Sir Bernard Crick

The late Professor Sir Bernard Crick instituted the George Orwell Memorial Trust with the royalties from the hardback version of his Orwell: A Life, one of the definitive biographies of the man born Eric Blair. In 1993, he launched the Orwell Prize in its present form, and served as chair of the judges until the 2006 Prize.

He was Emeritus Professor of Birkbeck College, University of London, and an Honorary Fellow of the Politics Department of Edinburgh University after moving to Edinburgh in 1984. He began his teaching career as a Teaching Fellow at Harvard, taught at McGill for a year before returning to teach at the LSE from 1956 to 1967 and was the first professor of Politics at Sheffield from 1967 to 1973, thereafter at Birkbeck. His publications include The American Science of Politics, The Reform of Parliament, In Defence of Politics, Essays on Politics and Literature, Political Thoughts and Polemics, To Make the Scottish Parliament a Model for Democracy (with David Miller), Essays on Citizenship, and Democracy: a Very Short Introduction.

For many years editor of The Political Quarterly, he was joint founder of the Study of Parliament Group, first president of the Politics Association (teachers) in the 1970s and recently President of the Association for Citizenship Teaching. A Vice-President of the Political Studies Association, in 1997 he became chairman of the advisory group whose report The Teaching of Citizenship and Democracy in Schools led to the introduction of Citizenship in the English National Curriculum. In 2001 he chaired the ‘Life in the UK’ Advisory Group, set up to advise the Home Secretary on the method, conduct and implementation of a ‘Life in the United Kingdom’ naturalisation test, publishing their report in 2003 as The New and the Old. He was adviser on Active Citizenship to the Home Office from 2003-04. He formally inaugurated UCL’s Department of Political Science in May 2005.

Sir Bernard stepped down as both Chair of the Orwell Trust, and as an Orwell Trustee, in May 2008. He passed away in December 2008.


D. J. Taylor writes: Most biographers enjoy fairly short-term relationships with their subjects. Bernard Crick’s association with George Orwell, on the other hand, lasted for the best part of three and a half decades. Having negotiated the immensely tricky obstacle of Orwell’s widow, Sonia, to produce his ground-breaking George Orwell: A Life (1980), which all subsequent Orwell biographers have taken as their starting point, he then devoted himself to a series of projects intended to perpetuate Orwell’s legacy.

Most of these took place under the auspices of the George Orwell Memorial Trust, which he founded in 1980, the contribution from his own hardback royalties being matched by David Astor, Orwell’s son, Richard Blair, and the three papers to which Orwell had been most consistently attached, The Observer, the Manchester Evening News and Tribune. The Trust began by continuing an existing scheme of Crick’s to fund projects by writers whose work Orwell might have been expected to approve, before changing track in the mid-1980s to establish annual lectures in his memory at Birkbeck and Sheffield University.

Then in 1993 came the most imaginative scheme of all – the founding, with sponsorship from Political Quarterly, of two annual awards for journalism and literature. From humble beginnings, and a modest budget, the Orwell Prizes have in recent years developed into one of the highlights of the UK publishing calendar, a process in which Crick himself was intimately involved. In the midst of an exacting professional regime, he worked tirelessly on the Trust’s behalf, zealously recruiting new blood, drumming up support for the prizes and shamelessly soliciting favours from the highly placed friends in whom his address book abounded.

His most striking characteristic, when hot on the Orwell trail, was his disinterestedness. Grand academic eminences very often turn chilly in the face of upstart competition: Crick, by contrast, was a notable supporter of younger scholars and critics, always on hand with encouraging letters and appreciative reviews. Orwell studies is forever in his debt.

Gavin Freeguard writes: Through the Orwell Prize, and throughout his public life, Bernard sought to encourage political engagement – good political thought, and good political writing, for a civic purpose, and for the many and not the few. In an epilogue to his magnum opus, In Defence of Politics, he wrote:

Political philosophy has become an academic discipline of the highest scholarly standards, both in publications and in intellectual debate. But it has become almost entirely internalized. It has lost any public voice. We talk to ourselves loudly and brilliantly. When celebrated break-outs are made, as if political philosophers might have something to say to politicians and to those who act like citizens (a pity the word ‘activist’ is tarnished), then even the style, mental vigour and fame of an Isaiah Berlin would not reach beyond a small intellectual community who are far less politically involved and far less ‘public-spirited’ than in the past. Professionalism now seems to have become an end in itself. Some thinking and writing must always be for the concerns of a profession; but there is something at once tragic and highly comic (in a Swiftian way) in a profession of politics that has so little contact with the activities of politics.

Not that I argue for commitment. That is too easy an answer, and sometimes there has been too much of that… I argue only for relevance and an independent-minded critical engagement, not uncritical commitment or loyalty to a party. ‘A writer’, said Orwell, ‘cannot be a loyal member of a political party.’… Few people now believe that the analytical methods of academic political philosophers should have any relevance to the political thinking of ordinary citizens. This should not be so.

In writing In Defence of Politics (copies of which circulated in the USSR and Pinochet’s Chile) and his other works; in chairing reviews for the Home Office which led to the introduction of Citizenship to the National Curriculum and the Life in the United Kingdom naturalisation test; in teaching thousands of students at Birkbeck, Sheffield, Edinburgh, the LSE, Harvard and McGill; and in founding the Orwell Prize, it was ‘relevance and an independent-minded critical engagement’, and a narrowing of the gap between the profession of politics and the activities of politics, which Bernard sought to promote.

Bernard had many things in common with George Orwell, in whose name he founded this Prize. He was asked by one Derbyshire miner who had read one of his works, ‘Ay, I gets all that; but does thee not believe in anything, Professor lad?’ Bernard’s reply was ‘I am a democratic socialist’, a label that might also be applied to Orwell (despite Eric Blair’s various other self-descriptions, such as ‘Tory anarchist’). But like Orwell, this was not at the expense of thinking critically, of always questioning, of being willing to be contrarian, or defending even unorthodox views with a stubborn passion. He encouraged others to think freely. And he always sought to express his own views simply, clearly and with the weight of understanding and consideration, taking great pleasure – like Orwell – in both his ideas, and the words in which they were expressed.

The establishing of political order is not just any order at all; it marks the birth, or the recognition, of freedom. For politics represents at least some tolerance of differing truths, some recognition that government is possible, indeed best conducted, amid the open canvassing of rival interests. Politics are the public actions of free men. Freedom is the privacy of men from public actions…

Politics is too often regarded as a poor relation, inherently dependent and subsidiary; it is rarely praised as something with a life and character of its own. Politics is not religion, ethics, law, science, history, or economics; it neither solves everything, nor is it present everywhere; and it is not any one political doctrine, such as conservatism, liberalism, socialism, communism, or nationalism, though it can contain elements of most of these things. Politics is politics, to be valued as itself, not because it is ‘like’ or ‘really is’ something else more respectable or peculiar. Politics is politics. The person who wishes not to be troubled by politics and to be left alone finds himself the unwitting ally of those to whom politics is a troublesome obstacle to their well-meant intentions to leave nothing alone.

Sir Bernard Crick
In Defence of Politics