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No rational person wants a return to the age of forelock tugging, but our society has paid a price for its passing
According to a YouGov poll published in the Sunday Times, the British heroes of 2006 were, in descending order: Jane Tomlinson, a terminal cancer patient who cycled across America to raise money for charity; David Attenborough; Jamie Oliver; and Richard Branson. The common denominator is that all four have achieved that rare thing, public trust - Tomlinson is a courageous victim, Attenborough a secular saint of such dazzling greenness he could be mistaken for a lime tree, and Oliver and Branson brilliant entrepreneurs and self-publicists whose millions of fans believe their products come with added altruism.
In the 19th century, any similar poll would have included among its winners soldiers, sailors and missionaries - Wellington, Nelson, Livingstone - and maybe even such a politician as Gladstone. Lloyd George might have made the grade around 1911, Attlee in 1946.
Today public trust in our rulers has sunk low and is unlikely to rise. There has been an almost equally dramatic decline of belief in doctors, teachers, royals, judges, public bodies and the media. A surgeon recently described to me the frightful recriminations when relatives are told that nothing can be done for a patient. Where once a doctor's view was received with sorrow but also resignation, many now believe that if someone dies, it is because a hospital did not try hard enough.
Loss of trust seems much more serious in its implications for professionals. Fear of litigation has become a dominant factor in the conduct of employers, lawyers, doctors, even teachers. An optimist would say that this obliges them to observe higher standards than in the past, and quite right too.
Others of us, however, are dismayed by the blame culture, which promotes the delusion - back to Hosking - that cash can assuage all misfortunes. The media is vastly more effective in undermining trust than in helping to build it where it is deserved. The challenge is to continue to applaud the passing of deference, while labouring for a revival of respect. When somebody holding a position of public authority makes it on to a YouGov "people of the year" list, that should become cause for celebration.