On Reading Bernard Crick

Sunder Katwala
23 December 2008

The main biographer of George Orwell never became a global figure like his subject. But Bernard Crick, who has just died at the age of 79, was a strange influence on New Labour and like many political thinkers on the left around the world, he struggled with the fate of socialism and its relationship to democracy. Here, Sunder Katwala, the current General Secretary of the Labour Party's oldest and most distinguished pressure group, the Fabian Society, lays claims to Crick's legacy of sharp engagement combing intellectual overview with practical (or potentially practical) politics. And in a brief comment openDemocracy founder Anthony Barnett differs in his estimation.

I can recall various personal encounters with Bernard Crick, whose death was announced on Friday, particularly from publishing political books in the mid-1990s. These were made memorable, and strangely enjoyable, by the somewhat cantankerous manner with which Crick would press usually sound advice (albeit sometimes on why the public good to be served by publishing a particular book or author demanded that barbarous commercial considerations should be ignored).

Crick was undoubtedly in the first rank of British post-war political thinkers and writers. He was a great Fabian too, though his fame ran considerably wider. He expressed pride at his own inclusion - alongside the likes of Shaw, Annie Besant, the Webbs, HG Wells, Tawney, Laski, Crosland and Michael Young - as the final subject in a short pamphlet on 'Fabian Thinkers' published four years ago. Crick appreciated Andrew Gamble's short account of his work, finding only one or two points of emphasis or exclusion to moderately but characteristically quibble about when speaking at the launch.

But I will be among many people who will remember, and continue to engage with, Bernard Crick primarily as a reader. Flicking through several of his books this weekend, I was struck less by what is immediately obvious - his enormous, almost Shavian range - and more by the coherence of attitude which linked contributions as political scientist, biographer, literary critic, sometime theatre critic for the Times Higher, policy advisor, designer of citizenship education, public commentator and political polemicist. The central value in Crick's work is the importance of writing as argumentation, and as public argument wherever possible. This is about more than the value of the (disappearing) public intellectual. It is also about argument as participation: the centrality of arguing about political ideas and values (and never simply policy proposals) to the active republican engagement on which our collective ability to maintain the existence of the sphere of democratic citizenship depends.

I suspect that the status of 'In Defence of Politics' as a favourite of politics teachers and headmasters means it may often read at too young an age, and perhaps by those expecting an introduction to the subject, when it is a profoundly important but quite difficult book. I first attempted it when taking GCSE and A-level politics, and no doubt got something from it (but probably rather more, then, from his very short OUP guide to Socialism). But I understood it rather better in the final year of my degree course, and when returning to it again some years later.

So I first came to value Crick particularly as an interpreter of George Orwell. It is Orwell's own voice which leads readers to search out as much as possible of his writing, and his life, after an initial encounter. And that leads many to Crick as the most illuminating modern interpreter of Orwell as a political writer, insisting that both words should carry equal weight.

Crick's judgement that Orwell's genius is as an essayist, and not as a novelist, and that 'The Lion and the Unicorn' is perhaps his greatest work, may now have become commonplace. (Anybody who struggles through A Clergyman's Daughter may not need much convincing). But if that is the orthodoxy, that is in part because Crick pursued an argument to 'demote Orwell from prophet to essayist, or perhaps to promote him from minor novelist to great essayist'. This had both literary and political implications, given a strange alliance between Orwell's literary executor and widow Sonia Orwell and the Cold Warriors of the US Right meant this had. With differing motives - Sonia to rescue Orwell for 'proper' literature; the US right to enlist Orwell as anti-left propagandist - they converged on a shared interest to imply or promote the idea that, following disillusion in Spain in 1936, the final two novels Animal Farm and 1984 were intended to repudiate or downplay Orwell's socialism, rather than being rooted in it. Crick provides ample counter-evidence from his exceptionally close reading of the novels' politics, but it is the essays, which most comprehensively rout the hypothesis, not least Orwell's clear refutation of it in 1946, in 'Why I Write' (while writing Nineteen Eighty-Four) that 'Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism'.

Crick shared Orwell's aspiration to 'make political writing into an art' as well as the values and prejudices of Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language'. Crick was himself a brilliant essayist, preferring the discursive tract to the academic monograph. I picked up a couple of collections of Crick's essays - 'Political Thoughts and Polemics' (1990) and 'Essays on Literature and Politics' (1989) - while studying at university, three or four years after publication. The extensive pencilled underlinings and scribblings in the margins testify to the profound impact Crick's writing had on informing my own interest and views on the hidden history of British identity, democracy and citizenship, and how far this challenged the prevailing myth of the unruffled peaceful evolution of our (non-)constitution.

One splendidly titled essay, 'An Englishman considers his passport', opens with the conundrum of a multi-national state with difficulty pinning down precisely what it is called, capturing how the under-examined certainties, assumptions and myths of the British constitution were fast crumbling. In part, that was because he was an Englishman in Edinburgh that Crick was early in anticipating the emergence of these themes as central political controversies. (A later Crick collection 'Crossing Borders' in 2001, addressed the political and academic consequences). Yet Crick was perhaps most illuminating in his deep engagement with how to make politics work in Northern Ireland's divided society, noting how Margaret Thatcher's necessary betrayal of Ulster Unionism in the Anglo-Irish Agreement was to acknowledge that her core claims about the unique, timeless virtues of the Westminster model could not apply in Ulster context.

Crick was a Labour pluralist. His work, along with that of Tony Wright and Ben Pimlott; and the related strand of thought from Martin Jacques and Marxism Today, successfully deepened Labour's thinking about democracy and human rights, so making it possible for Labour to engage with emerging civic forces and arguments outside party politics, notably in the Charter 88 movement's campaign for a new constitutional settlement. If tensions were inevitable, just about every thinking person in the Labour party was converted to a more pluralist idea of democracy and human rights (though the unkind may ask whether Adlai Stevenson's concern about the sufficiency of that might apply here too). This made possible the quiet, unfinished constitutional revolution between 1997 and 2001, which David Marquand's recent book Britain After 1918 acknowledges as the most important democratic republican phase in reforming British governance since 1909-11. That liberal achievement of early New Labour should not be denied (though often is) but nor should Labour democrats be slow to acknowledge why it has been sadly obscured, as the evidence that this was a half-conversion, at best, has mounted up since 2001. Still, this argument, and story, is not yet over.

Crick believed that 'liberty demands almost fanatic support from democratic socialists'. If somebody (and it may be best not to rely on the whips' office here) could get his early '80s essays on liberty and the left into the Christmas Stockings of today's Parliamentary Labour Party, there might yet be further converts to the importance of changing course and challenging the government's reputation for authoritarianism, rather in the spirit of the lecture On Liberty which the Prime Minister gave last Autumn, an exceptional speech which seems to have found sadly few echoes in either the ethos or letter of government policy since.

Crick's journalistic commentaries on political events were more frequent in the late 1980s than in the 1990s. But he returned to his abiding theme immediately after the 1997 election, with a Political Quarterly essay 'Still Missing: A Public Philosophy for New Labour' (which is republished in 'Crossing Borders'). Crick stressed that he had "stayed celebratorily drunk, without needing to drink very much (unlike on some previous occasions) for several days afterwards". Acknowledging that "Labour, New Labour I mean, fought a brilliant tactical campaign" he simply noted that the question of its animating public idea remained unresolved.

Crick did not, unlike others, dismiss or mock Blair's idea of 'social-ism' as mutuality, believing that the leader was perhaps groping towards a radical liberalism informed by the decentralist tradition of democratic socialism (as was quite possibly Blair's intention at that time). But Crick regretted that the spectre of the 1992 defeat seemed to necessitate, even amidst Tory collapse, the ducking of public arguments about spending on public services, the role of taxation and the broader egalitarian ambition 'to attack poverty in the way that not merely Old Labour but all Labour dreamt of'. He worried too that devolution would be considered the politically expedient exception to 'the general rule of central sovereignty' rather than part of a broader decentralist push.

Never short of a view, nor of consistency in his own arguments, these were never in the service of any party faction. Indeed, Crick wrote in a footnote to that 2007 reflection on Labour's victory that:

Things get very confusing; I for one am not Old Labour. I polemicised against the Bennites and the Footites hard and had no tolerance for either the infiltrating wreckers nor the Social Democrat deserters; but I am not sure that I am New Labour either. I rather think not. I rather think that the inner party have not heard of 'the fallacy of the excluded middle'. Much of the party, I suspect, is basically excluded middle.

That is just one of the ways in which Crick's Autumn 1997 essay speaks rather more cogently to Labour's political difficulties since 2005 (and the trough of last summer and Autumn) than much of what has been written since. It is easy to note the need for an animating philosophy (or to call for a new 'narrative') but Crick did too what was more difficult and offered a coherent and not unworldly strategy for filling the gap.

His 'Footnote to Rally Fellow Socalists', in editions of In Defence of Politics since 1982 (and which grew into a Fabian pamphlet 'Socialism and Time' and later a book) is rare in providing a clear ethical, and not merely tactical, case for gradualism.

Advance must be made by 'small steps', certainly; but steps if they really are steps should have high rises as well as broad treads, and need to be placed on top of each other, not scattered surrealistically across the landscape as opportunity knocks ... The rank and file party activists are often grossly unrealistic, often in too much of a hurry (and anything of this kind made in a hurry is not likely to last); but if they are it is at least in part the fault of leaders who are so pragmatic that they both lose sight of and can never talk with conviction about either middle-term restructuring of institutions or long-term attainment of socialist values.

It is an argument is relevant to the strategy of any progressive or radical campaign - such as feminism - about how to avoid both pure pragmatism or a purist rejection of all compromise in the name of principle. It was a message, to Crick's frustration, sometimes entirely misunderstood as a Burkean rejection of a politics of commitment. But the need for persuasion is not just a recognition of political reality but has a central place in Crick's vision of democratic activity.

Andrew Gamble succinctly states the abiding theme of 'In Defence of Politics' in his Fabian essay on Crick:

Crick defended politics as the only way of holding a free society together, and sought to dispel illusions as to what politics involved. Since a conflict of interests is inevitable in any state, the processes and institutions of politics are required in order to find out what those interests are, and to show citizens the impossibility of all interests being satisfied simultaneously, and therefore the necessity of negotiation and compromise if social order, pluralism, diversity and freedom are to be sustained. Crick's point is that it is impossible to determine what the public interest is without trying to find out what it is that people want, and how the different things they want can be reconciled. Only politics can do this. This means that democratic politics will often be scorned by many on left, right and centre because it is so messy, unprincipled, approximate and because politicians so often appear devious, evasive and untrustworthy. They never measure up to expectations. Crick's hard point is that they never will, and in expecting them to do so, we find ourselves perpetually disillusioned, which is why so many people disengage from politics altogether, seeking comfort elsewhere.

To put it more bluntly, many people who think they are engaging in politics are often engaging in anti-politics instead, particularly as a consumerist society struggles to understand the collective nature of political decision-making, an argument developed in separate contributions from Gerry Stoker and Meg Russell, which consciously develop the Crickean tradition.

As Andrew Gamble also writes of the contemporary resonance of this argument, first published in 1962:

What he [Crick] has to say to us now is in one sense what he has always been saying to us, though we are now more ready to hear it because political apathy and disengagement are on the rise, and the need for a revival of democratic citizenship is widely recognised.

This democratic republicanism made Crick a fierce critic of the trivialisation of the media. If he was angered by the totalitarian warning of 'Big Brother' becoming the moniker of a TV reality show, he could demonstrate the irony that this fulfilled Orwell's prophecy as much as it subverted it, writing in The Guardian that:

Orwell's picture of Big Brother's strategy, however, brings us close to the world of sitcoms, game shows and the prize inanities of the Big Brother show. The party made no attempt to activate the proles in support of the regime. They are simply depoliticised by cultural debasement, dumbed down, kept from even thinking of demanding fair shares. The party looks after the proles by producing for them rubbishy newspapers, containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology; sensational five-cent novelettes; films oozing with sex; and sentimental songs which are composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator. There was even a whole sub-section "Pornosoc" engaged in producing the lowest kinds of pornography. That was not Stalin and Hitler's regimes; it was and is savage, Swiftian satire of the British popular press. A wicked exaggeration, of course; at the time only one paper fully fitted the bill - by happy coincidence the News of the World.

If Nineteen Eighty-Four has more plural targets than is sometimes understood, Crick's many merits as a literary critic include enlisting readers into debates he tenaciously pursued among Orwell scholars, including a fascinating argument about the meaning(s) of Nineteen Eighty-Four, especially its ending. We can never conclusively know, whether through authorial intention or mere printing error, if Winston Smith writes '2 + 2 = 5' or rather '2 + 2 = ' (with a blank space), as in the first edition, which Crick restored in editing a Clarendon Press edition.

Crick is fascinating on how much could hang on this, as part of his broader argument for a more optimistic reading of the novel as Swiftian satire. And his case is much strengthened by the Appendix on Newspeak, which follows the breaking of Winston Smith at the end of the novel. This boasts of great linguistic advances but ends by reporting that the ongoing difficulties of translating Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens and other great works of the English language has seen the final adoption of Newspeak put off until 'so late a date as 2050'.

As Crick reminded us as often as he could, those are the final, final words of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, rather than "the struggle was finished. He loved Big Brother". The good news is that the English language will survive.

Politics will too, if we are willing to participate and defend it.

But, when it comes to political writing, we have just lost one of its finest proponents in our age.

Anthony Barnett comments: If Bernard Crick had such a fine influence on Sunder Katwala, then Crick goes up in my estimation and I will read him some more. I was not as gripped by his prose, nor did I feel that he had a deep perspective or a grasp of the long view. Rather, in my brief experience, Crick was always a Labour Party man, although refreshingly entrepreneurial and well read. When Charter 88 was launched, he did more than sign. He worked to get adverts published in the Scottish newspapers and became a regular, shrewd if blimpish member of the governing Council, concerned about the need for the Charter to write its own constitution. But as the 1992 election approached, we conceived of holding a 'Democracy Day' to be held a week before the election itself to force the issues of constitutional and democratic reform into a General Election, in an attempt to oblige the Labour Party to respond. Crick felt that this might damage Labour's prospects and made it clear that he'd prefer Charter 88 to close down. He resigned from the Council when he failed to get his way. (We held just over a hundred meetings and made a real impact. Labour also lost. Roy Hattersley blamed the Charter. But the cause was hardly our small campaign - there was an intrinsic uncertainty in Labour's approach; although in no small part this was due to it's ambivalence towards democracy which the electorate picked up in the final week of the campaign.)

After 1997 Crick went on to influence Labour when it got into government through its Home Secretary David Blunkett (who he had taught in Sheffield). Crick wrote a report on citizenship for him and this became the foundation for the current compulsory teaching of 'citizenship' in schools today. But this was an attempt to square the circle, familiar  in recent Ukanian times. I don't think his advocacy of one step leading to another was so ethically original. Effectiveness demands that you also look as the process as a whole, its direction and inner character. Thus citizenship implies the sovereignty of the people defined by a process of law and institutions whose power vis a vis each other is set out in a constitution. We are not citizens in this sense, in Britain, we are subjects. Crick understood this full well, of course. But it follows that you cannot teach citizenship to students and in schools in good faith. Like many of the lessons, the term became damaged goods. In this sense I am not convinced that Crick was a "democratic republican" as Sunder states. A bit more principle and stomach is needed to qualify for what should remain a noble epithet. Thus at the end of his book Marquand has a glorious swipe at how "the orders of a non-existent empire" are still "scattered like confetti over the eminent and safe". Crick took a knighthood in 2002. According to the obituary in the Times Blunkett got it for him "in the teeth of official opposition". The obituary's anonymous author goes on to observe how Crick was both a radical and a Whig craving establishment recognition and concludes in patronising terms "he was not the first or the last British socialist of whom that could be said". Also, like Sunder it opens by claiming Crick as in the mould of G.D.H Cole, Tawney and Laski, about whom this could NOT be said.

In his more acerbic Guardian obituary, Trevor Smith gives emphasis to the "gadfly" side of Crick's life and thought and the frustration of his desire for office and status. Here one has to salute the fact that Crick's ambition for  traditional recognition was undermined by his inability to suffocate his judgement, so that only Blunkett, and then for personal reasons, could tolerate him in the higher ranks of the Labour Party. He was always too prone to the beady eyed retort for the comfort of a Blair or Brown and was never tainted with or seduced by  the airs of 'The Third Way'. To this extent he did indeed retain an independence of spirit that is essential to the democratic intellect. 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData