If your job embarrasses you, get a new one

When people choose to do distasteful work despite their private beliefs, public morality is eroded
Click to follow
The Independent Online
A question of principle: is it OK for your day job to conflict with everything else you believe in? Can you labour all day in the fields of your enemies, then come home in the evening, take out your conscience and sigh about the way one has to make one's living these days? Growing numbers of people live in this schizophrenic fashion, trying to hold on to a personal morality of their own while doing things at work they despise. What does it imply for any kind of public morality if that is an acceptable way to live?

A most glaring example came to light this week when it was revealed, despite her first denials, that the main author of the leaked Treasury document that thought the unthinkable about demolishing the welfare state, privatising roads, and abandoning free higher education was herself attempting to become a Labour candidate in a safe Yorkshire seat. By day she was Attila the Hun, by night she was new Labour - a political werewolf.

Yesterday it emerged that her original draft was even more unthinkable before it was toned down. One Whitehall official was quoted as saying, "The riot act was read when the original was handed in. It was politically explosive. It advocated virtually the privatisation of the entire NHS, the welfare state and sell-off of the public transport system."

Now while one or two hot-heads among right-wing conspiracy-theorist MPs immediately suspected a red mole in the Treasury who had deliberately produced an embarrassing document to discredit the Government, no one else takes that idea seriously. The author is a 37-year-old middle-ranking official who has been in the Treasury for 15 years, and her employers do not think she had any hand in leaking her report. Its leaking has, after all, embarrassed her more than anyone else and it has probably destroyed her political ambitions.

No, the phenomenon is far more interesting than that. You could say she was the very model of the modern civil servant: a clever, efficient instrument who can turn her hand to any task she is given. Each day she hangs up her own conscience on the peg where she hangs her coat. She is an automaton, without personal morality, a paradigm of obedience to her political masters. Sir Robin Butler should be proud of her.

But what do we really think of people who live like that? Do we really want to be ruled by people without personal accountability for their actions - just following orders, just doing their job? In Whitehall, the best permanent secretaries, the most creative and admired, have been those who do let their own opinions show. There is a lot of constitutional fiction about the role of civil servants. After all, ministers pass through departments every two years or less, arriving knowing nothing, leaving knowing mainly what their civil servants have taught them. Do we want politicians to be guided and educated by those who pretend to no personal values, with no moral stake in the affairs they govern? I would prefer men and women of principle, right or left - even though that might mean that on a change of government they would be more likely to be moved on. There is nothing very admirable in the rubber morals of a civil servant who can, for instance, enthusiastically help Michael Howard fill prisons to bursting point and then with equal vim let them all go again under his successor.

This institutionalised amorality is also a striking feature of life in the law. The much vaunted taxi-rank principle whereby barristers hire themselves out to the next comer, regardless of the merits of the case, has always struck me as singularly odd. It makes the law a game rather than a matter of conviction. Getting some villain off becomes a matter of brilliance and prowess for which they congratulate one another.

The culture of the hired gun is creeping up on us everywhere. These days it flourishes in the contract climate of job insecurity. People feel scant responsibility for the work they do and little identification with their place of work or its purposes, when their employers show no particular commitment to them. That makes it easy for them to absolve themselves of moral responsibility for the job they do.

I suppose I see the most extreme end of that in the world of journalism. Apparently serious and decent journalists hire themselves out as fig leaves of respectability to pretty despicable newspapers, justifying it to themselves on the grounds that they have nothing to do with the day-to-day sleaze. "Never met Murdoch." "No one ever tampers with my copy or tells me what to write, so what does it matter where I write it?" It matters. These excuses are lame. The more distinguished the names, the more prized they are as emulsion to white the sepulchre.

Among the humbler fry, the bright young beginners trying to work their way up through increasingly tough and nasty newsrooms in the hope of reaching the few respectable newspapers some day, the game is not worth the candle. They acquire the skill of turning their pen to any nefarious cause, arguing any outlandish case the editor or proprietor demands, spinning words, warping facts, becoming elegant liars. But there are other jobs, easier to get and less taxing on the conscience.

Most people who do work they have to apologise for are in positions where they do have a choice. Perhaps these mean a bit less money or status, but "just doing my job" won't do. When "just doing my job" means drawing up imaginative Treasury plans to demolish the welfare state you are politically committed to sustaining, it is time to find a new career.