From civil service to civil disobedience: one official’s struggle to balance activism with Whitehall ethics

Cee MacDonald was working as an economist in the civil service when she was arrested at an Extinction Rebellion protest. She reflects on how she balanced her activism with the civil service code
Cee MacDonald

By Cee MacDonald

10 Jun 2021

In the early hours of the morning on Monday 16 March 2020, I was sitting on the pavement outside parliament. I had been there since the early evening, taking part in an Extinction Rebellion (XR) Interfaith vigil in the run up to Easter. I knew Westminster and Parliament Square well, as they were part of my commute into Whitehall where I worked as a government economist. It was a cold night and at one point I went for a walk to stretch my legs and warm up. I found myself outside my office at 2 Marsham Street. For ten minutes, I sat on the concrete.

I joined the civil service straight out of university in 2007 and it suited me. I liked the processes, the agendas, the flow charts, the gantt charts, the charts in general. I respected the value of making good rules, saw the work that went into consulting on them, fed analysis into the legislative process and evaluated the impacts of regulatory changes. However, during my after-hours Open University study in environmental science I’d become increasingly concerned about scientists’ warnings on the climate crisis, the "long tail" risks, what could be mitigated and what was locked in, and the risk of wide scale human suffering. During the past 18 months, I have wrestled with how to balance my professional obligations (which I took seriously) with my faith as a Buddhist and the increasingly clear and urgent science of climate change and biodiversity loss. 

The odd thing about activism is that what people see are the outward impacts: the lawns dug up, the roads blocked, and occasionally the headlines and interest piqued. But activism also works at an inner level. Doing things changes you. And as I sat outside my department that night, unseen by anyone, I felt something change in me. I had done a lot of work in Marsham Street, a lot of long hours on business cases, regulatory triage assessments and some beautiful powerpoint presentations. But sitting in the quiet, under the streetlights, it felt powerful just to be able to be there and meditate on what was happening to the earth. No need for lines to take, no need for killer stats, just understanding things as they are.

Some months later, at another XR demonstration, I was arrested for sitting and meditating in the road at Parliament Square. I had taken a week of leave, and I had told my line management I would be taking part in the environmental protests, anonymously and peacefully, as a part of my Buddhist practice. I had mentioned a "non-zero risk of arrest", but I think they were surprised when I came back from leave to discover I had been escorted to the Lewisham custody suite for a breach of the Public Order Act. 

I’m not an expert in civil service ethics, but I spent a lot of time considering the tension between the different values I held and how I could steer a course which honoured them. 

The civil service code is partly about honesty, impartiality and objectivity. As a government analyst, quite a bit of my job involved checking that numbers we were using were accurate, or at least defensible. But giving a clear picture involves more than ensuring that the individual sentences are true. It means telling the whole truth. For climate change that means being honest ourselves about what the current trajectories are, what that means for our communities, our industries, and what solutions are open to us. However, being a good civil servant also means understanding what your ministers want to know in the scarce time they have to read briefings and submissions. And so there is a tension between sharing the "inconvenient facts" and sending up briefings which deal with specific issues, and can sometimes miss the bigger picture. 

I was confident that my work was impartial. I did a lot of things which I disagreed with as a civil servant, including working on dismantling the disability benefit my mother had received while I was growing up. I understood that was the job. I was careful not to mention my environmental affiliations at work, and was carefully bland about my activities when talking to my own team. But I also understood it was important I was seen as impartial. So I made some choices in how I undertook my activism. I separated my work and activist identities. 

I got rid of all my social media. I didn’t want anyone to be able to analyse the tweets I was liking or the comments I left on Facebook and feel they were undermining my work. I used a different name and email address for my activism. This reduced the risk that someone would be able to connect the dots between my activism and my profession. It did mean that in the months leading up to the September Rebellion, when I was thinking a lot about the risks I may incur professionally if I was arrested, I felt like I was splitting between two people. In the late nights working on urgent business cases, I was paranoid I would inadvertently sign off an email with the wrong name. Sometimes I’d stumble when introducing myself in a Teams meeting.

When I was out with other activists, I tried to look boring. I avoided the slogans, the patches, the flags. Tried to avoid holding signs, so if there were photos of me I had some plausible deniability. I never made speeches. None of the current ministers knew my face. I would occasionally wear a placard with a picture of the planet that said "love and grief for the earth". Are grief and love political? Some days it’s hard to tell. 

I knew if I was putting myself in a position where arrest was more likely, I didn’t want it to be for anything overtly "anti government". I was not going to be one of the people hosing down the Treasury in fake blood, or at least not yet. But I was increasingly open to being arrested for meditating as part of my Buddhist practice. I knew that this may be difficult for work, and I thought carefully about the worst case scenarios, including potentially being fired. I was also worried about my colleagues feeling a sense of betrayal about what I’d done. Sometimes civil disobedience is about breaking the social rules as well as the legal ones. 

On the GOV.UK webpage for the civil service code, it says “‘Integrity’ is putting the obligations of public service above your own personal interests”. Is my concern for the planet a personal interest or is it public service? Is getting a civil service salary a personal interest or is it public service? I found it wasn’t straight forward. "The personal is political" is an old feminist slogan, and I think about it a lot. We have a democracy and the principle of freedom of speech. The code implicitly makes a distinction between our own lives, and our work lives. But there isn’t such a thing as a non-political personal life. The decision not to go on a Black Lives Matter march is in its own way just as much a political decision as going. 

My area of work, like most policy areas, had both a contribution to make on emissions, and would also be affected by climate change. It wasn’t something we really talked about. I managed to include climate change in my objectives, but there wasn’t much senior (or ministerial) interest in it as far as I could see. I was so conscious of how heavily the science weighed on me, and my increasing interest in activism that I was careful – perhaps overly so – in how hard I pushed the science and what it would mean for our stakeholders. I felt like I was "seeing the bigger picture". But if the senior departmental interest in climate change was fairly shallow, then it felt difficult to work out how much to push it.

I’ve held back from recapping the science. You’ve probably seen it. The countries most affected by climate change, and least able to mitigate those effects, are asking for a global deal which aims to limit temperature rises to below 1.5 degrees. The Paris Agreement hedged and settled for less than two degrees.

The current global trajectories estimate that we could be heading for double that. The difference between these numbers is massive in terms of the associated forecasted number of deaths. The longer we take to act, the more carbon there is in the atmosphere and the worse the effects. The difference between focusing on 2050 (i.e. a generation away) and aiming for something much more ambitious sooner is huge in terms of the impact on human suffering. And this is what creates the urgency among climate activists. That’s not to say a fast transition won’t be challenging; it will be. It will be disruptive. But I’ve seen this government first hand put its energy into delivering a challenging, disruptive policy which had plenty of sceptics – but they made it happen. I know the same can happen for climate change. 

I don’t know if we will get an outcome at COP26 that does what it needs to do, particularly for the most vulnerable and least-resourced communities across the world. I can’t be sure that what I am doing will make a difference. But sometimes change requires a little disobedience, even from the civil service.  

Cee MacDonald is a former government economist now working full time on Buddhist and interfaith climate activism including XR Buddhists and a pilgrimage to Glasgow called Camino to COP

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