is here. 

Given the importance placed on earning trust in cultural relations activities, we tested the relationship between young people’s engagement in cultural relations activities with the UK and their perceptions of UK values. We found that 50 per cent of respondents who had participated in cultural relations activities such as learning English, or participating in a UK arts programme or educational exchange felt the UK supports and encourages important values, compared to only 31 per cent who had not participated in a cultural relations activity. 

The analysis also found that levels of trust in the UK were significantly higher among those who had engaged with the UK through cultural relations activities

The analysis also found that levels of trust in the UK were significantly higher among those who had engaged with the UK through cultural relations activities. 75 per cent of people who had participated in a UK cultural relations activity with the British Council said they trusted the UK, compared to only 49 per cent of people who had not.

Infographic showing trust of people in the UK
Cultural Relations and the British Council contribute to trust in the UK. Image ©

British Council.

In international relations, the importance of trust cannot be overstated. Trust is the foundation upon which long-term relationships and alliances are built. When international actors – countries, non-state actors, individuals – trust each other, mutual co-operation for peace, development and prosperity can flourish. For the purposes of this report, we considered the potential economic benefits of trust specifically.

Consistent with the literature that trust helps to facilitate growth, the analysis found that people who trust the UK are roughly twice as likely to want to do business or trade with the UK as those who do not trust the UK. Some 15 per cent of respondents who said they trust people from the UK said they intend to do business or trade with the UK, compared to only 8 per cent of those who said they do not trust UK people. In China those who said they trust the UK were 14 percentage points more likely to say they intend to do business/trade with the UK. In India, people who said they trust the UK were eight percentage points more likely to say they intend to do business/ trade with the UK than those who said they do not trust the UK. It’s a finding which is consistent with past British Council research and it has significant implications for the UK as our economic future increasingly relies on the interest and willingness of others to do business with us. 

It is often the qualities that we ourselves consider to be most fundamental to our society that are also the most important to international perceptions and trust in the UK. Upholding, investing in, and protecting these qualities is likely to have a positive impact on our international relationships, helping to secure future prosperity for the UK. Supporting and making the most of the organisations which earn trust for the UK worldwide will be critical to this.

Alice Campbell-Cree, Policy Analyst, British Council

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