Sir Bernard Ingham: The Coalition has turned policy into a PR tool

The Monday Interview: Fresh from his swipe at ‘bovine’ Northerners, an unrepentant Sir Bernard tells Andy McSmith he never understood the Scots and that Cable and Clegg hamper good government

Professional civil servants –even retired ones – do not normally speak so bluntly. Most are reluctant even to disclose which political party they support. For an ex-mandarin to go out of his way to cause waves of offence – by saying that Northerners who do not vote Tory are “clearly demented” – is truly unusual.

But then Sir Bernard Ingham was always an unusual civil servant. He is remembered as Margaret Thatcher’s devoted press secretary, who served throughout her entire premiership and was so identified with her cause that Michael Heseltine fully intended to sack him, had he been able to seize the party leadership. John Major did not need to sack him, because he simply walked away from the job on the day that Mrs Thatcher resigned.

Yet throughout that time, Sir Bernard was employed as a civil servant, not as a political adviser like Alastair Campbell or Andy Coulson.

Mrs Thatcher had not come across him before she entered Downing Street, and probably would not have appointed him if she had thought that a press secretary’s job was of major importance.

It was Sir Bernard who persuaded her that she had to apprise herself of what was in the newspapers and take seriously the practice we now call spin-doctoring.

Before Mrs Thatcher, his political boss was the Labour Secretary of State for Energy, Tony Benn, of whom he speaks with mocking affection: “He’s a sort of endearing national treasure now. I find him quite hilarious.”

The other unusual aspect of Sir Bernard’s story is that he is the son of a Labour councillor from Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, who once ran for a council seat as a Labour candidate and worked as a journalist on The Guardian before joining the civil service.

Now aged 81, he is not in as good physical health as he was, but mentally he is every bit as combative. He is also delighted, rather than embarrassed, by the controversy he stirred up early last week by insulting his fellow Northerners who vote Labour. When The Independent caught up with him, he was intent on compounding the offence

“They’re thick as two planks, aren’t they?” he said, laughing as he spoke. “As I said, it’s bovine stupidity. Never mind, they’ll get over it, when they’ve had a dose of [Ed] Balls.”

While he does not claim that the 2008 banking crash was entirely caused by “Gordon Brown and his acolytes” – which seems a fair point, since the problem began with people defaulting on their mortgages in the US – he repeats the often heard Tory allegation that the UK government’s deficit is a product of “gross overspending”.

But how could it be in the interests of people in northern cities, where unemployment is rife and the state is the main employer, to vote Conservative, when the Conservatives are on a mission to cut back the state?

“Because you would have an economy: you wouldn’t have one with this [Labour] lot,” he replied. “And this is the problem: people get into their minds that there is a certain class of people in this country, ie the Tories in this case, who are dangerous and damaging. I don’t even believe that of a lot of Labour MPs, but I do think that the economics of Labour are potentially damaging, especially in the hands of people like Balls. They think that the Tories are all la-di-da, but the Tories aren’t like that any more.”

Not la-di-da, I interpose, when you could barely take two steps inside David Cameron’s private office without colliding with an Old Etonian?

“The fact that Cameron is alleged to have all these people around him doesn’t mean to say that that is what the modern Tory party is like,” he replied. “Of course there are all kinds of people in the Tory party who are well off and landed, but my point is that they have changed, and changed considerably, and this is why people say so much about the 2010 intake. It is different.”

Yet there are entire large northern cities where the Conservatives cannot even hold a council seat, and in Scotland, where they were once the dominant party, they have just one MP, and used to have none. Sir Bernard’s answer to that is dismissive, rather than analytical. “I have never understood the Scots at all, and I defy anybody to understand the Scots.”

Even the people of his native Yorkshire are beyond his powers of comprehension, with their inexplicable loyalty to the Labour Party. He particularly cannot understand the huge, devoted following that another son of Yorkshire, the former miners leader Arthur Scargill, attracted in his heyday.

“The man was mad. I’d go so far as to say certifiable,” Sir Bernard exclaimed. “And I would say that anybody who has any admiration for him is also certifiable.”

Though his contempt is directed principally at the left, with Ed Balls as target number one, Sir Bernard is not an unqualified fan of Coalition politicians either.

“They are preoccupied with presentation to the exclusion of policy,” he said. “They use policy as a public relations tool. And so much of this is an instant reaction. You become a government of promises you are never going to fulfil, because it’s a reaction to certain events rather than a considered development of policy. Of course, it’s much more difficult for the Coalition Government, especially when you have to cope with men like [Nick] Clegg and [Vince] Cable.”

For the elderly sage from Hebden Bridge, no contemporary politician is quite good enough, and none ever will be, because they will never match the standard set by Margaret Thatcher. For all its limitations, the Tory party was her party, why is why if anyone reading this votes Labour for any reason, it is Sir Bernard Ingham’s settled view that you are either irredeemably stupid, or out of your mind.

Bernard’s bullets

...Scotland: “I have never understood the Scots, and I defy anybody to understand the Scots.”

... the Hillsborough disaster, to a  Liverpool fan: “There would have been no disaster if tanked-up yobs had not turned up in very large numbers to try to force their way into the ground.”

... Margaret Thatcher: “Probably the most tactless woman I ever met.”

... fracking protesters: “They want us all to live in their yurts and wigwams  in pre- industrial squalor.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Sport
football
News
i100
Life and Style
Virtual reality headset: 'Essentially a cinema screen that you strap to your face'
techHow virtual reality is thrusting viewers into frontline of global events and putting film-goers at the heart of the action
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Front End Web Interface Developer - HTML, CSS, JS

£17000 - £23750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Liverpool based international...

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness