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Politics isn't just about Democracy
on 19 December 2002
Bernard Crick's Very Short Introduction to Democracy is the 75th in the ever-expanding range of OUP introductions (previously Past Masters). Best suited for A-level students, they nevertheless provide helpful introductory surveys or summaries of a range of topics. Kenneth Minogue's Politics came much earlier in the series (8th in fact), but this detailed examination of what is almost certainly the most widely used political concept in the modern world complements it well.
Despite its widespread use, democracy is what might be called "an essentially contested concept" (p.1). Crick makes the point that numerous dictatorial regimes, such as Franco's Spain and Nasser Egypt have claimed to be democracies in some sense. Democracy can be conceptualised as a principle of government, set of institutional arrangements or a type of behaviour (p.5); the three need not go together, and thus even advocates of democracy may have very different conceptions of that ideal. Many band around the term 'democracy' when they really mean good government, constitutionalism, respect for rights or liberty, but Crick is quick to point out the contingencies of these relationships and different understandings of democracy that may operate.
Engaging in an ambitious historical overview, Crick traces the Greek origins of democracy through the Roman civic republicanism, English Civil War, American independence and the French revolution, noting at each stage how the idea develops. In the course of his exegesis, he brings in the ideas of key thinkers, such as Rousseau, Hobbes and a chapter devoted to 'Comme disait M. de Tocqueville'. Discussion isn't wholly confined to the past, however. Unlike some other Very Short Introductions (recycled from earlier material), this is original to 2002. Crick's commentary is bang up to date, mentioning September 11th, New Labour spin-doctoring and, most entertainingly of all, devoting several pages to Big Brother under the heading of popularism.
It's a hugely ambitious project for such a small book, perhaps even over-optimistic. Far more could have been devoted to important issues and thinkers, particularly Aristotle, de Tocqueville and the French Revolution, all of course worthy of books in their own right. As Crick himself notes in his introduction "to write briefly and to try to simplify without distortion an overwhelmingly important but also highly complex matter is more difficult than to write at length" (p.3-5). For the most part, he succeeds admirably, and this book will no doubt serve many well as part of an introduction to politics.
Where he does stray, however, is in a propensity to, if not digress, bring in extraneous information but make little of the point. Too often an analogy or obscure reference is cited only to be almost instantly dropped. It is as if the author were trying to show off his breadth of knowledge, or perhaps more like listening to the rambling anecdotes of an aged lecturer - whose meanderings, while interesting and informative, sometimes obscure the point he is trying to make. The argument, it seems, follows Aristotle; holding democracy necessary but not sufficient for good government.
Overall, this is a useful and interesting book. Helpful for A-level political courses, and introductory university courses too. It's not the last word though - modern debates on such topics as deliberative democracy or e-democracy don't feature at all. Despite some minor pickings though, it's generally good in so far as it goes - a useful overview of the history of democracy - leaving the reader to turn to the future.