'Intellectually tolerant, never'For the late Bernard Crick, trivialisation and apathy were the enemies of politicsComments (4)
Andrew Gamble guardian.co.uk, Friday 19 December 2008 16.30 GMT Article history
British academic Sir Bernard Crick. Photograph: Colin McPherson/Corbis
Bernard Crick, who died today, was one of those rare public intellectuals who wanted not just to understand the world but to change it for the better. One of the great political essayists of his generation, he addressed himself to the general reader and the active citizen. He was one of the longest serving editors of The Political Quarterly and in the 1990s he launched the Orwell Prize, which has become the pre-eminent British prize for political writing. He held academic posts at the LSE, Sheffield and Birkbeck and his books included the classic In Defence of Politics, and his biography of George Orwell.
He described himself as a lifelong gadfly, and was a social and civic entrepreneur in the same mould as Michael Young. He helped launch many new institutions, such as the Politics Association for teachers of politics in schools, and the Association for Citizenship Teaching. David Blunkett, whom Crick had taught at Sheffield, first appointed him to chair the advisory group on the Teaching of Citizenship and Democracy in Schools in 1997, and then asked him to oversee its implementation.
The democratic ideal of government by individuals of high principle who only act for the public good was unachievable, Crick believed, and attempts to achieve it would mean suppressing the conflict of interests arising from a diverse society, and forcibly imposing the public good. He was equally opposed to populism, particularly the trivialisation and dumbing down of the modern media. The debased culture of the proles portrayed in Orwell's 1984 was, for Crick, a modern Swiftian satire on the British popular press. Crick reflected ruefully on the irony of using one of Orwell's most famous creations, Big Brother, as the title of the reality TV programme which represented the tendencies in contemporary culture which Orwell (and Crick) most abhorred.
The structures that can preserve an open and pluralist democracy, Crick warned, had continually to be fought for, otherwise they can all too easily be lost. In his passion for citizenship education he sought to counter the "empty mob" and the "hate-filled mob" of contemporary political culture. Citizens should be active, arguing, discussing, above all finding ways to express their interests and their hopes. This for Crick was the process of political education itself, which is never-ending. In the national curriculum he did not want to confine politics to the teaching of civics, the nuts and bolts of how government works, but to encourage active citizens.
Crick had fierce views about most political subjects, from the Falklands and Iraq to Northern Ireland and presidential prime ministers. His view of politics did not accommodate watered-down consensus. He used to quote Ernest Gellner: "socially tolerant always, intellectually tolerant never". He maintained that no progress of any kind is possible without political argument, political education and political participation, and that to achieve these the political class had to stop talking to itself and engage with citizens, however uncomfortable, messy and less than ideal that may often turn out to be.