Bernard Crick's contribution will not be forgotten

2nd January 2009 at 00:00

Few people - other than ministers - can claim they have had included in our national curriculum an entirely new subject area. Professor Sir Bernard Crick, who died shortly before Christmas, can claim such an accolade.

He was chairman of the review group into citizenship education that I established as Education Secretary 12 years ago. In this role, Bernard was able to draw together people of different political persuasions and perspectives - from the former education secretary, now Lord Kenneth Baker, to Michael Brunson, then editor of Independent Television News, and many others. His battles with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority left lasting scars on officials in what is now the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Bernard's commitment to an understanding of the world went back to his own postgraduate days and to the work he did on Parliament before writing the seminal work In Defence of Politics - which is worth returning to all these years later, as it has a renewed significance in light of the global financial collapse and the reassertion of representative and democratic politics as a key to protecting people from the unfettered market.

In the late Seventies, Bernard tried to persuade Shirley Williams, then education secretary - who was deeply sympathetic - to forge ahead, prior to the 1979 election, with proposals to include an understanding of democracy in England's curriculum. Of course, it was more difficult in those days - not simply because the Labour government didn't have a majority in Parliament, but also because this predated the more structured national curriculum, which Kenneth Baker was to bring in later.

I first got to know Bernard as an undergraduate, finding my way into academia at the same time as I sought election to Sheffield City Council. This was at the tail end of the revolutionary Sixties. Students were intent on avoiding exams, occupying the vice-chancellor's office and, in general, having a good time. For me, this was anathema. I worked for six years to get to university (having had no qualifications at the age of 16) and I was damned if I was going to throw it away. That made me a kindred spirit with the professor of politics, whom I came to know and respect deeply.

Bernard was a character. Caught living in his office in the arts tower (rather than the flats), he was interrogated by the vice-chancellor, who put the obvious question to him: "But what if everyone did this?" Bernard, who was a political philosopher as well as a committed, active citizen, responded that this was a theoretical question that had never been tested, but it would, of course, involve the construction of rather a lot of accommodation.

Bernard also had hidden strengths that people never saw. His work in Northern Ireland will not be remembered other than by those who were deeply involved in Northern Irish politics and terrorism over the past 40 years. For instance, sitting with him in a Westminster restaurant just four or five years ago, Bernard suddenly looked up as a number of Northern Irish politicians crossed our table and reminded at least two of them that he remembered them from when they were not quite so "respectable". He told me afterwards that they had been members of a paramilitary group that he had dealt with as part of his role providing political advice in the failed endeavour to find a peace process when peace was so far out of reach.

But Bernard was also an entertaining and sometimes infuriating friend. He would always leave me terse messages, more in angst than anger about something that I'd said or done politically. I never quite lived up to his very high standards - expected of an ex-pupil as much as when he was my tutor almost 40 years ago.

Bernard's stammer was one of those hallmarks of a man who could make you laugh and cry almost in the same breath. I got to know him even better after he no longer had to wring his hands over my endeavours as a student, and I grew to respect him as someone who made a tremendous contribution to the political life of this country and to high standards of academic work in the political arena.

As those who read The Political Quarterly will know, he was instrumental in keeping alive the citizenship debate in the long years when the idea of teaching young people how the world around them actually worked, where power lay and how they might exercise it, was considered to be almost revolutionary.

Bernard Crick was one of those people who will be sorely missed by his family and friends, but also by those who really know the enormity of the contribution that he made.

Professor Sir Bernard Crick: December 16, 1929 to December 19, 2008

David Blunkett MP for Sheffield Brightside and former Education Secretary.

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