The politics of integrity - alive and well in Essex

Couple Image copyright bbc
Image caption The survey found there was a relatively high level of tolerance for lying in one's own interests.

Would you have an extra marital affair?

This is not a personal proposition (you may be relieved to hear) but a line of inquiry by Essex University and the conclusion they come to is that we, as a nation, are becoming more dishonest.

"Oh no we're not," I hear you say. Oh yes you are, according to the newly formed Centre for the Study of Integrity.

Under the guidance of Professor Paul Whiteley it asked 2,000 people how much they would tolerate various activities.

Did they think that things like taking cannabis, having an affair or failing to report accidental damage to a parked vehicle could never be justified, were rarely justified, sometimes justified or always justified?

Tolerable behaviour?

The survey found that there was a good deal of tolerance for things like exceeding the speed limit, keeping money found on the street and lying in one's own interests.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Exceeding the speed limit was one thing people were found to be more tolerant about

Many activities like taking cannabis, cheating on taxes, not reporting damage to a car and having that extra marital affair were frowned upon but tolerated.

Although there was almost universal condemnation of drunk driving, accepting bribes and claimant fraud.

What's interesting is that when you compare these results to a similar survey conducted 11 years ago, the percentage of respondents who think an activity is never justified has fallen in eight out of 10 of the categories.

Hardening attitudes

The public attitude to dropping litter may have remained the same but there has been a noticeable hardening of attitudes towards claiming government benefits that you're not entitled to, perhaps a sign of the austere times we're living in.

"It appears that Britons are growing more and more tolerant of low level dishonesty and less inclined to sanction activities which would have been heavily frowned on in the past," says Professor Whiteley.

He also shows that people with little integrity are less inclined to vote in elections or put themselves forward as volunteers.

"If integrity continues to decline, turnout will decline further in future elections and it will be very difficult to mobilise volunteers to support the Big Society," he maintains.

Image copyright Other
Image caption Professor Paul Whiteley says it appears that Britons are growing more tolerant of low level dishonesty

Other interesting findings suggest that, despite the decline in standards, Britain still has some of the highest levels of integrity in the world, beaten only by Norway, Israel, Sweden, Denmark and Portugal, which top the list.

The countries with the least integrity are, according to the research, Russia and the Czech Republic.

"A lack of integrity has serious consequences for our society," says Professor Whiteley, who believes his new department has been created at just the right time.