There's nothing clever about working late

If they all got out of their nasty little offices a bit more, they would be more balanced people
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It has taken absolutely years, and there are still one or two formalities to go through. But yesterday surely saw an end to one of the saddest scams in British public life. The long-hours culture in the House of Commons, which has seen generations of MPs bleating pitifully about the late nights they have to put in for their country, is now almost certain to start fading away.

It has taken absolutely years, and there are still one or two formalities to go through. But yesterday surely saw an end to one of the saddest scams in British public life. The long-hours culture in the House of Commons, which has seen generations of MPs bleating pitifully about the late nights they have to put in for their country, is now almost certain to start fading away.

A reform proposed by the modernisation select committee, which suggests that the traditional 10pm vote should be abolished on every day except Mondays, is likely to be supported by backbenchers and opposed only by "traditionalists". In future, MPs will start the day earlier, and finish most evenings by 7pm. Very civilised, and, one would imagine, highly desirable.

So then, the reason why this simple change has been such a long time coming? It is because MPs have only recently been complaining about hanging about in Westminster until all hours, and actually meaning what they say. Up until now, it's been a ghastly fig-leaf, the pathetic excuse that "I'm working late at the office," enshrined as part of the nation's institutional tradition.

That old chestnut is a favourite of drunks and adulterers. There have certainly been some of those in the ranks of the Commons over the years. Robin Cook, for example, who used to stay late at the office in order to work on his relationship with his secretary, chairs the modernisation committee. We can only assume that he's a believer in pulling up ladders behind him.

It is no coincidence either than the Palace of Westminster is so full of bars, and that their occupants are so enthusiastic in their alcohol consumption. But while booze and sex are certainly factors in long-hours culture – far more than actual work is – you don't have to be a puritan to see that such a culture is not very healthy. (For many work-obsessed types, the same amount of booze and sex, somewhere else, with different people and different conversations to the ones they've been with all day, would be better for them.)

Its obvious that the sort of work-culture that involves working late is a threat to family life. So it is no surprise that the prime movers behind the reforms have been those who want Parliament to be more amenable to those with children. But while its dreadful impact on family life is important, it is not only for the sake of families that long-hours work cultures should be rejected, in the Commons and everywhere else.

The main reason for such conventions to be resisted is that they were initiated by obsessional, addictive types with social inadequacies and narrow interests, and their continuance ensures that such people still dominate the world of work – and in the sort of capitalist structure we all live under, that means the world.

You only have to look at the sorts of work that attract the most adherents of long-hours culture to see that there's something funny going on. It's not just politics, but the media and the City that take the lead. All of them are full of dedicated people, all likely to be in relationships with other people from the same industry (though with those relationships generally less likely to last than in more sober professions), and all supposedly at the heart of the reality of the world, but actually completely detached from it.

This detachment, nowadays, is more obvious in the City than it is in the others, probably – in some counter-intuitive, post-modern fashion – because it's from the City rather than Westminster that the real decisions regarding our daily lives are made. The people – usually men of course – who run the global markets, alone dictate how wealth is distributed and how much everyone gets in their pockets. They tend to give themselves the lion's share, because they work so very, very hard. Also because they work so very, very hard they give themselves perks that include frequenting lap-dancing clubs and chugging back glasses of fluid for which they have paid more than some people spend on their food for the year. That connection between work and booze and sex again, the obsessive's ever-decreasing circle of stress and supposed stress-relief, all in the same exclusive little hamster-wheel world.

If, instead of fostering a culture in which it is seen as admirable to be in the office at the crack of dawn and in the restaurant, pub or club with "clients" or "colleagues" (just drinking buddies in light but astoundingly effective disguise) until it's time for the last train back to hearth and home, they all got out of their nasty little environment a bit more, then they'd all be more effective, balanced people, who did their work a lot more responsibly and ran the world in the way it needs to be run. Instead, they all stick together, because the only people who will validate their "lives" as they are, are others in the same boat.

Politicians aren't of course anything like this odious, but there are certainly major parallels. In Westminster, it is tradition that is cited as the reason why people don't want change. "Traditionalists" will explain that the late nights emerged from the time when Members of Parliament were unpaid and had to earn a crust in the morning before going off to govern out of the kindness of their lust for power, and that with MPs' pay still only being a few times more than the average working wage, such incomes still need to be supplemented.

But while the traditionalists may say that they want things to remain the same because their 2.30pm starts allows them to do other things in the morning, there is only a little truth in that. However, all that truth amounts to is that for years the culture in the Commons has been geared towards creating perfect working lives for a certain type of person, while at the same time making sure that other types are kept well away.

This is where the hectoring, bullying culture of the Commons comes in, the one that women MPs find so intimidating. This culture is usually referred to as macho, macho having become shorthand not for studiedly masculine, but for rude, boorish, prejudiced, chauvinistic and boozy. If this sounds like the City, bear in mind that it also sounds like many abroad see the country as a whole. Britain is, after all, about to be given the distinction of having its "bachelor parties" banned from Amsterdam, of all places.

Perhaps though, as politics at last turns away from the practice of blurring the line between work and social existence, so too the rest of the country might gradually turn itself away, instead of increasingly towards, the same sort of lifestyle. This whole culture evolved as a way for "breadwinners" to maintain respect for their hard work and dedication while they actually indulged themselves in the most obsessive, destructive and exclusive of ways.

It may be traditional for MPs to behave in this fashion. But it is a tradition – highly Victorian like so many, and therefore not very old – that the country will be healthier without, not just because it damages the family, but because it damages the inadequates who think they're being clever and admirable in choosing and defending such a existence.

The sad thing is that they have got away with it for so long, seeing off all comers, because they all want what politicians themselves call "a hinterland" and the rest of humanity calls a life. People with those priorities should not be in charge, and it will be a great day for the Commons when they are officially ousted.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

Comments