A new breed of Britons has emerged. New research mapping the moral values of the population has found that one- fifth of people, regardless of age or sex, now hold ambiguous moral values.
Psychologists believe that this "morally marginal" group of people, who are more politically minded than the rest of the population, is increasing because a general decline in society of traditional moral values of right and wrong is confusing the boundaries of what constitutes honest and loyal behaviour.
The rapid social change in Britain has also led, since the advent of New Labour, to fewer differences between the moral values of the two main political parties as they both try to tune in with modern Britain, said Helen Haste, professor of psychology at Bath University, who conducted the research. "The old liberal-conservative split between wanting more freedom and wanting more control is becoming blurred," she said. "The shifts are extremely important, not least for the political parties who will need to see how their agendas match the moral majority. The former left-right political value spectrum, which used to map on to social values, is no longer applicable in Britain," she said.
But the research shows that politicians should not try to claim the moral high ground,with Tony Blair's morality campaign not well regarded and most people not wanting to have the government interfering in their personal lives.
Researchers interviewed more than 500 people across Britain and found that the multi-millionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, the Olympic athlete Linford Christie and the footballer Michael Owen were seen as very positive role models for young people. In contrast, the pop star Geri Haliwell and William Hague, leader of the Conservative Party, were seen as having no impact, while bad role models included the singer Madonna, the footballer and actor Vinnie Jones and Noel Gallagher of pop group Oasis.
Overall, the majority of thepeople valued personal honesty most. They wanted a more tolerant society with fewer laws and restrictions but wanted greater social control. More control of sex and violence on television was seen as important by all age groups. They wanted more punishment for convicted criminals and for parents to be held responsible for their children's crimes.
The research, commissioned by the Nestle Family Monitor unit, found that people thought Britain had changed for the better in terms of opportunities for women and minority groups, concern about the environment and tolerance towards homosexuality. But overall, people thought respect for authority had declined for the worse, alongside a decline in sexual faithfulness and honesty in work and business dealings. The very young, defined as those aged 15 to 24, many of whom have experienced their parents' divorce, were the most likely to think that sexual fidelity would improve life in Britain.
The researchers divided up the groups into the "Very Young", aged 15 to 24, the "G-Kids", aged 25 to 34, the "baby boomers", aged 35 to 55 and the seniors, who were aged over 55. There was a general consensus among all age groups of a liberal desire for social equality coupled with strong conservative values of social control and punishment.
The "morally marginal" contradicted this consensus and were more likely to be critical of police activity. They were less likely to be church attenders than all other groups but were not less likely to be believers.
"This group are less likely to make a distinction between personal and corporate property. For example, they think that taking office materials or buying a stolen CD player is fair game," said Professor Haste.
The findings showed that the "morally marginal" believe that having sex with someone other than your partner does not indicate untrustworthiness in other aspects of life, and have little respect for honesty towards institutions and organisations.
They did not think that telling your employer they were sick to take a day off was wrong, or taking office materials for their private use dishonest.
"These values are not just young people's, as over half are over the age of 35, and there was not bias by social class," said Professor Haste.
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