Fred Ridley obituary

When he retired as professor of political theory and institutions at Liverpool University in 1995, my colleague Fred Ridley, who has died aged 91, was the subject’s longest serving head of department (30 years) in a British university. As the foremost British student of West European bureaucracy, he drew on his mastery of the French and German languages. He also edited two of the profession’s main journals, Political Studies and Parliamentary Affairs, using his own judgment about contributions and not bothering with a formal refereeing system.

Fred (known as “Fernie” to friends – his middle name was Fernand) was born in Teplice, in the Sudetenland, the German speaking part of Czechoslovakia, to Josef Riethof (the name was later anglicised) and Gerda Alexandra, both Jewish. In 1932 they left for Britain, eventually settling in north London. Fred attended Highgate school and then the London School of Economics. In 1958 he joined Liverpool University as a lecturer.

There he met Paula Clyne, then president of the Students’ Union, and they married in 1967. Later she was heavily involved in Merseyside’s arts and civic affairs and chair of the trustees of the V&A. She and their two sons, Francis and Dominic, and daughter, Caroline, and a granddaughter survive him.

Both in educational and Merseyside life, Fred was an influential figure. For several years he was chief examiner for British government at A-level at the joint matriculation board. He shaped the school curriculum and won the confidence of teachers for his fair-mindedness and insistence on standards. He killed off suspicions that his subject was a soft option.

As a patron of Liverpool artists, he bought for his own collection and on behalf of the university. He chaired the job creation programme on Merseyside (1975-78) and was a hands-on chairman of the regional Manpower Services Commission.

He was dismissive of the British absence of rules and “make it up as you go along” constitution. He argued that the Thatcher years showed that the British constitution, with its lack of formal checks and balances, provided a poor defence for democracy against a determined government.

Fred deplored what he regarded as the declining relevance of his subject promoting citizenship and better government. He regretted the increasing specialisation and use of technical language which was making public administration less accessible to intelligent laymen, politicians and senior civil servants. It was not enough, he warned, to write just for other academics.

In retirement he read detective novels and probably watched every episode of Inspector Morse. Paula and Caroline cared for him as dementia struck and he reverted to speaking in German or French, as in childhood. When they pleaded with him to speak in English he replied: “I can’t speak English.”

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