Michael Ryle – obituaries

Missed this at the time, as a result of other matters, but in MIchael Ryle, one of the founders of the Study of Parliament Group died last month. There were good obits in the Telegraph and the Independent.  Ryle’s writings were always a useful corrective to those who believed in the decline of parliament.  For sure, he thought things could be better than they were, but he had no illusions about the general direction of travel.  Here, for example, is Ryle on ‘another parliament’:

Imagine the parliament of another country whose function is mainly restricted to debate of government business. Members have little formal contact with the public; there is no broadcasting or televising of proceedings (the Government has restricted radio or television coverage of debates); and the media pay little attention to its work.

The Members are poorly rewarded, with no pension rights and few
allowances to cover working expenses. Few ordinary Members have an office, and very few have personal secretaries, so they have to write their letters in longhand. They have no research assistants and the Library research services are minimal. There are no computers, fax or photo-copying machines.

Debate of Government bills is often lengthy and detailed but few
changes of any importance are made. Members from both sides can criticise the policies and administration of government in debate, but parliamentary Questions are mainly limited to constituency concerns. There are few opportunities for backbenchers to hold Ministers to account. Select committees are not allowed to consider government policy; do not receive evidence from Ministers; are not allowed to travel overseas and make few outside visits. They cannot employ specialist advisers. All their evidence is heard in private and their reports make little impact.

Some notable figures in this parliament have played major parts in
the country’s history and speak with authority, but most of its Members are loyal party supporters who are not politically ambitious, speak seldom, and ask few Questions. For many of them, service in parliament is a part-time occupation. Their main political function is to support their party and dissent is rare. In general, this parliament has a long historical tradition and is generally respected. At times of international crisis its voice is heard and heeded, but for much of the time it has, as an institution, little direct influence on the conduct of public affairs.

That was the Parliament he joined as a clerk in 1951. As he said, and you can read his chapter here, ‘simple factual comparison with the 1950s and early 1960s shows that Parliament – particularly the House of Commons – plays a more active, independent, and influential role in Britain today than at any time for many years. Important reforms are still needed, but the major advances in the past fifty years should not be derided’.