Who said the British don't cheat? We're world beaters

Shocked over the Pakistan ball-tampering row? The idea of the British sense of fair play is a myth, writes D J Taylor
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The Independent Online

Over the past four decades, many a British season has found itself dignified or disparaged by some hugely symbolic abstract noun. There was the Summer of Love in 1967, all gambolling hippies and Lonely Hearts Club Bands. There was the Winter of Discontent in 1979, the dead unburied and the picket lines undispersed, which paved the way for Margaret Thatcher. Any historian who follows this template when looking back on that four-month stretch from May to August 2006 will have no trouble in turning up a suitable seasonal gloss. It was, the evidence suggests, the Summer of Cheating.

Much of this duplicity came from the playing field. Since the sounding of this summer's first starting gun, the world of professional sport has offered a kind of panorama of wool-pulling and sharp practice: a doping ban for Justin Gatlin, the US sprinter; a Tour de France terminally scandalised by Floyd Landis's record testosterone count; a test series against Pakistan brought to an ignominious end by allegations of ball-tampering. The World Cup became such an exhibition ground for the arts of diving, injury feigning and tantrum-throwing that newspapers provided "cheating tables" alongside the customary rosters of goals scored and points amassed.

Not to be outdone, the non-sporting were doing their best to contribute to this pageant of venality. The Deputy Prime Minister was found to be cheating on his wife. The usual cluster of Big Brother housemates were unmasked as minor actresses with agents and professional ends in view. Over in cyberspace, internet fraud was found to have reached its highest levels yet. Bewildered by this parade of deviousness, this tumult of anguished denials and guilt-ridden hand-wringing, the eye scarcely knew where to turn. The cricket square? The ministerial press conference? Cheats, every one of them. If the summer of 2006 had a characteristic image - apart, that is, from the sky splitting over southern Lebanon - it was the sight of the French striker Thierry Henri, clattered into by his World Cup opponent Carles Puyol, and rolling in simulated agony on the turf while clutching, of all the parts of his anatomy least affected by the collision, his head.

All this necessarily adds up. A moral absolutist, casting his eye over the flyblown procession of lickerish politicians and alleged seam-tweaking fast-bowlers, might easily diagnose a moral crisis, a series of ethical fractures cracking through our society like a geological fault line, a world rather like the low-level, street-hoodlum's Gehenna prowled by Keith Talent in Martin Amis's London Fields, where cheats cheat other cheats and are themselves cheated in return, every mini-cab has a dodgy meter and the porn video Swedish Girls Go Mouth Crazy, purchased by Keith at vast expense from a confederate, turns out to record the proceedings of a Scandinavian academic conference.

In fact, this kind of hysteria would be misplaced. The British have always been cheats. Cheating, it might be said, is one of the things we do best, along with our ability to form thin red lines and smite the foreign tyrant at a moment's notice. The medieval English monetary system, with its reliance on "long-cross" coins, was specifically designed to frustrate cheats who delighted in shearing off the sides of silver pennies. The pre-Dickensian English novel has more or less a single plot - the journey of some naive provincial to London, where he can be gulled, hoodwinked and taken for a ride by its canny inhabitants. The hero of Tobias Smollett's The Adventures of Roderick Random (1749), for instance, has scarcely been a day in the Great Wen before being relieved of his watch and forced to pay a bribe in a government office.

Provincial life, too, came crammed with groaning quotas of con-men, tax-evaders and grifters. Historically, the average British citizen is characterised by his hypocrisy: publicly paying lip-service to law, order and decency, while privately - like Parson Woodforde, straining an ear for his brandy-smuggler's tap at the door - defrauding both state and fellow citizen. George Bowling, the hero of George Orwell's Coming Up For Air (1939), looking back at his Boer War-era childhood, notes the intense patriotism of the local tradesmen. They all swore that Victoria was the best queen that had ever lived, Bowling maintains, and held it as an article of faith that England had never lost a battle.

This attitude runs deep through our national life: the thought, never quite openly expressed but bubbling away beneath nearly every transaction and emotional engagement, that the only real sin is detection. The bad old days of unfettered, organised labour produced gargantuan exercises in cheating: the Daily Telegraph, for example, discovering during its near-collapse in the mid-1980s that it was paying wages to 1,500 bogus print-operatives; the NHS porters who drove taxis while officially working 12-hour shifts at St Thomas's or Charing Cross hospitals. That something in these livelihoods made up of pilfering and graft deeply appealed to the national psyche seems clear from the fact that every so often the public decides to elevate the cheat to the status of quasi-hero or national talisman. One can see this in the huge popularity of the "Spiv" or wide-boy during the Second World War, the back-street purveyor of cheap nylons and illicit cigarettes who tended to be admired by his customers for cocking a snook for what, in an atmosphere of regulations and ration cards, was thought to be a censorious and inflexible authority.

If this sounds exaggerated, then a glance at one's own life is pretty sure to throw up monstrous examples of rule-bending and deception. Who could forget, back in school days, the extraordinary ability of Mr Foster, the Classics master, to predict the O-level unseen translation each year, a skill so finely honed that on the morning of one mid-1970s exam he spent an hour going through the particular Pliny letter that "came up" that afternoon with his favourite pupil? University exams passed in a strew of what were called "cheat sheets" - wads of paper with microscopic notes on them that could be fished out of one's sleeve - not my sleeve, I hasten to add - halfway through the proceedings and secreted amongst the paraphernalia on one's desk.

Then came the world of work: the PR company whose directors sat down at the end of each month to establish which restaurant bills they could unload on the firm's clients ("recharging"); the City accountancy firm where the secretaries designed their wedding stationery on the firm's software, one marketing manager ran a real estate business by way of the firm's fax; and Yours Truly was forever being summoned to explain why his phone tracker so regularly disclosed personal calls made to the offices of newspaper literary editors for whom he appeared to be writing book reviews in the firm's time. Even the world of light literature, I discovered, was crawling with cheats, from the literary editor of The Times, whose review of a Stephen Spender novel I discovered to be a reproduction of the book's jacket copy, to the biographer of JRR Tolkien who appeared to have written his darling work with a copy of Humphrey Carpenter's existing life open before him.

And yet, curiously enough, amid a world that seems happy enough to get by on minor deceptions of this kind, eagerly robbing towels from the hotels in which it is accommodated, zealously logging 700-mile expense claims for the round-trip from London to Basingstoke, this apparent tolerance is balanced, and ultimately countermanded, by an absolute horror of cheating when it can be demonstrated to have taken place. Many a literary life contains some Damascene moment in which the writer discovers that the world he or she inhabits is, mysteriously, not always governed by fair play and straight-talking. Orwell, watching a village cricket match in his teens, was profoundly shocked when the star batsman, given out by the umpire, was ordered back to the wicket by the local squire. In much the same way, I can remember my distress, 35 years ago, watching a game between Hampshire and Derbyshire, when one fielder scooped up a ball that had hit the ground a nano-second before and (successfully) claimed a catch. It was cheating - to me, aged 11, about the worst sin you could commit.

Three and a half decades later, one of the faint mitigations of life in 21st- century Britain is that this attitude more or less holds, not so much as a result of our innate hypocrisy but because every so often our better feelings - a sort of unconscious hankering after truth and decency - struggle to the surface. Ben Johnson, the disgraced Canadian athlete, recently declared that audiences didn't care what drugs sprinters swallowed provided that records continued to be broken. All the evidence suggests, on the other hand, that this is precisely what audiences do care about. The recent Tour de France scandal erupted against a backdrop of declining spectator numbers, reduced TV coverage and reluctant sponsors. The public, in most cases, wants its sport performers to be models of rectitude, just as the exposure of some adulterous politician, though glozed over by liberal columnists on the grounds that the matter is private to the politician, is nearly always criticised by the electorate. He was cheating, you see, and cheats shouldn't hold public office, whatever form the cheating has taken.

Happily enough, these attitudes run through one's domestic life. On holiday in Suffolk last week, my 10-year-old son served up evidence of a moral crisis. The old-fashioned, local grocers offered a selection of sweets at 1p and 2p a time. Quite as old-fashioned was their assumption of honesty among the customers self-selecting their 50p's-worth into paper bags. Benjy was worried that an unnoticed hunk of bubbleum had caused him to defraud the shopkeeper to the tune of 2p. Back on the premises, careful recalculation assured him that he was actually 3p under. Still crabbed with guilt on account of the supermarket beer can whose ring pull, popped by my younger son, I hadn't owned up to, I was remarkably cheered by this. Never mind Mr Landis, Justin Gatlin and the wife-deceivers of Parliament. Down here in the boondocks, the moral compass is still firmly pointing north.