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Greasy Pole: The Great - Are They Any Good?

Greasy Pole

Interposing themselves among the various layers of hierarchy and the ravages of capitalist society there is a peculiar human stratum which goes under the name of the Great and the Good. Their function is largely self-defined; in their own estimation they serve, they instruct, they resolve. Many - but not all- of them were fashioned in expensive schools, followed by years of devoted study in prestigious universities, to prepare them for membership of exclusive clubs and intimidating professional societies. Every so often they descend to our level to tell us what we are doing wrong and urge us to trust them to put it right. They assume that their very eminence will persuade us to heed their advice.

The boundaries of the Great and the Good are murky, difficult to set. It is probably easier to say who is not one of them than who is. They are unlikely to be found battling their way to work in a bus queue or a sardine tin tube train. Typically, among their ranks are newspaper editors, expired politicians, media personalities, university big-wigs, ex-civil service mandarins and lawyers, especially those who have graduated onto the Bench. They are often on call to newspapers or TV programmes to cobble together some empty pontificating on a current event. Their names are among the first to be thought of when it is necessary to populate some quango or official enquiry charged with blanketting some nasty reality relating to property society. So they infest organisations like the Parole Board, the Press Complaints Council, hospital boards of management. Some of them might find themselves sitting as a governor of the BBC. (When the chairmanship at the BBC fell vacant after the precipitous departure of Gavin Davies an ambitious queue of the Great and the Good formed, hopeful for the job, which yields a pay off of ú81,320 a year for a four-day week).

Ryder and Radley

At this point we introduce Lord Ryder of Wensum, who is plainly among the Great and the Good because he is a governor of the BBC and  its vice-chairman, acting chairman until Davies’ successor is appointed. The Wensum bit of Ryder’s name is a river which provided a natural defence to the unwalled side of the city of Norwich. When Ryder was raised to the peerage he took the title of Wensum because he comes from that part of the country; it is where his family reaped the kind of profits to send him to a public school to begin the education necessary for someone destined to be among the Great and the Good. In fact he went to one of the more modern, less prestigious, public schools - Radley, which was established as recently as 1847 and which may have tried to assuage the shame of not being on the same level as Eton or Harrow by imposing a notably abrasive regime on its unfortunate scholars. One who went there described at as an “arriviste” school where “+I was regularly withdrawn from everyday life for months on end, as if abducted by aliens, and brought here instead. At the time, I blamed the parents”. After participating in Radley’s compulsory Rugby football, its cold baths and punishing long runs in the early morning darkness, Ryder must have found relief in one of the more famous of Cambridge colleges where he could unspectacularly graduate in history.

After that there was an appropriately seamless progress into journalism (at the Daily Telegraph of course) and life as a farmer. But it seemed the urge to give all this up in order to serve the rest of us unfortunates was strong enough to persuade Ryder to opt for a career in Tory politics. Like any new seeker after the higher reaches of the greasy pole, he had to prove his motivation by trying his luck at some hopeless seat. He took two batterings at the impregnable Labour stronghold of Gateshead East in the general elections of 1974, until in 1983 he was ushered into the comfort of Mid Norfolk - which was not only solidly Tory but his home area as well. This agreeable ending was made even happier when, soon after arriving at Westminster, Ryder was singled out for promotion - well, his wife was private secretary to Margaret Thatcher, who was at their wedding - holding some minor jobs before moving to Economic Secretary to the Treasury in 1989. In 1990 he disappointed Thatcher, who had done so much for his career, by adroitly switching sides in the Tory leadership struggle to support John Major, who in his turn rewarded him with the job of Chief Whip.

Bastards and Sleaze

But Ryder’s luck was out for that was not the best time to be a Tory Whip, what with John Major’s  battle with the Euro-sceptic “bastards”, including the unlamented Iain Duncan Smith. (Another of the rebels, Teresa Gorman, complained in her book Bastards about how ruthless the Tory Whips were with them). And that was not the end of the discipline problems, as the party’s MPs seemed to be queuing up to discredit Major’s unwise call to get Back to Basics with a succession of exotic embroilments and underhand deals which have collectively gone down in history as Tory Sleaze. Nothing he had endured at Radley had prepared Ryder for this and in 1997 he decided that enough was enough. He left active politics, became a director of Ipswich Town Football Club (which proved that the Great and the Good did not lose the common touch) and founded and became chairman of two local private radio stations. As he did this he may have congratulated himself on his timing for in the 1997 election his 1983 majority of 15,515 shrivelled to just 1336. In a traditional show of gratitude for Ryder’s devoted labours in lubricating the process of capitalism’s deceptions Major elevated him into a Life Peer, with an appropriate gong - the OBE - to go with it. >From here it was a short, predictable step for him to become a governor of the BBC and, in January 2002, the Corporation’s vice chairman.

It was from that vantage point that Ryder made his grovelling apology to the government over the Andrew Gilligan affair. “On behalf of the BBC,” he snivelled, he had “No hesitation in apologising unreservedly for our errors”. Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell - who have yet to apologise for their “errors” over the 45 minutes Weapons of Mass Destruction distortion - were delighted at Ryder’s fulsome toadying. They overlooked the fact that Ryder was not speaking “on behalf of” the workers at the BBC, who staged an immediate mass protest, nor for the thousands who were outraged by the government’s cynicism and Hutton’s readiness to brush it all aside.    

Weirdo and Watches

So what kind of politician, journalist, farmer, Life Peer, BBC governor, is the Great and Good Lord Ryder of Wensum? A fellow Tory MP - not one, it must be said, famous for being discreetly considerate - described him as weird, quiet and secretive, wearing his watch upside down because the time of day was not a matter for public disclosure (whatever that means). Edwina Currie, perhaps making comparison to John Major, thought him “skinny and youthful-looking+hiding behind owlish glasses, drinking Diet Coke+” He did have one fervent admirer though, at least for a while, in the odious, fascistic Alan Clark, who said he was “+such fun. So intelligent, and has the right views on practically every topic” (although Clark did not make it clear whether these “topics” included Nazi Germany). But as Clark became increasingly bitter about being out of Parliament (ignoring the fact that it was by his own decision to stand down) Ryder ceased to be a subject for his admiration. “I am ‘put out’ by my friends ignoring me,” whined the tediously egocentric diarist of Saltwood Castle; “Especially wounded by Richard. I did think that he was a friend, and I a confidant of his”. Clark’s final opinion, contemptuously approving his wife’s waspish appraisal, was that Ryder was “+just a little accountant+on the way out he scuttled away through a side door”.

But if Ryder was an accountant he was clearly one who could do his sums, as he proved in 1990 when he calculatedly deserted Margaret Thatcher in the hope that he would be better off supporting Major. Thatcher wailed at his treachery:

    It was a personal, as well as a political blow to learn that
    Richard, who had come with me to No. 10 all those years ago
    as my political secretary and whom I had moved up the ladder
    as quickly as I decently could, was deserting at the first whiff
    of grapeshot.

With his kind of credentials, Ryder fits comfortably in the ranks of the Great and the Good. His grovelling apology about “errors” at the BBC and everything about his amputated career in politics implied that the fault lies with the rest of us, for our scepticism when we are confronted with the likes of him and their pathetic defence of capitalism. We might ask, what gives him the right to behave in that way? What gave Thatcher and Major the right to foster him in what they hoped would be his faultless journey up the greasy pole? Such “rights” spring from the basic class structure of capitalism with its minority privileges and will endure with the system. Lord Ryder of Wensum is living witness to the cruel cynicism inherent in that system as well as the confusion among those who speak loudest in its defence.  

IVAN