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.”

News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
News
people
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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 Consultant - Bristol - Computer Futures - £18-25k

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures are currently...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Real Staffing - Leeds - £18k+

£18000 - £27000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Sales - Trainee Recruitment Co...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester - Progressive Rec.

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Progressive Recruitment are cu...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices