Early life and education
According to his autobiography, Donoughue was born into poverty. He is the son of Thomas Joseph Donoughue and Maud Violet Andrews. He was educated at Campbell Secondary Modern School and Northampton Grammar School. He studied at the University of Oxford, first at Lincoln College, where he obtained 1st class honours in Modern History in 1957, then at Nuffield College, where he graduated with a D. Phil. on the American Revolution. The early stages of his research were pursued as Charles and Julia Henry Fellow at Harvard. Donoughue moved into an academic career at London School of Economics (Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, and Reader: 1963–1974).
Donoughue went into politics to be "associated with Labour governments which defended the interests of working people and underprivileged people." Always at the centre of London, the capital and of politics, education and business, Donoughue was a member of the editorial staff of The Economist in 1959 and 1960 when a young Labour activist supporting Hugh Gaitskell. He was senior research officer of the Political and Economic Planning Institute between 1960-1963. For a long time a lecturer close to young people, he was asked by the Wilson government to join the founding Sports Council, an advisory body to harness amateur physical recreation. Twenty years later he would make his first speech in the Lords on Sporting Events (controls) bill.
Wilson took notice of Donoughue's communication skills, displayed in his career at the London School of Economics and in his journalism, when he was appointed head of the policy research unit on 2 December 1976, after two years on the staff. Two years before there were a flurry of questions in both houses about whether these unaccredited "political" advisers were paid from public funds. Wilson expanded the department in No.10 who had a profound influence like never before on policy formation. For the first time the Official Report published the salaries; and as being part of the Civil Service department.
He continued to head the team under Wilson's successor, James Callaghan, and he held the office until the defeat of the Labour Party in 1979. He was an admirer and close friend of Callaghan, whose relaxed 'beer and sandwiches' approach to political interaction contrasted to the intensity of successive prime ministerial conceited wisdom that demanded heavy studying. Donoughue was something of an apologist for the Callaghan administration at a time when trade union leaders conduct of industrial relations threatened to put the Tories into office.
Out of government from 1979 to 1981, Donoughue was development director of the Economist Intelligence Unit, and in 1982-83 was assistant editor of The Times until his dismissal by a new right-wing owner Rupert Murdoch. He gave his opinion in an interview with the New Statesman:
Donoughue was at the Times during Rupert Murdoch’s takeover and in his first year as proprietor, and he holds the media mogul responsible for what he dubs "a diminution in the values of our society". News International were in the throes of a business revolution in Fleet Street: at its hub was the end of a closed shop for the skilled craftsmen of the print 'chapters' who zealously guarded their trade secrets. Murdoch's actions broke up the old union grip on the news print media; former journalists like Tony Benn were incensed but the Labour party were helpless to resist the changes from opposition. At the time he lived in Hampstead & Highgate where John McDonnell was the party's candidate for a seat won by the Conservatives in the 'landslide' election of 1983. A notorious gossip with the 'great and the good', his venomous ridicule for Murdoch extended to recruiting the moral support of royalty as the prospect of a New Labour grew ever closer.
Donoughue was also chairman of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1991, patron from 1989 to 1995, and has been an associate since 2000. Around this time, he was also one of the sources inside Whitehall used by the writers of the comedy series Yes Minister, the other one being Baroness Falkender.
He was head of research and investment policy of Grieveson Grant and Co Stockbrokers from 1982 to 1986 and head of international research and director of Kleinwort Grieveson Securities Ltd from 1986 to 1988, a branch arm of the investment bank. Following this, Donoughue was executive vice-chair of LBI from 1988 to 1991, director of Towcester Racecourse Ltd from 1992 to 1997 and was made an honorary fellow of LSE. From November 1995, shortly after the Euro sceptics had been defeated by the Major government, Donoughue, still a staunchly Labour peer was appointed to the Lords Works of Arts committee. He was not removed from this duty when a different civil dispensation came to power in 1997, until a clash with the New Labour leadership, but he was later appointed a trustee of the Victoria County History.
Donoughue helped found the British Horse Industry Confederation in 1999 and was a Consultant Member until 2003. This coincided with appointment that September with co-option onto the joint Lords and Commons committee tasked with the responsibility of drafting a new Gambling bill. The outcome would be the licensing of so-called Big Casinos and a general release of universal internet betting rights. On 22 Dec 2015 he declared a gift to the bookmakers union. The radical change to the status quo proved a revolution in working people's experience of gaming that would indirectly cause remedial action on payday loans.
He was a visiting professor of Government at LSE from 2000 to 2011/2012.
Donoughue became chairman of the SPRC when it was founded in 2003, and as of 2016 was still in that role. The SPRC is a non-profit organisation operating on a cost recovery basis that
House of Lords
On 27 May 1985, he was created a life peer as Baron Donoughue of Ashton in the County of Northamptonshire. He was at his best in the Lords praising the work of government with some eloquence. But he was not at his best on the trade debates, wrongly predicting the permanent decline of North sea oil in 1985; but correctly on the longer-term collapse of manufacturing, and the failure of the Finniston Inquiry that he had helped to set up at the department of Trade. But he made a plea for a "better educated and skilled workforce" that might have presaged New Labour. He accused the oil industry of profiteering, rather than passing on "beneficial translation" to the consumer. Much of the fault lay with the compulsory signatories to the Official Secrets Act.
An active Life Peer he was an Opposition Labour spokesman for Energy, Heritage and Treasury matters from 1991–92. In 1997, Tony Blair appointed him a junior minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in which role he served until 1999. "A strong belief in maintaining a rural community in this country...the heritage of the country.". "I am antique Blue Labour", he remarked; his friends being Dr Cunningham and Jeff Rooker who were in the same department; being from solid working-class backgrounds they held similar beliefs, which was useful given as Donoughue himself admitted on his appointment he knew nothing about agriculture. He later joined the Countryside Alliance against New Labour's policy on Hunting with Dogs, the Foot and mouth disease outbreak and the sofa politics of No.10. In his advocacy of full checks and balances of Cabinet government that take time to work through policies, he deplored the messianic qualities of the Blair administration and a tendency towards authoritarianism that catapulted Britain into desert wars in the middle east and came to dominate the agenda. Donoughue was a partisan of the Wilson and Callaghan era, in which he started a political career, who he claimed were real Labour people; the contrast with Blair's aloofness towards real people he believed was detrimental to the democratic processes of Whitehall governance.
An unashamed fan of the Yes Minister series, he found a soulmate in Michael Heseltine "disappearing down the hall" as if the machinations of the programme were imbued with the falsity of serial humour. Lord Donoughue opposes the hard left of the Labour Party. In a 2016 interview he concurred with the belief that Mrs May "had common sense" and he wished the Labour leadership also had some of that. The first edition of his Westminster Diary was published in August 2016. 
- Bernard Donoughue and Janet Alker. Trade Unions in a Changing Society. London: PEP, 1963.
- Bernard Donoughue. British Politics and the American Revolution: the path to war, 1773–75. London: Macmillan, 1964.
- W. T. Rodgers; Bernard Donoughue. The People into Parliament: an illustrated history of the Labour Party. London: Thames and Hudson, 1966.
- Bernard Donoughue and George William Jones. Herbert Morrison: Portrait of a Politician. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973. ISBN 9780297766056
- Bernard Donoughue. Prime Minister: Conduct of Policy Under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, 1974–79. London: Jonathan Cape, 1987. ISBN 9780224024501
- Bernard Donoughue. The Heat of the Kitchen: an autobiography. London: Politicos, 2004.
- Bernard Donoughue. Downing Street Diary: Volume 1 – With Harold Wilson in No. 10. London: Jonathan Cape, 2004. ISBN 0224040227
- Bernard Donoughue. Downing Street Diary: Volume 2 – With James Callaghan in No. 10. London: Pimlico, 2009. ISBN 1845950941
- Bernard Donoughue. Westminster Diary: A Reluctant Minister under Tony Blair. London: I.B.Taurus, 2016. ISBN 1784536504
- Bernard Donoughue. Westminster Diary Volume 2: Farewell to Office. London: I.B. Tauris, 2017. ISBN 1784539465