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Leading article: In matters of dishonesty, we are all in it together

We live in a more dishonest country than we did a decade ago. The British public are more likely to lie on application forms, buy stolen goods, have an extramarital affair or drive under the influence of alcohol. Such are the conclusions of a survey from the Centre for the Study of Integrity at the University of Essex.

In one sense, we already knew this. Scandals surrounding MPs' expenses, greedy bankers, bribes to policemen, dodgy journalism, and football finance have raised question after question about integrity in public life. So it can hardly be a surprise to discover that low-level dishonesty among ordinary people has been on the rise, too.

Corruption neither filters down from the top of society, nor rises up from the bottom. It is a cultural growth which spreads with the warp and weft through the whole social tapestry. As a result, we are all more likely to dodge taxes, keep money we find in the street, or fail to leave a note after damaging a parked car. Women, it seems, may have slightly more integrity than men; but social class and occupation do not appear to have any significant effect on honesty.

The change has come about through a combination of influences. The me-first social impulses of the 1960s, combined with the Thatcherite financial self-centredness of the 1980s, have nurtured an obsessive individualism. We have turned from citizens into consumers, concerned more with our rights than our responsibilities. Local communities have contracted into nuclear families. Society has atomised, and continues to do so; the Essex survey suggests that young people are more likely to condone bad behaviour than older people. Perhaps that younger generation will grow more honest as they age. Or perhaps not.

There are material, as well as moral, consequences. More honest people also tend to have a stronger sense of civic duty. And societies with low levels of social capital have been shown to have more health problems, poorer educational performance, more crime, and less developed economies. Even worse, their members believe themselves to be less happy.

So how do we find a sustainable alternative to reverse our narcissistic trajectory? The approach in recent decades has been to introduce ever more rules and regulations to govern unruly conduct. But – as the philosopher Onora O'Neill has pointed out – tightening rules may merely increase levels of mistrust, giving people a sense of regulations to be got around rather than moral precepts by which to live. It was shocking to discover, in a survey to mark the 25th anniversary of the Big Bang financial deregulation of the City of London, that 86 per cent of its financial services professionals no longer knew that the motto of the London Stock Exchange is "My Word is My Bond". Once the spirit of the law is set aside, its letter becomes a hindrance to be circumvented any time that it stands in one's way.

There is consensus that we need to find ways of rebuilding trust. That was partly what lay behind David Cameron's concept of a Big Society. Although the Prime Minister has been quieter on the subject of late, focusing instead on the excesses of what he calls "crony capitalism", it is a vision that remains at the heart of his politics. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband is working hard to redefine the Labour Party's identity with a model of "moral capitalism".

Such efforts to rethink society's value systems must be welcome. But what they all need is some mutually acceptable moral principles to underpin them. More than anything else, what the evidence from the Centre for the Study of Integrity survey reveals is that it is no good expecting change at the top unless we are all prepared to change our behaviour, too.