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Dishonesty On The Increase In The UK

Academic research has found
that Britons are less honest than ten years ago. (Also reported in The Independent and the Daily Telegraph.) Here are some of the headline findings:

* Younger people are more likely to be dishonest than older people. Under 25s scored only 47 on an ‘integrity scale’, whereas over 65s averaged 54. The mean for all ages was 50.

* Ten years ago, 70% of people said having an affair was never justified. Now only 50% say that. The Faithfulness Matters campaign is timely, not only in highlighting the foul practices of a company like Global Personals in setting up sites that encourage affairs, but in standing against a worrying trend in our society (which doubtless Global Personals is exploiting).

* Women are slightly more honest than men. (Is this because women encourage a greater culture of openness?)

* Yet whereas ten years ago 78% of people disapproved of benefit fraud, now 85% do.

The Daily Mail has a graph showing the differences for ten different indicators.
It’s interesting to see why the academics are concerned. Professor Paul Whiteley said:

“If social capital is low and people are suspicious and don’t work together, those communities have worse health, worse educational performance, they are less happy and they are less economically developed and entrepreneurial. It really does have a profound effect,” he said.

“If integrity continues to decline in the future, then it will be very difficult to mobilise volunteers to support the Big Society initiative,” he added.

He went on to say that a major reason behind dishonesty in younger generations was poor rôle models. Most of the examples he cites are those known from the media:

“If you think about it, you know, footballers that cheat on their wives; some journalists that hack into phones; behaviour in the City, where people are selling financial instruments they think are no good but do not say so. These kind of things,” he said.

So what do we make of this?

First of all, let’s leave aside whether we ideologically agree with the Big Society or not, the more important question Professor Whiteley brings out is about social capital. Effectively, individualism is destroying society. So I’ll pick up someone else’s money, I’ll have an affair, but woe betide people who cheat on social security, because that means I have to pay more tax and National Insurance. Margaret Thatcher said there was no such thing as society, and the rampant individualism of the 1980s when she was in power is now taking its vicious toll on society.

So given the fragmentation of society, it’s now everyone for themselves. There are honourable exceptions and good examples in places of people coming together for the common good, but the social forces (or should I perhaps say, anti-social forces) are against this. Instead of being with one another, we are more in competition with one another, and so – as some commenters on the BBC story noted – we will lie to gain a competitive advantage. If the only way to get a doctor’s appointment soon is to tell the receptionist it’s urgent when it isn’t, we’ll do that.

Second, one commenter asked where the church was in the debate. Several replied angrily that the church had lost all credibility in the honesty stakes due to child abuse cover-ups. While I think some people are likely to raise that case because they want the church excluded from public debate, it is clear that this issue is still substantially harming our witness in the civic arena.

How the church will recover credibility is a big question. We are as distrusted as other institutions. The child abuse scandal means that the postmodern suspicion of power has been applied to us. People think we are only ‘in it for ourselves’ – the same spirit that creates a lying culture.

It will take a long, sustained period to recover a public acceptance of our integrity. By the time it happens, many more churches will be gone. But I think it starts with a humble church, rather than a hectoring, lecturing church.