Yorkshireman Sir Bernard Ingham who died on 24 February aged 90 is best known for being Margaret Thatcher’s high profile press secretary a post he held for eleven years. He was regarded as a highly effective propagandist for the Thatcher cause. But he was not always a Tory supporter, in fact in his earlier life we was an active trade unionist and member of the Labour Party. In the1965 council elections he stood for the Labour Party in a council ward in Leeds, but failed to get elected in what was a safe Tory seat.
He came from a Labour background, his father Garnet was a Labour Party councillor for Hebden Royd Council in West Yorkshire. Young Ingham was secretary of the League of Labour Youth and spent his early working life in journalism working first for the Hebden Bridge Times. He went on to work for the Yorkshire Evening Post and the Yorskhire Post. He was an active member of the NUJ and vice chair of the Leeds Branch. Between 1962 and 1967 he worked for the Guardian where he also reported on industrial matters.
From there he joined the Civil Service where he took his journalistic (and emerging public relations) skills and left the Labour Party. The February 1974 election which saw the return of a minority Labour Government and in October they gained a small overall majority. Ingham joined the new Department of Industry where he won the confidence of its Secretary of State, Tony Benn. Benn held the post from May 1974 to August 1975 when he was sacked by Harold Wilson and moved (reluctantly) to the Department of Energy.
Ingham’s journey to the right started with his move to London. Martin Adeney’s Guardian obituary of him (24 February 2023) states “Ingham’s move to London began his progressive disaffection with the unions. Reporting the Donovan commission in 1968, he began to view them as an entrenched conservative interest with strikes selfishly sabotaging the ambitions of the new Labour government. He was soured by the high living of some union leaders and offended by the tight cabal of reporters around the TUC hierarchy”.
One industrial reporter at that time, Nicholas Jones records his dealings with Ingham when he was Thatcher’s Press Secretary https://www.nicholasjones.org.uk/articles/categories/political-spin/37-spin-by-government/384-how-bernard-ingham-manipulated-news-agenda-in-1984-85-miners-strike. “Having been at the sharp end of the economic turmoil of the Thatcher decade we industrial reporters knew all about the power and influence being exercised behind the scenes by the Prime Minister’s press secretary.”
He goes on to remind us that his obituaries are a reminder of how single-minded Mrs Thatcher was in her drive to tame trade union power and the pivotal role Ingham played during the 1974/75 Miner’s strike whose 40th anniversary is next year.
Jones recalls “…. In the final months of the miners’ strike we spent countless hours waiting in the street for the conclusion of management and union meetings only to find that Ingham was giving political journalists a faster and far fuller account of the latest developments.
“For instance, in January 1985 lobby correspondents were told about the failure of the National Coal Board’s final initiative to get a negotiated settlement some hours before the management had intended to give their response to the National Union of Mineworkers or make a public statement.
“The NCB spokesman, Michael Eaton, asked me personally to discover the precise time of Ingham’s lobby briefing because he blamed Mrs Thatcher for blocking progress in the talks.
“In her autobiography, The Downing Street Years, Mrs Thatcher said she was “enormously relieved” when the negotiations collapsed (because she visibly wanted to deny Scargill a victory).”
Some four years later Jones recalls another exchange with Ingham.
“In full flood, lambasting journalists, the press secretary was a sight to behold. As Mrs Thatcher became increasingly beset by the Conservatives’ split over Europe, and her disagreements with her then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, Ingham was easily riled and an innocent request of mine in the summer of 1989 about how best to interpret Lawson’s latest comments on the European monetary system produced a vintage performance.
“People like you will play games until the cows come home. I get fed up with it, bloody fed up. The trouble is there is too much media, too much interpretation and not enough reporting.
“You may continue with your seductive tones, but they will get you nowhere. The trouble is you can’t manipulate me and that’s a problem for you.”
A suitable epitaph?