Michael Ryle: House of Commons Clerk who played a key role in establishing departmental Select Committees

 

Tam Dalyell
Thursday 12 December 2013 20:00
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Ryle: 'the thing about him was that he never flapped,' said Robert Carr House of Commons
Ryle: 'the thing about him was that he never flapped,' said Robert Carr House of Commons

Although he was never to succeed to the job he coveted, that of Clerk of the House of Commons, Michael Ryle played a hugely significant role in the evolution of Britain’s constitutional affairs. He was the architect of the increasingly significant Select Committees, and along with his friends, the law professor John Griffith and the political scientist Professor Bernard Crick, was the founder of the influential Study of Parliament Group. His great friend Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth (Clerk of the Parliaments 1991-97) told me: “Michael Ryle should be remembered as one of the great modernisers.”

Until 1969 the conventional wisdom was that important matters ought to be retained for debate on the floor of the House. With the election of Harold Wilson and Labour in 1964 the demand for scrutiny became apparent, but with a majority of five – diminished to three after Patrick Gordon Walker was defeated in Leytonstone – it was assumed that the time for constitutional experiment was not ripe.

My first conversation with Ryle was in the spring of 1965, when he enthused about the Public Accounts Committee, of which I was a member. I observed that I had a high regard for the forensic skills of my first chairman, Harold Wilson, his successor Douglas Houghton and the then chairman John Boyd-Carpenter. “What we need,” said Ryle, “is a PAC to cover all departments of government.” I reported this conversation to Sir Edward Compton, the Comptroller and Auditor General.

“I know Ryle – he’s a bright man,” he replied. “But the PAC commands the full weight of 500 civil servants in the National Audit Office. It is fanciful to suppose that Departmental Select Committees of the kind which Ryle wants, would be able to do what the PAC does.”

However, the 1966 election changed the Parliamentary weather. Labour had a majority of 100; what to do with all these eager new Members, to keep them out of mischief? Ryle’s deft and discreet lobbying found fertile ground. In particular, his imaginative suggestions appealed to Dick Crossman, Leader of the Commons. Crossman overcame resistance from the then Clerk of the House, Sir Barnett Cocks, and much fiercer resistance from the Clerk Assistant, David Lidderdale, to set up the first of the new-style Select Committees, on Science and Technology, under the chairmanship of the electrical engineer Arthur Palmer, MP for Bristol Central.

It helped Crossman and Royle that the minister most directly concerned was Tony Benn, who was the young, imaginative and innovative and did not want bad relations with his Bristol parliamentary partner. Responsibility for Science and Technology was a grey area, straddling Mintech, the Treasury (directly responsible for grants to universities), and the Board of Trade (responsible for the topic of our first enquiry, into the nuclear industry). Ryle advised Crossman where to start, supported by a timely private letter from his cousin Martin Ryle, Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge.

The second Select Committee topic was more difficult. One of the two most eloquent orator-MPs of my generation was Professor John P Mackintosh (the other was Brian Walden), who was to die of a tumour before he was 50. A particular friend of Ryle’s, he clamoured for a Select Committee on Agriculture. He represented the highly marginal seat of Berwick and East Lothian, whose red soil is world famous for its high-quality seed potatoes.

Mackintosh was impatient, and his advocacy of the Select Committee incurred the wrath of Harold Wilson’s Secretary of State for Scotland, Willie Ross. Wilson, passing Ross in the corridor, said, “Willie, I think that man Mackintosh wants your job.” To which Ross replied, “No, Harold, he wants yours!”

Even more volcanic was the antagonism of the Minister of Agriculture, Fred Peart, who asked, “Do you think I want to spend hours answering the questions of MPs above all concerned to enhance their own reputations?” That the departmental Select Committees were not snuffed out in infancy was due to Ryle’s persuasive words in the ears of many MPs, and in particular the impression he made on Crossman.

He was born into a distinguished intellectual family. He told me he felt at home in Westminster since one of his forbears, Rev Herbert Ryle, had become Dean of Westminster before the First World War. Another was Gilbert Ryle, the philosopher; a third was John Ryle, the inventor of Ryle’s tubes, familiar to mechanical engineers. His father Peter was an electrical engineer working in the North-east. Michael attended the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, “as my mother did not want me to attend public school.” Commissioned into the Royal Artillery, Ryle spent his National Service teaching English – “and, incompetently, military techniques” – to the Malay Regiment.

Ryle came back from the Far East to take up his place at Merton College, Oxford, where he read PPE, gaining first class honours in 1951. Joining the Clerk’s Department he was soon identified as a high-flyer. Robert Carr, Macmillan’s first international development minister, travelled abroad on official visits, in particular to India, Ryle acting as secretary, baggage-handler and general factotum. “The thing about Ryle,” Carr told me, “was that he never flapped, and he understood Asians.”

In 1979 Ryle became Clerk of the Overseas Office, and later Clerk of Sub-Committees of the Estimates Committee, earning golden opinions from chairmen as different as the Tory squire Sir Godfrey Nicholson, arch-critic of the Royals Willie Hamilton and the former railway guard Ernie Popplewell. The most skilful chairman I ever sat under, Ian Mikardo, told me Ryle was a superb Clerk of the Nationalised Industries Committee, which he chaired.

In 1983 Ryle was promoted to the key position of Principal Clerk of the Table Office. MPs whose PQs had been ruled out of order can appeal to the Principal Clerk. In the years following the Falklands War I was bombarding Mrs Thatcher and her ministers with delicate questions, some of which were frankly on the borderline of the strict rules of order. That Ryle would usually allow me the benefit of any doubt, to much irritation from “on high”, was a reflection of his belief that inquisitive MPs should not be stifled.

Michael Thomas Ryle, parliamentary official: born Newcastle upon Tyne 30 July 1927; Clerk of Committees, House of Commons 1987–89, married 1952 Bridget Moyes (one son, two daughters); died 7 December 2013.

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