Monday 22 December 2008

Catching up with Crick

Bernard Crick died on Friday; Andrew Gamble provides an interesting obituary in The Guardian.

Bernard Crick made a hugely important contribution to the thinking of the post-war left. In a sense, it was a dissident contribution, unfashionable in its time, but one that the left is still struggling to catch up with.

One way to see this is to return to David Marquand's recent book, Britain Since 1918, which Sunder recommended as holiday reading a few posts back. Marquand - in many ways a philosophical ally of Crick's - identifies four traditions of political thought in modern British politics. They include: Tory nationalism; Whig imperialism; democratic collectivism; and democratic republicanism. The 'left', in Marquand's view, draws mainly on the collectivist and republican traditions, the major difference between them being how much they trust ordinary people to make the best of their own lives given the requisite power and opportunity. The republicans stand for popular participation and the diffusion of power; collectivists for professionalism and the concentration of power.

At a time when the collectivist tradition was in the ascendant on the left, Crick stood for the republican counter-tradition. He articulated his version of republicanism in a number of ways. It is there in his hugely influential In Defence of Politics and in his much more recent, and very impressive, Democracy: A Very Short Introduction. It is there in his biography of George Orwell - still, after almost 30 years, the best biography of the man there is. Not least, it is there in his longstanding commitment to citizenship education as a crucial part of the school curriculum. It was one of his former students, David Blunkett, who, with Crick's advice, helped see this commitment come to fruition.

However, while New Labour has been willing to select a few republican ideas here and there, its basic model of governance is, in Marquand's terms, more like some peculiar hybrid of collectivism and Whig imperalism.

In the face of this, Crick's message remains as urgent as ever. Popular participation is essential to social democracy, because without it, it is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain the kind of the civic culture which social democracy needs. Without it, decisions become the preserve of technocrats and demogogues, and liberty itself is gradually surrendered.

Alienated by some of the faddishness of the 'New Left'(s) in the 1950s and 1960s, Crick might have seemed a tad anachronistic to some of his contemporaries.

But perhaps, at last, the left is ready to catch up with him.

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