Charlie Ellis

Political commentators are prominent in our media and play a significant role in British politics. In this piece, Charlie Ellis looks at the place of academics in the world of political comment through the work of one of the most significant figures in British Political Studies, Bernard Crick.

At a time when former political commentators Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are at the summit of UK politics, the influence of the commentariat in our politics seems stronger than ever.  The last 30 years or so have seen an expansion of  the  ‘opinion space’ through the expansion of opinion-led radio and television channels and, of course, social media. While there’s little doubt that British political commentary is lively and combative, it’s not clear that this is always good for our politics. Many see the world of comment as one dominated by contrarians and immoderate polemicists engaged in overheated ideological tussles. As such, the sphere of political comment is seen as one of the debilitating forces contributing to political and social polarisation.


There is little doubt that the commentariat plays a role in transmitting ideas and promoting narratives about politics.  It is often the way in which political ideas enter the public bloodstream.  Boris Johnson was previously a prominent journalist and member of the British commentariat.  In his role as the Telegraph’s Brussels’ correspondent in the early 1990s  he played a significant role in the promotion of the Eurosceptic narrative that has, since 1992, been an increasingly central theme of the British conservative movement. Political commentators are significant ‘influencers’ in our politics.


The recent travails of the Johnson government might illustrate the limitations of political commentators. That, while political commentators make great political campaigners and narrative formers they are ill suited to the more demanding task of governing. In politics, the grand rhetorical flourish needs to be followed up by the implementation of coherent policies. Will the delivery of the government's ‘levelling up’ agenda match the rhetoric?


The attitude of academics towards political commentators is an uneasy one. While the influence of political commentators is widely recognised, there can sometimes be a dismissiveness. Academics often use quotations from political commentators to spice up a paper or conference presentation to illustrate the muddled, simplistic thinking that -it is believed- pervades the public sphere. From this perspective,  the commentariat, by its nature, is simplistic and corrosive of politics. 


This view was expressed by one of the key figures in the evolution of British Political Studies,  Bernard Crick (1929-2008). Crick believed that the ‘plausible simplicities’ peddled by political commentators produced a degraded public sphere and politics. Crick believed that simplistic political commentary helps give rise to populist sentiment, a ‘politics of arousal more than of reason’ and a ‘politics of diversion from serious concerns’. According to Crick, there was a lack of depth and seriousness to the commentators’ work which often seemed to be written ‘from the top of their heads’, with little research involved.  


However,  despite his harsh criticisms of political commentary, Crick was himself a prolific commentator on politics in the broadsheet press and ‘pungent polemicist’. From the 1960s onwards Crick contributed to a range of newspapers and political magazines, attempting to reach the ‘general educated reader’. Crick took the world of comment seriously, believing that it was a duty of academics to contribute to that sphere and raise the standard. They could add nuance, veracity and perspective to media discussion. For Crick, his journalism was not an adjunct to his academic work but  part of his conception of citizenship, which required a well informed public. He felt that they were being ill served by the commentariat.


Crick’s political journalism was far from airy pontification but drew on his knowledge of political ideas and concepts and his own practical engagement. For example, his writings on South Africa and Northern Ireland were informed by his long involvement in conflict resolution in both countries. This is where Crick’s political commentary rose above much of that produced by the commentariat.


While it is fairly common for academics to contribute to the comment pages and the media more generally, Crick did it far more than most. It is something he almost did by impulse. His argumentative and disputatious character made him ideally suited to the genre. Crick described himself as a moderate but he was a particularly ‘truculent’ one. As his student and friend David Blunkett  has commented, Crick was often ‘deliberately provocative’. Articles with titles such as ‘To Hell with ‘the Students’’ and ‘The growing threat from Scotland’, and ‘Big Brother belittled’,  look like classic clickbait!  It is easy to imagine Crick being very active and disputatious on Twitter—and his name trending with regularity, particularly on the themes of multiculturalism, sovereignty and university politics.


Crick’s conception of politics remains relevant. It has influenced a number of recent attempts, by leading figures within British political studies, to defend politics as an activity. Works by Andrew Gamble, Colin Hay, Matthew Flinders, Meg Russell and Gerry Stoker among them.  The thoroughgoing critique of populism, central to much of Crick’s political writing, has given his work a sharp relevance in the era of Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, Orban, et al. But what about his engagement with the world of journalistic comment ? Is this an example contemporary academics should follow?


Crick belonged to a very different academic world. It’s hard to believe that his equivalent today could devote so much energy to journalism. Indeed Crick, on occasion, regretted spending so much time on his ‘casual journalism’ and that he failed to produce a significant work of political theory to follow up In Defence of Politics. His career was littered with uncompleted books (including his proposed history of Political Quarterly and his book on The Four Nations). For some academics, Crick’s career could act as a cautionary tale regarding engaging in the public sphere with such gusto.


Even if contemporary academics wish to enter this sphere, do they have the necessary tools? Not all academics have Crick’s fluency and flair as a writer. Crick’s immodest claim that he could ‘write better than nearly all social scientists’  is given some substantiation by his journalism. Crick regularly grumbled about academic prose and the  ‘internalised dialogues of the ivory tower’ and he latterly became alienated from academia. The need to communicate ideas in clear terms was one of Crick’s recurrent themes and lay behind his biography of Orwell, his long relationship with Political Quarterly and his role in setting up the Orwell Prize for political writing.


Behind Crick’s promotion of good political writing was a concern that academics were failing in what Flinders terms the ‘art of translation’; to ‘promote the findings and benefits of the discipline beyond academe’.  Crick was always interested in ‘the relations between theory and practice’ and spent his career trying to make an impact. His journalism was central to this. Though Crick would have repudiated the whole audit framework, his work achieved a lot of ‘impact’.


Many of those in the British Political Studies community have followed Crick into the public sphere. For example, John Curtice has been a fixture in the British media for many years while Anand Menon and his colleagues at UK in a Changing Europe  have been prominent in coverage of Brexit. Tim Bale, Matthew Goodwin, Philip Cowley and David Runciman are among those who also feature regularly in the media, offering political commentary. Despite their efforts, the quality of public political discourse in the Brexit era would have appalled Crick. He would no doubt have written many pieces questioning the concept of sovereignty employed by Brexiteers. Though a man of the left he would have pungently critiqued the excesses of the Corbynistas. He would have chastised many commentators and politicians for their regurgitation of ‘plausible simplicities’. On examining our current political discourse and the ‘culture war’ that so dominates the comment pages of certain newspapers, he might well have uttered his dictum that ‘the attempt to politicise everything is the destruction of politics’.


The expansion of the opinion space is only set to continue. Phalanxes of political commentators sit ready to give their ‘hot takes’.  From Crick’s perspective, the need for academics to engage in the opinion space has therefore become more urgent. If not, nuanced and informed political discussion will be drowned out by the noise.


The author is currently working on a book on British conservatism for Edinburgh University Press.