Wednesday 24 December 2008

Bernard Crick: for and against

Stuart White has posted on Monday on the legacy of Bernard Crick. I had also been thinking about and returning to Crick's writing over the weekend.

OurKingdom have published my appreciation, 'On Reading Bernard Crick' which tries to put across how and where Crick's work helped to inform and influence me in several ways.

1. First, his writing much deepened my understanding of and engagement with George Orwell as a political writer.

2. By the early 1990s, the political writing particularly in Crick's essays was an important influence on me. He was particularly among the first writers I read to place the national questions of these islands at the heart of political and constitutional reform, offering an important rethinking of the assumptions and myths of British political history.

3. Over time, In Defence of Politics has grown on me considerably. Though it no doubt speaks to the book's central thesis about the perennial nature of our contemporary discontents, I am astonished that so urgently contemporary a book was written in 1962.

As Andrew Gamble wrote in essay on Crick for the Fabian Thinkers pamphlet:

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

I think Stuart is right both to identify the minority (he says "dissident") nature of Crick's argument in Labour thought, and that this strand of democratic republican thinking could be more influential in Labour's future.

There is also an interesting dissenting note from Anthony Barnett (published below my essay), who was founder and director of Charter 88, and who challenges this high estimation of Crick. Barnett recounts the clash which saw Crick resign from the Charter 88 council ahead of the 1992 election. For Barnett, he was always a party man first, and so put party before civic project, which perhaps highlights the tension in my description of Crick as a 'Labour pluralist' (particularly as Crick was often viewed as unorthodox, unsafe and off message by many Labour figures). I would score one point to Barnett: the idea that the Charter cost Labour the '92 election is absurd, though the leader's ambivalence on PR proved damaging in the final week: one part of the broader public concern about whether Labour was ready to govern, which proved decisive. Beyond the merits of that particular dispute, the question of whether (or how) one can be both pluralist and partisan is important. (Crick consistently placed the emphasis in Orwell's claim that "no writer can be a loyal member of a political party" on 'loyal', and indeed Orwell was a member of the ILP when he wrote that).

Barnett enters polemical territory with his charge that:

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.

As Stuart White is emerging as among the leading keepers of the democratic republican flame in the academy - he is co-editor of a recent collection on the theme, and a short Renewal essay can be read here, perhaps that charge is something he will want to return to in the next week or two.

Though I hope Stuart will giving priority to the mince pies and Christmas through the eyes of a small child - as I will be myself when the rest of the house wakes up - I hope that fleshing out further a discussion on the potential, challenges and perhaps the limits too of democratic republicanism will be something we can develop on the blog after Christmas and in the new year.

1 comment:

Stuart White said...

Dear Sunder, a great post! Very thought-provoking. I will indeed return to the topic in the new year. I suppose an initial thought is that there is a distinction to be made between Crick as a political actor (about which I don't know that much) and Crick as a writer and theorist. Even if Anthony Barnett is right that Crick's own activism fell short of the democratic republican standard (and I am not conceding that claim, merely assuming it for the sake of argument), that doesn't necessarily reveal any weakness in his democratic republican political theory. And its with his writing and theoretical work that I think his contribution remains important and relevant.