Professor Sir Bernard Crick

Political philosopher

Born: 16 December, 1929, in London.

Died: 19 December, 2008, in Edinburgh, aged 79.

SIR Bernard Crick's contribution to the professional discipline of the study of politics over half a century was second to none. At its 50th Anniversary in 2000, the Political Studies Association named him as one of the five leading contributors to the subject since 1950; it also created the Crick Prize for teaching politics.

Bernard Crick was born in London and educated at Whitgift School and at University College London. Between 1950 and 1956 he studied for his PhD at the LSE and continued his post doctorate studies while teaching at Harvard, McGill and Berkeley. He lectured at the LSE from 1956 to 1967; he was Professor of Political Theory and Institutions at Sheffield University from 1967 to 1971, returning to London to head the politics department at Birkbeck College. In 1984 he officially retired from full-time academic employment at age 55, moving to Edinburgh where he stayed for the rest of his life, devoting himself principally to writing, and to public service.

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Sir Bernard came to Scotland, visiting Jura, in the course of writing his definitive official biography: George Orwell: A life (1980). He "immigrated to Scotland" (as he put it) in 1984 – a date with resonance. He told a student audience in Glasgow, with a typical mixture of candour and humour, that he came to Scotland "because of a woman... and for the climate". The woman (not mentioned by name) was Una Mclean, an old friend with whom he developed a lasting relationship. He explained he referred to the political climate: Scotland at the time offered a welcome haven to "an old-fashioned socialist" from the worst excesses of Thatcherism.

His greatest book amongst many was In Defence of Politics (1962) which inspired a generation of graduate students like me, to study politics with him at Sheffield. The book's message is that politics itself must be cherished as the means for resolving legitimate disagreement between competing interests. Politics may be messy, inefficient, and require compromise, but its only alternative is authoritarian dictatorship, or fanaticism and the resort to violence. This seminal text, now in its 5th edition, and widely translated, is as relevant today as it ever was.

Sir Bernard's conception of politics lay at the heart of his advice to governments at home or abroad – whether he was proposing the reform of the Westminster Parliament; or advising on measures to facilitate reform in South Africa; or assisting in the resolution of conflict in Northern Ireland; or (with David Miller) drafting the procedures To Make the Parliament of Scotland a Model for Democracy (1995).

Sir Bernard came to see Scotland's devolved parliament as having the potential to promote his treasured goal of creating a politically active citizenry, which might produce a more inclusive and egalitarian civil society. It was a lasting regret that his proposal to institute a procedure enabling citizens to initiate referenda was not adopted.

He taught for 30 years that participatory citizenship was the key to democratic accountability and social inclusion. He seized the opportunity to put his ideas into practice when David Blunkett, a former Sheffield student, became secretary of state for education and employment, and appointed him to chair the report on The Teaching of Citizenship and Democracy in Schools (2001). It aimed "no less than to change the political culture" by introducing citizenship, including political literacy, into the schools' curriculum – in slightly different ways in England and Scotland.

He wanted to believe that the Scottish way of the Munn Committee – to embed citizenship across the curriculum – would work, but he feared it would suffer the fate of all non-examinable school subjects.

A second Crick report, The New and the Old (2003), followed when Mr Blunkett became home secretary. This set the terms for naturalisation to become British citizens by introducing ceremonies and the notorious "test" – which inevitably raises questions about how being British is to be understood within the different cultures and histories of the several nations. This was a spur to his regrettably unfinished work on the relations between the Four Nations.

On the subject of Scottish independence, Sir Bernard alleged to be neutral. He believed that the United Kingdom was one of the best examples of an effectively functioning multi-national state. You could be a good Scotsman, a good European and a good socialist without abandoning your British identity, he argued: "Gordon (Brown] had it dead wrong to regard Britishness as cultural". But ultimately the people of Scotland should be allowed to choose.

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Sir Bernard was a publicist who took every opportunity through written and broadcast journalism to gain a hearing. His particular bte noire was populist or sloppy journalism that trivialised and sloganised rather than promoting intelligent and informed debate. Citizens in a democracy should be "sceptical about the claims of their political leaders, but not cynical about the activity of politics itself". The danger was a media that failed to respect the difference.

On this and other matters, Sir Bernard had much in common with Orwell. In 1993, partially funded through royalties from his biography, and with the sponsorship of Political Quarterly (the journal he edited for many years), Sir Bernard set up the Orwell Prizes. These were two annual awards for political writing and political journalism to carry forward Orwell's ambition, which Sir Bernard shared, "to make political writing into an art".

In June 2006, his contribution to politics and citizenship in Scotland was acknowledged by receipt of an honorary degree from Glasgow University, to add to his collection. He was slightly surprised and genuinely delighted at his poplar reception in Glasgow, given that his long standing association was with Edinburgh University, where had he been an Honorary Research Fellow in Politics – now the department of politics and international relations – from his first coming to Scotland.

He was subsequently invited to become Glasgow's visiting Stevenson Professor in Citizenship for session 2006-7. "There's no such thing as a free degree," he quipped. Though not in full health, Bernard's energy and commitment to the series of public lectures associated with the post restored them to the high public profile that they once enjoyed.

It was often said of Sir Bernard that he was a gadfly, who invited controversy. He "did not suffer fools"; he fell out with colleagues, right-wing commentators, and his beloved Labour Party; he expected too much of politicians, ex-students, even his partners in life.

This was the public persona, but only half the man. To those who knew him he was a person of great humanity, loyalty and with extra-ordinary kindness. He worked unstintingly for the public causes he espoused, and was fierce in defending the least advantaged. He was first to aid a friend, or even a stranger, in need. Bernard was also brilliantly entertaining company.

His wit and agile mind never deserted him even in the last weeks of his illness. Amongst the accumulation of notes on his hospice bed, in his now hardly readable handwriting, was Note headed "Volunteers needed for local Hospitals and Hospices". The idea apparently was that young people might volunteer to teach people in his condition how to do "texting" on their mobiles. Another was a letter to the features editor of The Scotsman titled "The Bollards Take Over" – I don't know if it ever reached its destination.

Sir Bernard is survived by Una, his two sons, Olly and Tom, and six grand children.