The example set by MPs

There has been much in the news during the last few months on the apparent need for Parliament to clean up its act in order for it to set a good example to the public, a subject discussed by the really quite adorable Reverend Richard Coles - possibly Britain's only truly cool vicar - on yesterday's Daily Politics TV programme in his typically eloquent way.

Reverend Richard Coles - possibly Britain's only truly cool vicar.

MPs and their ethics, of lack thereof, has of course been the topic of a million news reports and probably even more blog posts (a sizable percentage of them here on Acid Rabbi). Rev. Coles is in a very good position to comment upon the supposed failure of Parliament to provide the electorate with moral guidance because of his position in the Church of England, an organisation that also once served in such a capacity but which has seen its authority all but vanish within the last couple of generations. But why did the public feel that they no longer needed to look to the Church for an ethical example? After all, a surprisingly large section of the population still believe in God - when asked, more than 70% will describe themselves as Christian (0.7% list their beliefs as Jedi - which amusingly outnumbers the 0.5% of us who are Jews).

Perhaps, in these days when almost all of us benefit from an education and access to a far larger amount of information than ever before, we feel that we are capable of deciding for ourselves. Most of us have well-formed values and morals of our own and will make our own minds up when confronted with decisions.

According to a 2007 BBC survey, 83% of the public believe that Britain is in a moral decline. Yet that same surveys reveals that 92% of people would stop to help a stranger who had collapsed in the street. Interestingly, 97% of those who claimed to have no religion said they'd help in this way, compared to 92% among those who claimed to be Christian.

Imagine that you are walking past a cash machine when it suddenly ejects a £20 note. What would you do? In April this year, a couple were sentenced after they took £61,000 from just such a cash machine. Wondering whether this was an indication that the British are indeed no longer to be trusted, the Times decided to carry out an experiment in which a reporter visited cash machines, withdrew £20 and then walked away without taking the money to see if passers-by or the next person in the queue would pocket the cash. The experiment was carried out four times in London's Moorgate and on each occasion the next person in the queue caught up with the reporter and handed over the money. In Shoreditch, one man kept the £20, another returned it. In Islington, the reporter tried it twice - both times, the money was returned to him. The same thing happened in Portsmouth, even though the reporter spent two hours playing the same trick. Six people in Cheshire did likewise, and again in Wilmslow even though the reporter pretended not to hear the person trying to get their attention. "It's just a case of behaving as you'd want people to behave to you," said one Cheshire resident.

In Gateshead, in the same month, a high street branch of Barclays was left unlocked overnight by contractors. The first person to discover the mistake immediately alerted the police. A similar incident took place at a North Yorkshire branch of HSBC in February. We read often of elderly people being mugged and beaten, but little of the hundreds of thousands of people in this country involved in charitable work to raise funds to improve old people's lives, nor those who work in jobs supporting them. Every British town has at least one charity shop, staffed by volunteers giving up their own time to help some deserving cause or another. These are hard economic times for many of us, yet we gave £1.3 billion to charities in the financial year 2007-08.

If we no longer need the Church as a moral compass, do we need politicians to set us a good example? Are they even in a position to do so?

Do we need the church as a moral compass anymore? It seems that many people do not, and will act in a trustworthy and charitable manner simply because they choose to do so. Do we need politicians to set us a good example or, as well-informed adults, are we capable of making our own decisions and living out lives in a way that we decide for ourselves? Besides, aren't MPs supposed to be our servants rather than rulers teaching us lowly and simple common folk how to live in the correct way?

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