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By Nick O’Brien


Everyone at UKAJI would like to congratulate Nick O’Brien on his well-deserved receipt of the Bernard Crick Prize for the Best Piece in Political Quarterly of 2018. His article entitled ‘Administrative Justice in the Wake of I, Daniel Blake’ can be found open-access here.


The Political Quarterly, founded in 1930 by Leonard Woolf, Kingsley Martin and William Robson, was conceived as a forum for discussing social and political questions ‘from a progressive point of view’. As a ‘clearing house of ideas and a medium of constructive thought’, it has consistently eschewed any party-political affiliations. Its recent editors have included David Marquand, Tony Wright (former Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee), and Andrew Gamble. Its list of past contributors reads like a Who’s Who of twentieth-century left-leaning political thought: John Maynard Keynes, Harold Laski, Arthur Koestler, Bertrand Russell, William Beveridge, Ernest Gellner, Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and even Trotsky have graced its pages.

Among its longest-serving editors has been Bernard Crick, best known perhaps as the biographer of George Orwell (with the help of Orwell’s second wife, Sonia Brownell). It was with the proceeds of that biography that Crick in conjunction with Birkbeck College, London funded various causes that would have interested Orwell. The Orwell Lectures are still delivered annually and The Orwell Foundation offers annual prizes for political writing, both fictional and non-fictional (this year’s Orwell Prize for Political Fiction is Anna Burns’ Milkman). Meanwhile The Political Quarterly awards the Bernard Crick Prize for its best article of the year.

These brief genealogical notes are enough to suggest a broad context for administrative justice that lies beyond the strict confines of legal or political science. In its notable work in recent years, UKAJI has been at pains to emphasise that administrative justice is not just a ‘system’, like the civil or criminal justice systems, but instead a set of principles that helps shape the relationship between citizen and state. To that extent, administrative justice is inherently political, in the largest sense of the word, and unavoidably relational: it is ultimately, and quite simply, about the relationships between citizen (and indeed non-citizen) and state.

Bernard Crick’s other celebrated cause in his last years was that of citizenship education, on which he worked closely with David Blunkett when the latter was Home Secretary.  At its core was the message that ‘politics is ethics done in public’ and that just as the achievement of ethical maturity entails education and training, so the political maturity that issues in good citizenship also requires positive cultivation and educational nourishment.

In the era of Hillsbrough, Grenfell, and Windrush, of Brexit, Trump and nascent populism, it is therefore salutary to keep an eye on the prize, to recall the fundamental purpose of administrative justice and to reimagine it as more than simply a system of adjudication and decision-making. The challenge posed by the triangular inter-relationship of Orwell, Crick and The Political Quarterly is one that pits good citizenship and good administrative justice against the corrosion of the public realm and of the fabric of political friendship that Orwell’s 1984 so classically evoked. It is a challenge that invites administrative justice to covet rather more than the mere mimicry of the civil and criminal justice systems – in other words, to avoid some of the pitfalls of legalism and the common law, adversarial mentality.

In 1965 Bernard Crick wrote a piece for The Political Quarterly at the moment when Harold Wilson’s government was planning a new Parliamentary Ombudsman to ‘humanise the state bureaucracy’. He spoke then of his fear that the ombud, despite the fanfare, was in danger of being little more than ‘a gimmick’. His words echo down the years: ‘The ombudsman’s elevation as saviour represents a brand of legalistic thinking more subtle than the old Common Lawyers’ legalism it attacked, but legalism none the less in its hope to turn political issues into matters for impartial adjudication’ (‘The Prospects for Parliamentary Reform’, The Political Quarterly 36 (1965)).

In that warning, there is perhaps a timely reminder that in pursuit of administrative justice there lies the danger of merely substituting one form of legalism for another, of reducing administrative justice to a system of adjudication instead of acknowledging its inherently political and relational scope.  The antidote to the ‘Orwellian nightmare’ rests in part in the small places of administrative justice reimagined. It is in those small places, paradoxically, that administrative justice finds its most expansive vision – a vision, moreover, that has resided for many decades at the juncture where Orwell, Crick and The Political Quarterly from time to time meet.


Nick O’Brien is the winner of the Bernard Crick Prize 2019 (http://www.politicalquarterly.org.uk) and the co-author with Margaret Doyle of Reimagining Administrative Justice: Human Rights in Small Places (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2019)

About UK Administrative Justice Institute

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, we link research, practice & policy on administrative justice in the UK

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