Over forty years ago, Sir Bernard Crick, then a young academic, published an essay 'to justify politics in plain words by saying what it is'. In Defence of Politics has been in print ever since, and remains one of the most widely-read and influential discussions of democratic politics in English. Biographer of Orwell; teacher at Harvard, Berkeley, the LSE, Sheffield, and Birkbeck; enthusiastic (and recently successful) advocate of the teaching of citizenship as a subject in British schools; Crick is a lucid, activist, and unpretentious partisan of democratic politics in action. Many of his arguments are highly relevant to the current debate.
Like Machiavelli in his Discourses, Crick argues in In Defence of Politics that whilst there may be an argument for suspending democratic politics in times of emergency, there is no substitute for them when it comes to good government in normal times:
"When the choice is really between any order at all and anarchy, then it is enough just to govern; but more often the task of preserving a state must be seen in terms of governing well. Governing well means governing in the interests of the governed and, ultimately, there is no sure way of finding out what these interests are, but by representing them in the politically sovereign body; and there is no sure way of convincing people that all their interests may not be realisable together or at once, but by letting them try, letting them see for themselves the conflict of interests inevitable in any state." (In Defense of Politics, p.114)
Another theme is that dangers to democracy all too often come not from its outright opponents, but from the confusion of political traditions that ostensibly hold democracy to be the best form of government.
To "socialists", for instance, democratic politics can appear a pointless diversion – "the characteristic danger of socialist parties and thinkers is an impatience which breeds a quest for certainty and a contempt for politics" – and as a result, "they pretend that revolutions, 'transitional periods', 'world in the making' are the normal state of affairs for which their talents are uniquely suited." (In Defense of Politics, p.131-3)
The non-political "conservative" claims to be above politics. He is conserving the essential order of the state against all those politicians, lobbyists, and careerists who exude self-interest and intrude into statecraft. His dislike of any fanaticism may prepare the ground for politics; but he despises politicians. Crick's conservative has mysterious antenna which pick up intimations from the general will or the common good with prescience and sensitivity. The plain truth, however, is that what holds a free state together is neither general will nor a common interest, but simply politics itself.
The most interesting temptation, in the context of the current debate, is that represented by the "liberal" who allows himself to become a-political. "He wishes to enjoy all the fruits of politics without paying the price or noticing the pain. He likes to honour the fruit but not the tree; he wishes to pluck each fruit – liberty, representative government, honesty in government, economic prosperity, and free or general education, etc. – and then preserve them from further contact with politics." (In Defense of Politics, p.123)
Faced with the messy reality of interest politics, the a-political liberal all too often finds solace in a self-contradictory belief in enlightened autocracy:
"The corrupt democratic politician . . . seems a hard case of politics to defend, . . . [b]ut he must be defended against both the liberal prude who shies away from real political problems – him to whom class and ethnic discrimination 'do not really exist' – and against the man who would rather have honest autocracy than corrupt politics. Most liberals, one suspects, would prefer autocracy to corruption, because it is tidier and because it may honour personal virtues more – like honesty and sincerity (in which the liberal places an excessive trust: 'if men were honest and sincere, all politics would disappear' – says the liberal)." (In Defense of Politics, p.126)
Is this the fate of the international community in Bosnia?
In Search of Politics, 5th ed., Continuum, 2000.
Machiavelli: The Discourses, (edited with an introduction), Penguin, 1970.
George Orwell: A Life.