Once he embodied Britain's moral spirit. Now the cartoon bear just reflects our loss of direction, argues David J Brazier
The British economy has long ceased being world-beating and the Empire has disappeared. Our political leaders are held in low esteem, standards in public life have decayed, even the monarchy is tearing itself apart. And now perhaps the last standard-bearer of public decency and civil conduct is falling prey to the malaise of our times. As if more confirmation were needed that society is morally adrift, Rupert Bear has lost faith in law-abiding, upright behaviour.

To mark the extent of the change in Rupert, let me take you back to the annuals of the war years. A striking feature of those of 1940 and 1941, for example, is the consistently high moral tone that characterises so many of the stories. It was this quality, perhaps more than the books' entertainment value, which persuaded the authorities to continue to sanction the production of Rupert annuals when all other such publications had been sacrificed to the war effort.

In these years, the typical Rupert story convincingly demonstrated how acts of good citizenship worked for the benefit of the community. Rupert's virtues of honesty, kindness and tenacity were shown combining with his intelligence and initiative to help the weak, right wrongs and generally ensure that justice was done and order maintained in the idyllic world of Nutwood.

Of the 15 stories in the annuals of 1940 and 1941, two were concerned wholly with selfless acts of benevolence. Another six involved illegal activities such as burglary, theft, kidnapping and forgery: in each of these stories, Rupert risked his own safety to redress the consequences of the crime, single-handedly tracking down wrongdoers and ensuring that property was returned to its rightful owner. Dishonest acts were shown as a social evil that deprived victims not just of their lawful belongings but also, even more damagingly, of their peace of mind, thus undermining the very fabric of civilised society.

These early stories also discouraged the exercise of that form of virtue which is motivated by self-interest. For although Rupert was almost always rewarded for his good deeds, the rewards themselves were modest and often consisted of nothing more tangible than gratitude and praise.

The value of hard work and what we would nowadays call "commitment" was made clear. A friend who tried to persuade Rupert to neglect his attempts to supplement the family larder was punished through his own gluttony. When, in another story, Rupert asked his father to buy him a stamp album, Mr Bear agreed only on condition that his son first proved that his interest was not merely a passing fancy. The message that Britain could afford neither idleness nor wasteful self-indulgence was conveyed just as firmly to children as it was to their parents in the dark days of 1941.

Rupert himself was occasionally criticised in order to make a moral point. One winter's day he accidentally demolishes a snowman and enjoys the experience so much that he rebuilds the snowman and destroys it again. Nowadays such behaviour would be defended as harmless fun, but in 1940 it was branded as wilful destruction. For his act of vandalism Rupert was spirited away to the Kingdom of Ice, where he was imprisoned and almost starved and froze to death. The adventure turned out to have been nothing more than a bad dream, but the lesson had been forcibly conveyed and painfully learnt.

Over the past 50 years or so, the Rupert stories have lost their moral bearings. They struggle to find a consistent theme. The latest annuals resort to contrived effects such as time-slips and space travel. They do not take family life as the starting point for their moral theme, but seek inspiration by mimicking the box-office successes of the cinema.

In one 1995 story, Rupert encounters ET-like aliens whose spaceship has broken down. A friendly professor soon repairs the craft and the space travellers depart with words of thanks and goodwill towards earth-dwellers. The only principle discernible here seems to be that we should be kind to aliens in trouble.

In the 1996 Rupert annual, just published by Pedigree Books at pounds 5.50, Rupert teams up with Sherlock Holmes in the fight against Victorian crime in London. The episode in which Rupert meets Holmes contains a curious mix of narrative elements, which emphasises the problem of the missing moral ethos of the latter-day Rupert. The time-travel aspect owes a debt to Back to the Future, while the introduction of Holmes recalls one of those TV movies where a star guest is drafted in to prop up a weak plot. The success of Rupert's sleuthing owes more to cleverness than to moral fibre and the portrayal of the thief seems rather to imply sympathy for his lowly social condition than to denounce his criminal activities (which appear to go unpunished).

In the stories of 1996, when an element of moral condemnation does appear it is reserved for "institutional crime" that society visits upon itself, such as pollution and damage to the environment: like many church leaders, today it studiously avoids censure of the activities of lawless individuals. The moral point of the Rupert stories of old, that individuals should take responsibility for themselves and their actions, has been lost.

The Rupert books of the Forties were intended to help parents in the moral education of their children. In those anxious years, the danger to British society from the enemy within was clearly recognised and strenuous attempts made to counter it by teaching youngsters to distinguish right from wrong and to accept responsibility for their actions. The example set by Rupert Bear played an important part in this process.

Rupert is still a winsome enough character, but he has relinquished his grasp on the ethical nettle. By doing so, he echoes the tragic failure of many British institutions. Like them, the hero of Nutwood has been reduced to a pathetic cipher with no more moral force than the fairy on a Christmas tree.