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14 JUNE 2005




Michael Quinlan


In the summer of 1970 I was posted to Brussels to be Defence Counsellor in the UK Delegation to NATO.  A year had passed since Arthur Hockaday had ended his distinguished tour there in the international post of Assistant Secretary-General for Defence Planning, the post whose occupant chaired the committee on which national Defence Counsellors sat.  There were however still several members who had operated under Arthur, and indeed one – the Defence Counsellor of one of the smaller NATO countries - who had been there since before Arthur took over from a French predecessor in 1967 when France had had to relinquish the post following her withdrawal from NATO’s military structure.  I vividly recall this individual’s description of the difference.  “Under Gregh [that was the Frenchman’s name]”, he said, “I would prepare carefully for the next meeting.  At its start he would lay out the issues before the Committee, and I would realise how stupid I had been – the problems were much more difficult and complicated than I had understood.  Then Hockaday took over.  As before, I would prepare carefully for the next meeting.  At its start he would lay out the issues before the Committee, and I would realise how stupid I had been – the problems were much simpler and more straightforward than I had understood.”


I should like to think that that story tells us something general about the difference between French and British administrative styles; but whether or not that is so, it certainly tells us something particular about Arthur’s style.  The Lord had bestowed upon him a first-class mind, and it was above all an analytical and clarifying mind.  He had a crucial gift, and an equal resolve partnering it, for looking at reality coolly and straight, for getting in behind words, for understanding things accurately and in the round, and for describing them lucidly, objectively and unshowily.  He deployed this powerful armoury above all in the defence field – it was his own deliberate choice to work there, initially in the Admiralty.  He had a deep respect and a warm affection for the Services, as not only his years as a defence official but also his splendidly fruitful leadership of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission testified, even though he had not himself served in the armed forces – as many of you will know, he did his National Service as a miner, a “Bevin Boy”.


He was however never uncritical about defence business, and in particular he brought to bear upon it the criteria and imperatives of his profound Christian conviction.  It was above all Arthur who was the original spearhead of the fact that, at least from the 1970s onwards as ethical controversy about nuclear weapons intensified, the British Ministry of Defence contained within policy staffs a strand of conscious Christian awareness and discussion of the moral aspects of our policies that had, so far as my observation goes, no parallel – or none as explicit or on the same proportionate scale – in any other major Western country.  That strand, of course, found much of its stimulus in our Council – in CCADD.  My own involvement was sparked in almost equal measure by Arthur and by Sydney Bailey, sadly also no longer with us.  In a real way the two of them epitomised CCADD – the morally-alert insider and the sceptical but fair outsider (Sydney was of course a Quaker), each of them however moved by a common concern to listen carefully to what the other had to say, to think honestly about it, and to characterise it unpolemically in discussion – in brief, a concern that their encounter, their dialogue, should generate light, not heat.  Arthur adhered unfailingly to that approach in the nuclear debate, in other issues such as arms sales – on which he wrote a distinguished pamphlet for CCADD – and then when as our Chairman he came for a decade to oversee the Council’s increasing breadth of activity.  All of us who belong to or support CCADD are lastingly in his debt; and for me it is both a privilege and – given the standards that he embodied - an uncomfortable challenge to undertake this lecture, in the year following his death, in salute to his memory.


Arthur, as a one-time classical scholar, much admired the great Athenian dramatist Sophocles.  It was said of Sophocles by someone or other – if Arthur were here he would tell me crisply who it was – that “he saw life steadily and saw it whole”.  That would do pretty well for Arthur himself.


Sophocles perhaps provides also a lead-in to my assigned topic.  In his tragedy “Antigone” he explores the tensions weighing upon a woman torn between her civic duty of obedience to a sovereign’s edict and her family duty to a dead brother.  I have not the remotest of aspirations to Sophoclean depth, but my theme is at least conceptually similar.


What I plan to offer you, under the shorthand of my assigned title, is an exploration – I emphasise the word “exploration”, for I do not purport to expound a settled and comprehensive theory – of the issues that arise for the individual, especially but not necessarily only the Christian individual, if in the course of public service the demands of professional role and those set by personal conviction pull in opposite directions.  There are some high-profile examples of such tension fairly recently available.  Just for example, there was the pressure upon Senator John Kerry, a Roman Catholic, about whether his fairly liberal stance (I use the word “liberal” in the American political sense) over legislation on abortion, reflecting majority views within his party, was compatible with his continuing to receive the Eucharist, given his Church’s firm teaching on the subject.  There was Elizabeth Wilmshurst’s resignation from her senior legal post at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in March 2003 when she disagreed with the Attorney General’s public statement on the legality of the invasion of Iraq.  There was – still is – the question, albeit not much noticed in the British national press, of whether mayors of Spanish cities should be free, while still retaining their office, to stand aside on grounds of conscience, as their Catholic Bishops are urging, from conducting the gay marriages which Spanish civil law now recognises as valid and in which accordingly their normal professional duties stand to involve them.  And, in a slightly different way, there is the issue of whether “Deep Throat”, now at last identified, was justified in making his clandestine disclosures to the press over the affair of President Nixon and the Watergate break-in.


I ought however, early on, to emphasise a point about perspective.  Cases like these are high-profile and acutely interesting.  But at least within Britain’s central public-service field, which is what I know best and in which I believe both the quality of standards and the level of their observance compare well with those of any other country, cases of this kind are genuinely very rare.  I myself, in a quite varied span of thirty-eight years’ service, never felt personally challenged in any such way, and the number of instances of which I became aware in areas anywhere near me was very small.  I shall be concentrating now on various awkward situations, but it would be wildly out of proportion to imagine that the public service is a seething hot-bed of such dilemmas.  For 99.99 per cent of the time we do not find ourselves having to choose between God and Caesar; we do not in practice find ourselves having to give our heads, even metaphorically, alongside Thomas More as “the Crown’s good servant, but God’s first”.


I begin my analysis by recalling the key concept of professional role, since some grasp of that seems to me essential for clear thinking about this subject.  In the complex modern world of public affairs what the various participants do is mostly defined and distinguished by role – that is, by the purpose and nature of what is expected and required in the performance of their particular assigned functions in the setting of the society in which they are working.  The duties that result may be widely different as between one role and another, even in face, as it may be, of a common set of circumstances and even perhaps of shared personal perceptions about them.  To take a fairly familiar example, in a murder trial the judge, prosecuting counsel and defending counsel may all privately believe, almost from the outset, that the defendant is a guilty psychopath who ought, for the protection of the public, to be locked up for a very long time; but their roles require them to act in very different ways, so that behaviour that is a positive duty for one of them might well be gravely improper for the others.  It may be, moreover, that the proper demands of role alter even for individuals as they move from one task to another within their overall function.  For example, a barrister engaged for a client in a possible civil action may quite legitimately present matters in one way, before the issue comes to court, in dispassionate private advice about what the chances are, and in another way when he comes, within the reasonable limits of that advice, to argue the client’s preferred line against opposing advocates in open court.  (I suspect that that last distinction of successive roles may have some bearing upon the matter of the Attorney General and the Iraq invasion, and that one of the interesting questions in that instance is perhaps whether the parallel of the civil action is the right paradigm when the nation is considering whether to go voluntarily to war.  But pursuing that debate doubtless belongs to another occasion.)


As I seek to carry my discussion forward you will, I hope, forgive me if for a while I couch my illustrations mainly in terms of the UK Civil Service, though I think the underlying structure of the analysis is of more general application.  The bargain which people like Arthur and me accepted when we joined – the nature of the public service we undertook to provide – was primarily to help give Ministers the best advice we could (the most thorough and accurately-informed, the most practicable and realistic) and thereafter, within the law and established constitutional practice, to carry out as effectively as possible – including, when necessary, presenting as positively as the truth allowed - whatever they, not we, had decided was to be done.  (I note in passing that, rather as with the barrister, this could sometimes entail a change of gear – what we said in advising the Minister, with all the pros and cons, might quite legitimately differ in its selection of content and in its expression from what we said later in explaining to a Parliamentary Committee the Minister’s reasons in favour of the eventual decision.)  Anyway, a cardinal feature of the deal was that we were ultimately not entitled to substitute our own judgment of the public interest, however confident we might be that we were right, for that of the Minister whom the public had elected essentially to be the judge of their interest.  Just for example, I worked in the mid-1970s on devolution to Scotland and Wales, and I think that at this distance in time I can without serious impropriety admit now that quite early on I came to the view that this was not really a good idea in anything like the form envisaged.  But once it was clear that Ministers could not be persuaded out of it, I took pride in working with colleagues to devise, within the guidelines laid down by Ministers, the very best scheme of devolution that we could.  There is nothing seedy, still less immoral, about this kind of professional behaviour; on the contrary, to give the job half-hearted effort, or to seek to get out of it, and still more to subvert it, would have been seriously wrong.


I am sure Arthur would not have minded my citing a possible parallel in his own career.  There is no doubt that he fully supported NATO strategy, including its nuclear component; but I know that in his own personal view, as a practical and not an ethical matter, the case for an independent British nuclear contribution was not quite worth the trouble and the cost.  As it happened, no high-profile new decisions about that arose during his term as what is now called Policy Director at the Ministry of Defence; but if they had – as they did during mine as his successor there, over the replacement of the Polaris system – I am entirely sure that he would first have explored whether there was any chance of converting Ministers to his view and then, when he found that there was not, he would have worked as whole-heartedly as I did in the work that led to the choice of Trident as the best system for the purpose and then in the task of explaining that choice, for example to the House of Commons Defence Committee.


That, in brief, is the nature of what I might call the mainstream case of an official being asked to follow a course that is not the one he or she would have chosen; and I regard it as beyond question that one’s duty there is simply to get on with the job.  However, there have been, historically, two broad classes of situation in which I would be ready in principle to respect the decisions of civil servants who felt that they could not go along with what Ministers wanted.  (I shall come later to the separate question of what forms “not going along” can properly take.)  The first class is one in which a civil servant – typically, I think, a senior one carrying substantial responsibility – feels that a decision, whether on a matter of general policy or on a particular one-off action, but anyway on a large issue that is central to his or her professional expertise and contribution, is so unwise that they simply cannot bring to bear adequately or credibly the commitment needed to work in accordance with it.  I recall a case in the late 1960s where a Foreign Office official deeply involved in work on arms control felt that a particular Government decision in that field so undermined the basis on which he had hitherto (with Ministerial agreement) been working internationally that he must ask for transfer to some different field.  I believe that another instance, a little earlier, was the resignation of the eminent diplomat Sir Con O’Neill (a resignation later reversed when policy changed) on the ground, as I understand, that he just could not work with the European policy of the Government of the day.  If I may give also a hypothetical personal example, I remember Professor Peter Hennessy, in his raffish days as a journalist, once conjecturing in print that I would have asked for my cards if in the 1980s a Labour Government in power had wanted to terminate UK nuclear capability.  He was in fact mistaken in that particular conjecture; but I do think that I would have wanted to seek transfer, or failing that to resign, if the policy had been – as some on the left wanted – to make the much bigger and more fundamental policy reversal of withdrawing entirely from the NATO alliance.


I would not be minded to categorise that sort of dissent or dissociation as being of ethical character in the strict sense.  My second class of “not going along” is however directly of that character.  If one believes that an activity in which one is asked to engage substantially (I shall come back later to that qualification “substantially”) is inescapably and fundamentally contrary to moral law in a crucial respect, then in my view a civil servant is not merely entitled but morally required to dissociate himself or herself, whether by seeking transfer or, if that proves infeasible, by resigning.  In the mid-1960s an able colleague of mine, selected to succeed me in a post that was, albeit not very senior, pretty central to the Government’s defence policy, declined to accept the post on the ground that he had come to feel increasing sympathy with his wife’s strongly absolutist anti-nuclear view – that is, the view that the possession of nuclear weapons was in all circumstances immoral and ought to be renounced regardless of consequences and of what any other country might do.  (I ought to add incidentally that, to the credit of our Service, he was transferred to another Department without stain on his record and with commendation of his talents; he eventually reached Deputy Secretary rank – that is, only one level below the top.)  To give another hypothetical personal example, if I had been in the position of being asked to work on David Steel’s 1967 Bill which for the first time legalised abortion – which I regard as categorically wrong - I like to think that I would have declined to do so and would have accepted any consequences.  I think I would say much the same if legislation permitting euthanasia were in question; and some of the developments in what stem-cell research has opened up – illustrating the wider fact that the march of scientific knowledge poses novel moral conundrums for us – would give me pause.  But I might set alongside those speculations a semi-qualification: if, more recently, I had been asked to work on an amendment setting the time limit for termination of pregnancy at 24 weeks rather than 28, I would certainly have been willing to do so, despite a theoretical argument that this would be by implication to condone abortion.  As I believe Thomas More once said – I quote him again as being a public servant of special renown -


“One should so order what is bad that it may not be very bad, for it is not possible for all things to be good unless all men are good.”


I want to turn now to three other aspects of the issue.  Before I spell them out, however, let me just register a general point – knock in a tent-peg, as it were – that bears upon both what I have said and what I am going to say.  In my view, as I have written elsewhere, one ought to set a high hurdle for either of the two classes of dissent I have outlined.  For those who have signed up to the civil service profession – and I would apply this, mutatis mutandis, to other professions – to withdraw service, especially when the going is tough as it almost inevitably is in such situations, is a very serious thing to do; and it ought not to be done unless the grounds are at least equally serious..  That applies with especial force, I suggest, in a pluralist democracy such as ours where we, like the Ministers under whose direction we operate, have chosen – for no-one is nowadays conscripted into public service - to serve a diverse public which contains strands of honestly-held opinion, moral and other, that may well differ from our own but which may well sometimes have prevailed within the democratic process that has determined the law of the land..


Now those three other aspects.  The first concerns the weight of the moral issue.  The second concerns the degree of involvement that should trigger dissent.  And the third concerns the action that dissent may legitimately entail.  I take them separately, though in practice they may well interact.


I am not sure that my first term, “weight of the moral issue”, is quite ideal, because I am inclined to think that it may differ not only with the specific content of whatever is in question but also with the general nature and beliefs of the society in which we operate.  For example, I accept the basic view of my own Church, the Roman Catholic Church, that divorce is wrong; but in the circumstances of our country today I do not feel it to be so repugnant, or so wrong for people of other beliefs, that I would refuse to have anything to do with legislation or administration touching upon it if my professional work so required.  As I hinted a few minutes ago, I regard abortion as being in a different order of priority; I am inclined to think that the sanctity of innocent life has special force.  Where exactly, along the spectrum of gravity that has abortion near one end, one should locate gay marriages – which I do not favour - I am not entirely sure.   I do not have an absolutely settled opinion about what Catholic mayors in Spain should do if the government is, as I understand, not prepared to acquiesce in their recusing themselves; but that does illustrate the fact – inconvenient and uncomfortable, I fear – that I doubt whether this dimension of weight or priority can be handled by any tidy formula removing the need for judgment that takes account, inter alia, of the general socio-political environment in which we have chosen – I emphasise again that fact of choice – to give professional service to the public.


My second aspect was about involvement.  I recognise that not just the depth of involvement but its nature may differ between professional settings.  Just for example, I can see that within a legal system the involvement of judges or other officers of the court in the business of adjudicating the law is not quite the same sort of thing as that of civil servants helping to frame the law.  I cannot claim to have fully thought through the structure and limits of personal moral responsibilities in the legal setting.  But I shall stick for the present to the civil service and closely comparable contexts.


Even though ultimate responsibility rests with Ministers, civil servants and others working at or near the centre of government may in varying degree be inescapably involved, especially in the implementation of policy.  But the differences in their degree of involvement may be very wide.  If a couple of years ago a stenographer who typed Mr. Hoon’s speeches believed (as I myself have done from the outset of the idea) that the invasion of Iraq was not just imprudent but downright wrong morally, I would have thought it out of place for him or her to demand transfer or resignation on that account; but, again hypothetically, if a Chief of the Defence Staff were to hold such a view, that would be a different matter.  Once more, I doubt whether the issue can be reduced to a formula, or be attached simply to some factor like seniority, though that must sometimes be relevant.  I would think that Elizabeth Wilmshurst, as No.2 in the FCO legal service with special responsibility and expertise in the field of international law on conflict, was fully entitled to regard herself as crucially involved (though I have not discussed the episode with her and do not know whether, in terms of my earlier taxonomy, her resignation reflected fundamental professional alienation or direct moral condemnation or both).


Another dimension of involvement is closeness to the issue.  The right or duty to take exceptional action by way of personal dissent differs considerably, I suggest, as between the official who is asked to implement a decision or work directly within a policy, and the official who just happens incidentally to become aware of something that appears wrong.  I once sacked a young fast-stream civil servant for very deliberate leaking.  What he did was in my judgment disreputable on several counts, but one of them was that the matter he leaked was not something to do with his job but something he had come across purely by chance in other files.


That brings me to my third aspect, the one about action.  Assuming that the dissent in question meets all the other criteria I have suggested or implied, what exactly is the dissenter entitled to do?  Seek transfer or resign? – by all means Yes.  Directly sabotage, like damaging a weapon system when its use is disapproved of? - I would say definitely No.  I remember that during the 1956 Suez affair one RAF pilot who deeply deplored of the enterprise registered his dissent dramatically by pulling up the undercarriage as he was on the taxiway at a Cyprus airfield awaiting take-off for a bombing mission.  That seems to me plainly wrong.  But what about what is nowadays called “whistle-blowing”? – what about “Deep Throat”, or Clive Ponting over the Government’s statements on the precise circumstances of the sinking of the “General Belgrano” in 1982, or indeed the leaking by someone or other of the Attorney General’s private advice of 7 March 2003 on the legality of the Iraq war?


In my opinion, which perhaps you may find predictable given my provenance, there has to be a very strong presumption against so-called “whistle-blowing”, whether or not accompanied by resignation and whether or not done openly – though I am inclined to think that covert leaking, as conducted by “Deep Throat” and attempted by Ponting, would need, at the least, an extra-high standard of justification.  (I note that on her departure Ms. Wilmshurst seems to have behaved impeccably in this regard; she disclosed nothing unauthorised.)  Within the public sector, the unauthorised disclosure of significant information entails breach of the employment deal, quite often explicitly signed and accepted, and sometimes also direct breach of the law of the land – and in political communities like ours the presumption of obedience to the law has, I suggest, moral and not just prudential force.  I noted over the weekend that an eminent journal characterised the dilemma facing “Deep Throat” as “loyalty versus ethics”; but that is a false distinction – the obligation to confidentiality in a situation of trust and of legal duty is itself of ethical weight.  Moreover, particular contraventions aside, such disclosures tend cumulatively to corrode trust and confidence across the system as a whole, to the detriment of the public good.  I was not in the Ministry of Defence at the time of the Ponting affair and do not know its every detail, but I would be in no doubt, despite the verdict which the jury gave in defiance of guidance from the bench, that what he did was flatly wrong for a civil servant, especially as I believe he had made no effort to use the available internal channels of protest which surely ought always (and I regard this point as important, not a second-order detail) to be the first recourse.  I take the same view about the various leaks identified from time to time within the intelligence services, like those in the cases of Peter Wright, David Shayler and GCHQ’s Mrs. Katharine Gun.  The hurdle of justification must, without question, be set extremely high.


I do not however find myself able to say that the hurdle can absolutely never be surmounted.  To take again a hypothetical case, an extreme one, I cannot believe that in Hitler’s Germany an official in a position to leak information that would somehow have impeded the “Final Solution” would have been wrong to do so.  I do not regard Oleg Gordievsky as having been wrong, while in Soviet service, to give the West information damaging to a regime which he believed to be gravely wicked.  (I note in parenthesis that the whole question of morality in the intelligence business is an interesting subject still, so far as I know, awaiting elaboration; but that too is for some other time.)  It seems to me that we are again in the awkward but inescapable position of having to exercise judgment along a spectrum at least part of which is marked in shades of grey.    I do not have the knowledge to suggest confidently where “Deep Throat’s” behaviour should be ranked in that spectrum, though my initial inclination is slightly against him, for all that Richard Nixon plainly did wrong.   It may be (and here I am simply feeling my way) that one variable relevant to the judgment might be whether the unauthorised disclosure is genuinely calculated to prevent specific future evil as distinct from seeking to punish past wrongdoing – I would regard the former as constituting more persuasive ground than the latter.  But I remain strongly convinced that the hurdle should anyway continue to be set high; and the vast majority of the leakings that I came across during my career and have observed since its end did not surmount it – they by no means merited approbation or applause.


I am tolerably confident that Arthur would have agreed with me about that; and I hope he would have been willing at least to nod indulgently at most of the rest of my analysis, though he would without doubt have found telling refinements to propose.  But even more certainly he would have wanted to hear other views and comments, from different perspectives, before regarding his own mind as finally settled; and that is my position too.  In the round, public servants in this country are fortunate in that the environment in which we work very rarely sets harsh challenges of the kind I have been exploring – many if not most other countries are not as well placed.  But there is nevertheless some possibility of tensions even here; and it is worth while accordingly to continue to reflect upon the framework in which they should be understood and the principles by which they ought to be handled.