Ben Cope Insights

Rebuilding trust in Davos  

Centrist dads at Davos should learn that trust is earned not given

Centrism will hit the slopes as world leaders descend on Davos this Sunday. The theme of “rebuilding trust” is in keeping with the rise of self-identified sensible politics among the powerful in recent years. Incredibly, 16 years after the financial crisis and eight since Brexit and Donald Trump, elites have decided that – after much deliberation – they were right all along. With the correct strategy, “civil society” – as the World Economic Forum describes ordinary people – will trust the Davos men to make the right decisions again. Or so they think.

But centrist dads at Davos should learn that there was no golden age of a trusting public to go back to. The old order fell apart for a reason. The shiny smiles of Tony Blair and Barack Obama didn’t work for everyone, even if the vibes were immaculate. Only by looking forwards, listening to people’s concerns, and delivering for them, will trust be earned back. Ironically, that’s also the way Davos will rebuild trust in its own relevance to global discourse.

Moving on from last year’s theme of ‘Cooperation in a Fragmented World’ and the key word of ‘polycrisis’ (which seemed to mean omnishambles), the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum “aims to restore collective agency, and reinforce the fundamental principles of transparency, consistency and accountability among leaders,” embodying “a back to basics spirit of open and constructive dialogue.” Ignoring the presumably accidental nod to John Major’s 1993 campaign slogan, Davos’ theme addresses the symptoms, not the causes, of distrust in elites.

For the growing number of centrists, though, fixing real-world problems is a secondary concern. Vibes – sensible vibes – are far more important. Look at popularity of middle-of-the-road podcasts such as The Rest is History/Politics/Money which promote cordial disagreement (because they secretly agree about almost everything), the reassurance some felt when David Cameron returned to the Cabinet, or the utter dismay expressed the centre-left when Jeremy Corbyn tried to do things differently. Vibes, all vibes. Centrists, who count Davos’ business leaders in their ranks, clutch to a bygone pre-Brexit era when people who looked, sounded and thought like them ruled the airwaves.

That’s history now. 2016 happened for a reason. The cold logic of neoliberalism left many behind, and smartphones let them talk about it. When Alistair Campbell laments the rise of Boris Johnson, he forgets that it was only possible because people had grown tired of Tony Blair. Similarly, business should be wary of rowing back on corporate purpose and ESG as interest rates stay higher for longer. Some of it was nonsense, sure. But consumers and employers have legitimate concerns about the ethnics of the businesses the buy and work for. As much as centrists long for it, there’s no golden age to go back to – in politics or business. And they should be the first to know that you can’t take back control.

But tales of Davos’ death may be premature. Anyone who’s stepped inside the hallowed Congress Centre will tell you the theme and agenda are marketing guff. What really matters are the behind-the-scenes meetings between the highest levels of government and business. That’s why Davos has weathered previous storms, surviving the cynicism that followed the financial crisis and cancelled conferences during Covid-19. Perhaps criticism of the theme is pointless whataboutery. What should have they gone with instead? It’s tough to set the global agenda in two words.

But difficult or not, “rebuilding trust” reveals Davos – like centrists – doesn’t understand how the world changed after 2008 and 2016. The record of politics and business to deliver on issues that matter to people is poor, yet elites expect to be trusted because they say so. In our digital age, that doesn’t work anymore. Trust is now built democratically, negotiated on a granular level, with brand loyalty built through the shared micro-experiences of millions rather than top-down advertising campaigns. It’s much harder to engineer. Transparency and consistency are red herrings too. Without answering the question – ‘in what?’ – it’s just more vibes. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are consistently transparent about throwing their family under the bus. Do many people trust them?

Centrist dads have had a good few years. Trump’s running from the law rather than making it, oh-so-sensible-Starmer is set to sail into Number 10, and the public are starting to feel sheepish about Brexit. But as 85-year-old centrist great grandad Klaus Schwab will realise next week, respect – and trust – are earnt not given.