Mud is being slung, and it's sticking to priests and politicians. But, says Genevieve Fox, you're not so squeaky clean yourself
Gay priests preach against homosexuality, the Labour leader sends his son to a grant-maintained school ... hypocrisy is all around us. And how we revel in it. We positively drool at the discomfort of politicians as they level accusations of hypocrisy at each other in their unceasing attempt to catch each other out.

But check out your own back yard. We like to say we are environmentally friendly, for example, but how many of us would give up our car for a bicycle or choose a winding B-road over a straight-as-the-crow-flies bypass. How many animal lovers would swap their leather jacket for a plastic mac, a pint of milk for liquidised soya beans? How many of us started going to that excellent (private) dentist long before it became impossible to sign up with the NHS? And how many have swept that affair under the office carpet?

We can, of course, find it in our hearts to forgive ourselves for our own inconsistencies. None of us pretends to be perfect. But it is harder to forgive our religious and political leaders. Enter the accused. Representing politics: Tim Yeo (creator of two single-parent families) and David Mellor (adulterer), ministers in a government that traded on its family values. Representing religion: a horde of Jimmy Swaggart tele-evangelists (greedy, self-serving, blatantly un-Christian).

These are the bad hypocrites. For, just as there are varying degrees of hypocrisy, there are various categories of hypocrites. There are good hypocrites and bad hypocrites and somewhere in between there are the reluctant hypocrites and the falsely accused.

The bad hypocrites, the like of Tim Yeo, not only profess one belief and do something entirely different, they also cause harm to others in pursuit of self-gain. "Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue," wrote Rochefoucauld. It became one of Oscar Wilde's favourite quips.

The good hypocrites, according to the agony columnist Irma Kurtz, say one thing and do something entirely different in order to avoid being cruel. "The hypocrite puts up a curtain and it is what is behind that curtain that is frightening. Sometimes it is better not to know. The man who commits adultery and then comes home to his wife, smiling and bearing a gift before making love to her is being hypocritical. But is it better to come home and say, I think you should know I am sleeping with my secretary? Sometimes hypocrites are protecting themselves from being cruel and cruelty is perhaps more reprehensible than hypocrisy."

Quite where Robert Hughes, the erstwhile Citizen's Charter minister, fits in remains unclear, but he certainly doesn't fall into one of the biggest categories, namely the falsely accused. The falsely accused are the Anita Roddicks of our time (everybody wants to catch her out, refusing to believe someone can be successful and principled) and those who merely change their minds, the feminists turned post-feminist housewives, the socialists turned capitalists, the Tory minister who switches from Labour.

The most oversubscribed category is filled with the reluctant hypocrites, who are stuck in a moral no man's land. Weaned on a welfare state ideology, still clinging to the liberal values inherited from the Sixties, the reluctant hypocrites are created by health and education. They continue to believe in traditional codes of behaviour which, through no fault of their own, are entirely at odds with individualism and the dictates of selfishness. They are forced to make choices (which now extend to eating habits, all those agonising dilemmas over whether to pass up an invitation to foie gras at Marco Pierre White's after last week's veal demo) that render their liberal posturing untenable.

Epitomised by the champagne socialists of north London, the reluctant hypocrites fail to practice what they dearly, sincerely preach due to unavoidable political constraints and a conscience that says their children's futures are more important than their political and moral convictions. Enter Tony Blair.

"I am not going to make a choice for my child on the basis of what is the politically correct thing to do," said Tony Blair when he was lambasted over the London Oratory decision. A reluctant hypocrite if ever there was one.

As with education, so with health. While non-hypocrites, untrammelled by conscience or ideology, painlessly pay up for private health care, the reluctant hypocrites agonise between their inefficient, unreliable local NHS hospital and the offer of a company-funded health scheme. How many resist the temptation of the latter?

As Labour gradually negotiates its way out of its old socialist positions, notably with Clause IV, it generates ample opportunity for hypocrisy. The behaviour of these two-homes, share-buying neo-socialists is changing faster than the party's old rhetoric, which cannot keep up, leaving it trapped in embarrassing double-speak.

Margaret Thatcher, meanwhile, sent the right skipping down the road of hypocrisy long ago. But, as Anthony Sampson says, "even Thatcher came to realise that her vision of society without society, an entrepreneurial, ruthless new Britain, was not what the British themselves wanted." They are still picking up the pieces, trying to recreate the family values they did their best to destroy.

Amid the political confusion, the population is left floundering on a moral scree. "There is a yearning for people to return to elementary moral virtues, such as integrity and commitment," says Geoff Mulgan of Demos. "We distrust people who have no centring of values. We greatly respect businessmen, for example, if they display those virtues, even if we don't necessarily agree with the people."

It is neither an accident nor a sign of increasing moral weakness that hypocrisy seems inescapable today. Accelerated social and economic change makes it inevitable that our beliefs and morals will be continually outmoded. So it is perhaps time to accept that a measure of hypocrisy is a necessary evil, time to judge ourselves less harshly. As Irma Kurtz says: "We need hypocrisy to protect ourselves from each other and from ourselves. We need to be hypocritical in order to survive."