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Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Fry

Colleagues will be sorry to learn of the death, on 21 May 2023, of Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Fry, former Professor of British Government and Administration. The following tribute has been contributed by friend and colleague, Emeritus Professor Kevin Theakston.

Geoffrey Fry was born in Bristol and spent his early years on the Isle of Wight. By his own account, he had a ‘very happy youth’, centred on ‘films, football, fish and chips and family’, as he recounted in his book, Bury My Heart at Fratton Park (2013).

A working-class grammar-school meritocrat, he did his two years’ National Service in the RAF in the mid-1950s, serving in Aden, before taking his BSc (Econ) and PhD degrees at the London School of Economics.  He joined the staff of the University of Leeds in September 1966.  In his thirty-seven years of service at Leeds, he established himself as a leading academic authority on British public administration and the Civil Service (in which, as a young man, he had for a while worked at a junior executive officer level).

In a series of books Geoffrey Fry made a major contribution to the historical study of the British Civil Service. Starting with Statesmen in Disguise (1969), which was based upon his PhD thesis, and continuing with The Administrative 'Revolution' in Whitehall (1981), The Changing Civil Service (1985), Reforming the Civil Service (1993), and Policy and Management in the British Civil Service (l995), he trenchantly analysed the development of the administrative class of the Civil Service, and incisively reviewed the Whitehall reorganisations and reforms of successive governments. Another book of his, The Growth of Government (1979), an ambitious multidisciplinary work, related the development of the functions and the machinery of government to changing ideas about the role of the state since 1780.

An indefatigable researcher and writer, with a prolific journal output, his work was justly acclaimed as detailed, authoritative and comprehensive. Not only one of the best-informed scholars of the British Civil Service, Geoffrey Fry was also notable for his intellectual independence. He did not follow fashion or parrot the conventional wisdom but expressed his own views with rigour and determination. But while not pulling any punches when evaluating and criticising the Civil Service, he earned its respect as a scholar. Indeed, the Secretary to the Cabinet granted him special access to official files (within the period of what was then the ‘30 Year Rule') to write his meticulous and definitive account of the work of the Fulton Committee (published in 1993).

Having been promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1984 and Reader in 1990, Geoffrey Fry was appointed to a personal chair as Professor of British Government and Administration in 1994. His historical scholarship earned him election as a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2000. On retiring in 2003 he was awarded the title of Emeritus Professor.

His scholarly work continued in retirement with the completion of a three-volume study covering British politics in the 1931-1990 period. This project had started with The Politics of Crisis, published in 2001, and continued with The Politics of Decline (2005) and The Politics of the Thatcher Revolution (2008). Challenging the conventional wisdom and existing interpretations of, and myths about, modern British political history, these three books were characteristically detailed, incisive and thought-provoking analyses of domestic and foreign policies and of political developments and key personalities in 20th century Britain. There was a personal angle to his historical work in that, always his own man, it had seemed to Fry that, by the end of the 1960s the Keynesian order had broken down and that, in the coming contest for the succession, economic liberalism rather than socialism would eventually become the ruling order in British politics. Almost everybody else in university life and the wider commentariat, he wryly noted, thought otherwise. He eventually turned out to have been right but admitted that he himself had never been an economic liberal and, unlike many academics who wrote about politics, he never belonged to any of the ‘political tribes’. In relation to the Thatcher revolution itself, he described himself as ‘an untrue believer’.

Geoffrey’s retirement also saw the publication of his engaging and very personal account of supporting Portsmouth Football Club, through thick and thin, over sixty or more years (Bury My Heart at Fratton Park) and of a series of novels, published under a pseudonym, which were in some way loosely shaped by his own working-class upbringing, relationship and work experiences, and passion for classic cinema. There were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in these novels, and some to wince at, and also some acute analysis of class, time and place in British society over the post-war decades.

An outstanding academic researcher and writer, and an enthusiastic and popular teacher, Geoffrey Fry was respected and admired by colleagues and students alike, as warm eulogies at his thanksgiving service confirmed. What also stood out was his integrity, sense of humour, and capacity for warm personal friendship.

Geoffrey is survived by his wife Heather, who at the time they first met was also on the academic staff at Leeds, his three children Kate, Richard and David, and by his grandchildren.  The funeral service was held on Tuesday 13 June 2023 on which day the flag on the Parkinson Building was flown at half-mast in his memory.