Say that Britain has become a land where cheats prosper and you at once get lost in disputes about definition. People ask what you mean by cheating and maintain that you cannot compare the present with the past. Aggressive tackles that were once legal become fouls; fiddles that were once perks of the job become sackable offences.
Because I make my living with words, I ignore the quibblers and look instead at how language has changed. Phrases that emphasised old virtues have almost died out: "just not cricket"; "fair play"; "good sport"; "natural gentleman"; "lady". Comforting prejudices about the superiority of British manners have gone the same way.
Fifty years ago, you might have explained the Lance Armstrong scandal by saying: "Well, he's an American" and your listeners would have taken you seriously. Americans were rapacious and unscrupulous. They came from an aggressive capitalist culture that wanted success by any means necessary. There may be a few rotten apples among British sportsmen, you might have conceded, but most would "play up! play up! and play the game!" – to use another phrase that's vanished.
Today, no one would be surprised to learn that British athletes were bent. In the case of the Armstrong fraud, indeed, English lawyers were used by him to help perpetuate his deceit. The very expensive London firm Schillings took about £600,000 from the Sunday Times because, as we now know, the paper told the truth about their crooked client. This warned the rest of the media about the dangers of investigating sporting scandals. If you ask lawyers if they feel any shame about having represented a fraud, they look at you askance. If one firm of solicitors had not taken Armstrong's money, another would have done, they say. They have no moral responsibility beyond their professional obligations.
They are not alone in that. If a modern football player were to tell a referee that he did not deserve a penalty, teammates and supporters would turn on him. You get a taste of how cynical and selfish British football has become by listening to Robbie Savage and the other footballers who have become commentators. They can get enraged if anyone suggests that a player should not deceive the officials and take every advantage. They still might frown on diving. But cheating, within these limits, is not double-dealing, but being "a professional". It is the officials' job to spot foul play. If they do not, they, rather than the players, are to blame.
While Armstrong was stage-managing his confession, Liverpool's manager, Brendan Rodgers, emitted a telling outburst. Luis Suárez had dived to win a penalty against Stoke. Everyone who saw the game in October could see what he had done, apart from Rogers, who defended his player. Only last week, after Suárez admitted that he had gone to ground, did Rodgers explode. He did not appear over-concerned about the cheating. Rather, Rodgers worried that by telling the truth Suárez had "damaged our prospects" and made it less likely that referees would give Liverpool the benefit of the doubt.
Talk this way and you risk romanticising the past. But there is another trap, which liberal commentators often fall into. They dismiss the complaints of cultural conservatives about falling standards by saying that there is nothing new under the sun and that it twas ever thus, a strange notion, if you think about it, because it implies that societies never change.
Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist who has co-authored a paper on cheating in sport, argues it is not foolish nostalgia to think that English football is worse than it once was. Football was codified and administered by gentlemen, who believed that sport should train men to run an empire. They may have been imperialists, but their notion that English footballers must set an example and win respect filtered through. With the end of empire, and the end of England's leading position in world football, English footballers did not see the need to behave better than players from any other country. Nor did their fans.
Cricket commentator Jonathan Agnew told me that you can measure the decline in sportsmanship by looking at how rare it has become for batsmen to walk. Virtually everyone now waits for the umpire to tell him he is out. The advantages that dishonesty brings have become too great to ignore, Agnew says. "Over the last 20 years, the money has changed the sport. I may sound pompous but many cricketers have forgotten that they are just the custodians of the game, who need to ensure that they don't damage its reputation."
Agnew may well sound pompous but that does not make him wrong. Across British public life, you see scandals caused by insiders who do not understand the damage their behaviour does to the institutions they serve. MPs are the best example. They are and were underpaid, when you consider that they have to fund homes in London and their constituencies. Their party leaders did not dare tell the public that taxpayers needed to raise politicians' salaries. So MPs milked the expenses system. From their perspective, fiddling was excusable. To everyone else, it looked like theft.
I cannot condemn them wholeheartedly. I feel at least a little sympathy for a few of the journalists caught up in the hacking scandal. Clive Goodman, the News of the World's former royal editor, and the first reporter to go to prison, was a middle-aged man with young children. Andy Coulson became editor and turned up the heat on the old lags. He brought in a young reporter to cover the royal patch and Goodman felt the pressure. I can see why he turned to crime. I know the desperate feeling that overcomes reporters when they are staring at a blank screen while all around their colleagues are banging out stories. The public does not know and, rightly, would not care if it did.
Britain's banking industry has cheated its customers for so long, I wonder why anyone puts money in it. Yet to the insiders who presided over every scandal from endowment mortgages to the payment protection insurance fraud, their behaviour was rational profit maximisation.
Like athletes who cheat successfully, bank staff benefited by receiving commissions and bonuses. Like politicians and journalists, they forgot that no institution can survive without earning the support of the society that surrounds it.
The old notions of fair play and gentlemanly conduct feel as dead as the empire. But when scandal hits, people and institutions find that without them they are naked before the storm. This article will be opened for comments on Sunday morning