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

Click to follow
Indy Politics

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.”