Yvonne Roberts believes that reports of the death of public
morality have been greatly exaggerated.
How to be good? How to be a bona fide decent human being in a
secular and cynical society? That is the question that appears,
once again, to be in the air.
The power of the vicar in the pulpit has lost its punch – we no
longer care what the neighbours say and we all know that in the
21st century sin is relative. As the American writer, HL Mencken
points out, “Immorality is the morality of those who are having a
better time.” So what encourages that inner voice that keeps us on
the straight and narrow?
Novelist Nick Hornby addresses the issue in his latest novel
entitled How To Be Good. Katie Carr, a GP, lives with
David, sour and bad-tempered, until he meets an alternative
therapist who transforms him into a born again (sickeningly) nice
person. David gives away his money, his possessions, his privacy –
and everything falls apart. Since this is fiction, David is,
literally, too good to be true.
In real life, those who have transgressed appear to benefit
hugely from their misdemeanours. Or, at the very least, pay no
public price. For instance, when armed Sussex police launched a
raid on the flat of James Ashley he was neither wanted for murder,
nor in possession of hard drugs or armed. All of which the police
maintained. Naked, he was shot at point blank range, without
Paul Whitehouse, the chief constable of Sussex police, is said
to have “wilfully failed to tell the truth”. The judge at the trial
of some of the police officers involved talked about “corporate
failings” – as if this is a management hiccough. A monumental
cock-up has occurred: a man has died and everyone concerned walks
away with impunity to become, no doubt, part of police legend.
In South Africa last week Allan Boesak, the anti-apartheid
campaigner and priest, is released after serving just one year of a
three-year sentence for stealing £266,000 from a charity he
had established for poor black children and other victims of
discrimination. Even in prison he was accorded privileged
treatment, and upon his release has returned to his lavish house.
How did he buy it on a cleric’s income?
In the newly published Moralities: Sex Money and Power in
the 21st Century, commentator Joan Smith argues, rightly I
believe, that a new morality is emerging based not on sexual
behaviour but on issues that embrace justice, equality and human
rights. We care less about whether the bishop has three in a bed or
what the footballer did with shaving soap to a page three girl in
Scunthorpe and more about the rights and wrongs of the arms trade,
world poverty and children’s rights.
Wishful thinking? The Guardian commissioned an ICM poll
last week to gauge public feeling on the issue of asylum seekers,
which has been shamefully exploited in this election campaign by
both Labour and the Conservatives (the Liberal Democrats have, at
least, pledged to remove the appalling voucher system). The poll
revealed that in spite of the best efforts of ministers and the
media, the public is neither intolerant nor bigoted.
Seventy per cent of respondents supported the idea of allowing
more people with skills into the country; 53 per cent supported
unskilled economic migrants in on a quota basis. Now, that’s what
I’d call good.