Leading Article: A peculiarly British vice

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SO WHAT goes on? With atrocities in East Timor daily mounting, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, says he sees no reason why Indonesia cannot buy certain armaments in Britain. He is promptly attacked from the left, predictably and in our view correctly, but also from a right which reeks with hypocrisy and inconsistency. The Tories and their friends in the press, who have never believed in an ethical foreign policy, now excoriate Mr Cook for failing to live up to one.

But it isn't just the right that is in a pickle over morality. Lord (Melvyn) Bragg spits generally in the direction of the BBC for "dumbing down" - and isn't the adoption of that American expression a perfect example of the thing itself? - and then Polly Toynbee does so more specifically, for its calling a series on modern sexuality, Adult Lives. Haven't liberal elitists, such as Bragg and Toynbee, worked all their lives to produce a situation in which the BBC can put on a sex show to celebrate being a dominatrix as a valid lifestyle choice, or whatever? So the right are up in arms, pardon the pun, over the Government selling military hardware to dictators, and the left about permissiveness on TV. That solar eclipse seems to have stood the world on its head.

Meanwhile, some focus group somewhere seems to have told William Hague that the British don't like hypocrisy. Hence "what we cannot stand is the hypocrisy of the British government on this matter" has been programmed into almost everything he says about anything. He has clearly also been told that the public is impressed by Tony Blair's record on Northern Ireland, which he therefore has to discredit if he is ever to see the inside of 10 Downing Street. So another thing he cannot stand is Mr Blair's "lack of integrity", for instance concerning the supposed IRA ceasefire.

The worst that can fairly be said against the Prime Minister on the evidence, is that, in all honesty, he has made a bad call. Not to give him credit for good faith comes perilously close to undermining his position as a negotiator to be trusted. The Prime Minister's assessment that there are those who want to pick the Good Friday Agreement to pieces is surely unarguable - or maybe Mr Hague has stopped reading the Daily Telegraph. Attacking Mr Blair's honesty is one of the right's favourite tactics (which could be why his public standing seems to go up and up). But it's pots and kettles time here as well. Labour says the Tories are themselves hypocrites, because they wanted a bi-partisan approach to Northern Ireland when they were in power, whereas now they are just being partisan. It is enough to give hypocrisy a bad name.

Wherever you look, nobody scores high marks for moral consistency in modern British society. European statistics suggest we are among the most frequent smackers of young children; and yet we like to think we love animals. A 14-year-old boy gets a 12-year-old girl pregnant and blames sex education. Even to say this is hypocrisy is to impose too much of a pattern on it. Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, said the Duc de la Rochefoucauld; but that implies a working knowledge of the difference between them. He was French, and the French know how to do hypocrisy properly. The characteristic of British morality is not hypocrisy but incoherence, the willingness to live with non sequiturs and contradictions and not to see anything amiss. That, and a warm glow of self-satisfaction.

In that lies the reason for all this moral muddle. Which brings us back to Tony Blair. His view of morality, as expressed at the time awkward questions were being asked about Bernie Ecclestone's pounds 1m grant to Labour, is a very common one. It could be summed up as "Look, I am a good bloke, how can anything I do be bad?" (Shades here of Robin Cook's "my foreign policy is ethical because I am ethical", the attitude which famously drove his former wife up the wall). In other words, a good action is the action of a good person, end of argument. But in this age of subjective individualism, being a good person means little more than feeling good about oneself. It doesn't take a course in Jesuit moral theology to see how full of holes that is, and the infinite possibilities for smug self-delusion and contradiction it opens up. Ironically, even a sincere piece of honest hypocrisy would be better than that.

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