Psychologists tell us that fairness is hard-wired into the human brain. We understand it from infancy and its absence from our lives provokes a visceral response. Fairness underpins trust, which underpins trade, which underpins civilisation. Remove fairness from society and you create the conditions for revolt.

Of course, we all experience fairness and unfairness at a microcosmic level as well as in the grand patterns of social order. Governments may do the most to create the conditions in which we feel life is fair or unfair, but the unwritten rules of fairness affect almost every kind of human communal activity.

From a game of playground football to the organisation of the National Health Service. From the Church of England to a Christmas savings club. From a pub quiz league to the Champions’ League. In all cases, collective endeavour is more likely to succeed if the participants play fair by each other.

Defining fairness

Linguists tell us that we talk about fairness a lot. In fact, listen to any edition of the Today programme and count how often the word crops up: on the morning I wrote this, it was four times in the 90 minutes I was tuned in.

But do we know what it means? The truth is that fairness is almost ineffable; to define it is to risk losing its essence. In games, in trade, in governance, the state of fairness is something innately understood by the participants. But that in itself is what makes it so difficult to describe: what we understand innately usually defies definition.

But if, as I believe, we should seek to restore our damaged polity on this common belief, we should know what we mean. First, it may be easier to say what fairness is not.

Fairness is not the same as equality. It often involves groups or individuals consenting to a trade-off in welfare. If we believe the circumstances are fair, we collectively accept that individuals do not always have to benefit equally from those circumstances.

Second, fairness is not the same as justice. It is a state in which we agree – often tacitly and by consensus, but not by diktat – to limit how far some people are allowed to cost others in order to benefit themselves. We call these limits “rules” and they are not the same as laws, because they are agreed by participants rather than imposed from above.

Third, and perhaps most important, fairness and unfairness are not the same as right and wrong. In fact, we seek the procedure of fairness to escape the limits of absolute beliefs like right and wrong or good and bad. As the philosopher John Rawls said, in a plural society, where many religions are tolerated, and many political points of view, it becomes increasingly difficult to agree on absolute, moral rules or laws. The concept of “good” is what linguists call an “unanalysable conceptual prime”, but fairness is a more complex and crucially an emotional idea which demands empathy.

I do not pretend these are exhaustive definitions of fairness, but they cover most situations, from running a game of park football to running a country.

They have one important factor in common: in all cases, the procedural approach of fairness – trade-offs; freedom to act within limits; prioritisation of common welfare and consensus – replaces absolute approaches – imposed equality; rule of law; religious or political doctrines of right and wrong.

Is fairness uniquely British?

In the West, we learned this the hard way: The Thirty Years’ War, the English Civil War, the French Revolution, all sought to impose or to remove absolute conditions of right and wrong by force. Of course, there are more recent, more bloody, more totalitarian examples, but many philosophers and linguists associate the appearance of the modern idea of fairness with the British Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. In the wake of the bloody replacement of the Divine Right of Kings with the idea of a Commonwealth of people, John Locke wrote:

The only way whereby any one divests himself of his Natural Liberty, and puts on the bonds of Civil Society is by agreeing with other men to joyn and unite into a Community, for their comfortable, safe and peaceable living one amongst another.

Locke saw the process of adopting social rules as a necessary loss of rights in a fair exchange of achieving something desirable through consensus. Over the centuries, British representative democracy has evolved from a system originally enacted with the limited aim of achieving “fairness” only for the landed classes – Magna Carta or the Provisions of Oxford in 1258 – into, first, a system intended to provide fairness only for those who adhered to certain common principles of belief (generally Protestant Christianity), and more recently, with the development of a more secular, plural society, for all without regard to their adherence.

It may be wrong to single out British representative democracy, but there is reason to do so. Linguists contend that there is no other major language than English that contains a single word that can be translated only as “fair”. To put it another way, all words that are used in other languages to convey the concepts listed above also translate to mean something else, such as “just”, “equitable” or “correct”. (In Germany, for instance, the political discussion programme whose title translates as “Harsh but Fair” is called “Harz Aber Fair”. This doesn’t mean that fairness is a uniquely British concept, of course, but it does imply that the idea has a more powerful hold on English-speaking countries. And now more than ever.

The kidnapping of fairness

The financial crisis of 2007/08, robbed Britain (and the rest of the world) of fairness. Forget “We’re all in this together”; there has been a constant stream of unfairness flung in the face of the electorate, especially in the second definition: the restraints we expect to be placed on the powerful.

When the cynical manipulation of complex financial derivatives combined with the deliberate overcomplication and obfuscation of contracts, the whole structure of radical capitalism collapsed in an insolvent, fraudulent heap. The heart was torn out of trust.

The procedures we relied on failed. Fairness was abused in a mockery of the social contract that saw financial manipulators escape with their swag. Meanwhile, the innocent, wronged participants in these procedures began to ask why they were not only poorer, but why they were now bailing out enormously wealthy people and institutions while the support systems on which they themselves relied – health, welfare, police, education – faced their own financial crises, counted in billions but making victims of millions.

Fairness is a procedure. When things that are procedural – that rely on human interaction, empathy, consensus and tolerance – fail, then those who suffer as a result will inevitably blame the procedure. They turn towards alternatives that are not procedures, but absolutes. Fair and Unfair replaced by Right and Wrong, by Good and Bad. These are the hard currencies that supplant the soft exchange of fairness.

A fair outcome for Brexit?

And what about Brexit? Well, I cannot imagine a bigger breach of fairness than to ask a nation what it wants to do with an issue as important as its sovereignty and then, when it collectively expresses a wish, to deny that wish. Nor can I imagine a bigger breach of fairness than to campaign with dishonest messages for a cause that one clearly does not believe in.

But most of all, I cannot imagine a bigger example of unfairness than to appeal to matters of national principle in a plebiscite and then retreat from national to sectional interests as the difficulty of fulfilling the expressed wish of those who voted becomes apparent.

It was particularly unfortunate for Britain that its leaders have, at a time when leadership in the interests of all citizens is needed as much as in a time of war, proved themselves so piteously and profoundly unequal to their task. It is our bad luck that our party system asserted its tribalism at this moment through leaders who either are, or are hostage to, extremists of their own parties. For this to happen at such a moment was surely a result of the loss of trust in procedure and the surge towards absolutism that I have just described.

The Brexit process seems certain to undermine trust in our society. Nobody will come out of this process feeling it has bolstered fairness.

It was also our misfortune to live at a time when technology makes all these tendencies to damnation more obvious and more virulent. Social media is the most efficient conduit for the sharing of bad ideas that man has yet invented. Is it also a useful way of sharing good ideas? Yes, but what does that matter if you pump all of your city’s freshwater supply into a pipe that is also carrying its sewage?

And this is why we need a new movement to restore fairness. We must separate the pipework and thus rescue the procedural approach we have developed since the Enlightenment.

If we are to restore our polity to something that is a function more of contract and consensus than of dogma, a construction that has served us well for the last 150 years, I suggest we learn a lesson from the people who built the foundations of our world. In the 1860s, the Victorians decided in the interests of social harmony and public health to create order out of the muddle of different local kickabout games that until then had gone under the catch-all name of “football”.

They codified it. They regulated it. They imposed an order and a system of mutual benefit from it which had been borrowed from the conduct of trust and trade. They recognised that in order to have a level playing field, you do not have to spend time, money and labour in digging earth and flattening slopes; you merely have to change ends at half time.

Ben Fenton is a former FT and Daily Telegraph journalist and now works for Edelman