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Professor Sir Bernard Crick

This is a guest post by Jonathan Hoffman

Professor Sir Bernard Crick died yesterday. A prolific author, two of his books above all will be remembered by students of politics.

“In Defence of Politics” (1962, and five later editions) established his reputation. It argued that however messy, there is no alternative to democracy in normal times:

“When the choice is really between any order at all and anarchy, then it is enough just to govern; but more often the task of preserving a state must be seen in terms of governing well. Governing well means governing in the interests of the governed and, ultimately, there is no sure way of finding out what these interests are, but by representing them in the politically sovereign body; and there is no sure way of convincing people that all their interests may not be realisable together or at once, but by letting them try, letting them see for themselves the conflict of interests inevitable in any state.” (In Defence of Politics, p.114)

The book has been translated into five languages and is on countless student reading lists.

“The Reform of Parliament” (1964) was one of the intellectual forces for the changes in Parliamentary procedure which took place during the 1964-70 Labour governments. In 1964 a group of parliamentary officials and academics founded the “Study of Parliament” group. Crick was one of the founder members. His main argument was that the procedures of the House of Commons were geared towards the days when Parliament exercised real power, but that with the advent of Cabinet government those days were over and Parliamentary procedure needed to change to reflect that. Hence “control means influence, not direct power; advice, not command; criticism, not obstruction; scrutiny, not initiation; and publicity, not secrecy”. Crick’s answer was reforms that would improve Parliament’s ability to scrutinise government and its efficiency and effectiveness. High on his list of reforms was the Select Committee system which is so dominant today but which only began in 1979. less than 30 years ago. Richard Crossman (Leader of the House 1966-68) was a strong advocate of the reforms Crick advocated; Crick called Crossman “the first reforming Leader of the House in modern times”. The televising of Parliament and the office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman both had their origins in those reforms.

More than three decades after “In Defence of Politics”, Bernard Crick was still one of the most innovative minds in politics. In 1997 he was appointed by his former student at Sheffield, David Blunkett (appointed as Education Minister in the new Blair government) to head an advisory group on citizenship education. This led to the introduction of citizenship as a core subject in the National Curriculum. In 1998, he was appointed, again by Blunkett, to chair the committee to devise the test of minimum competence in English language and British culture which immigrants must now undergo before being given permanent residence: the ‘Britishness test’. Lord Tebbit described Professor Crick’s appointment as “one of Mr Blunkett’s rare mistakes”; he said he had “never seen Professor Crick as a British nationalist” and that he “would probably blame everything on the British class system.”

Crick’s concept of ‘integration’ can best be seen here:

“If we agree that integration is neither assimilation nor a society of separate enclaves, then between those two extremes there is a great range and diversity of types of integration. It might be dangerous or restrictive to try to define the term too closely.”

As Trevor Smith’s memorial in The Guardian notes, Crick “would have liked a chair at Oxford or Cambridge, and applied whenever there was a vacancy. But his face did not fit.”

Their loss was certainly LSE, Sheffield and Birkbeck’s gain.

Gene adds: He wrote an excellent biography of George Orwell.