I interviewed Dennis Skinner,MP for Bolsover, at the House of Commons in April 2013:
I’m sure I’m not the only person to hear Dennis Skinner sing – but I may be the only one to hear him sing in the canteen at the House of Commons.
We are talking about his mother, Lucy, and how twenty years ago when she was in the later stages of dementia, he would sing her favourite songs to her. Despite her not knowing who he was, she could join in the songs. Twenty years later, this is now common practice in the care of dementia sufferers and Dennis sings one of her favourite songs to me – he makes for easy listening.
I had asked for an interview for our “People Who Changed Their Destination” page given that he started life as a Miner, was eventually offered, and declined, a government post by James Callaghan and remains the Working Class Hero in the House at 81 years old.
I had been quick to clarify, when I first rang him, that I was not a journalist, “Not a journalist? What then?” Clumsily I said I was a Social Worker but before I could elaborate on my work in Social Services, he interrupted disapprovingly “So you’re moonlighting then? “Nooooo” I reassured, “I train Social Workers in their work with families”. I heard an “Hmmm“, and silence followed. I have never had to sell myself so hard as I did on that telephone call “I just want to interview you as part of our ethos that the circumstances of a person’s birth does not have to determine the future” I held my breath “Hmmmmm” he said, “What do you want to know?”
I’d heard a rumour that he was retiring from politics. Note to self: rumours shouldn’t be repeated verbatim as in: “I know you are retiring at the next election and I just want the opportunity that I might not get again”.
“Retiring? Where did you hear that nonsense?!!” I lamely explained that I had read it. “Listen” he said and I did
“There is a Dennis Skinner Facebook Page and a Twitter Page but it’s not me, nothing to do with me, so I don’t know where you got this from!”
Despite spending many an hour in the Stranger’s Bar and the corridors of the House of Commons over the years, I had never caught sight of him before. Taller than I imagined, a handsome man and dapper dresser, he appeared at the edge of Central Lobby to meet me. He looks like the sportsman he is.
We walked to the Canteen and sitting a couple of seats away was a Conservative Minister and Dennis spoke openly, within his earshot, about the Minister’s policy shortcomings. The Minister got up and left. Dennis Skinner is not here to make friends, that much is clear. He has never paired with a Conservative MP (the practice where both MPs abstain on voting and cancel one another out)
Whether you agree with Dennis Skinner’s politics or not, it is difficult not to admire a man that walks his talk in the way he does: donating his MP’s salary while fund-raising for the Miners during the 1972 and 1974 Strikes. He plays down his gesture when I raise the subject “They were relatively short strikes” but he also gave his salary during he year long strike of 1985. So committed is he to his roots that unlike many MPs who came from the North, he appears not to have been “southernised” by the glamour of political life, so much so that even his football allegiances are strictly on the premise that if a Northern team is playing a Southern team then he supports the Northern team, no questions asked.
His nickname, apart from the Beast of Bolsover, is the Incorruptible Dennis Skinner, and if one considers the Seven Principles of Public Office that all Members of Parliament are required to adhere to:
this perfectly describes the MP for Bolsover and may be why people from all parties, who like him or loathe him, would acknowledge that he ticks these boxes.
He is, without doubt, a very knowledgeble and intellectual man and as I must have been off the day they did Latin at my school and had to learn it years later in order that I could teach my grandchildren, he kindly helped me brush up on the rubrics when I asked. And what did he think of Gove’s educational reforms? “He thinks he’s God’s gift to the nation but instead he’s ruining the education of the next generation. He considers that free schools are more important than state schools” Mr Skinner then gives me an update on on what Labour did for education and how he managed to get several new schools built in his constituency. His conversations are mostly about what other people did for the party and the nation – I get an education about Bert Wynne who organised schools for the Mining Community.
Dennis Skinner was a very bright child who got a scholarship to attend what soon became a Grammar School, Tupton Hall. It must have been difficult attending school along with middle class children I suggest. “Rationing was the leveller” he explained “During and after the war, every family was on rations” so there were no fancy outings, holidays and cars that would have contrasted with his poor background. He had a headstart in that he was a very bright child. “I could recite my times tables backwards when I was six but not everything can be learnt by rote” he insisted and I was delighted that he shared my own view that all children can be encouraged to be learners despite any ability or otherwise they may have.
I admire his oration skills, for which he is renowned and he explained that its down to rhythm “Good speakers, like good singers, have to have rhythm – I have always used “rhythm” as an aid: its rhythm, everything in life, is rhythm. If you listen to the rappers, some are very good and you listen to what they say because of the particular rhythm“. I listen to a tape of him again later on Youtube and hear the Skinner Rhythm. I don’t mention the Y word in his presence – Youtube, like Twitter, like Facebook brings the “Skinner Stare” “If I want to communicate, I write a letter – keeps the postman in work“.
Remembering our telephone conversation about Twitter, I ask whether he minds that there are several @DennisSkinner accounts that many people think are legit. “I’m not the type to moan and make a fuss about them. I don’t know what they are saying – its not me. I know lots of MPs who say “are you sure its not you Dennis, it sounds just like you” but it’s not – it’s nothing to do with me“. Later that evening, I checked out the @DennisSkinner account again and see how cleverly the faker has taken on his “rhythm” in the 140 characters. I saw a reply in 2011 from Billy Bragg remonstrating with an insult that @DennisSkinner had made about him and wonder if I should tweet Billy to alert him that Dennis Skinner in reality has no idea of the row.
Dennis Skinner has been suspended from the House on at least ten occasions, the one I remember distinctly is when he called Selwyn Lloyd Gummer a “wart on Thatcher’s nose” and Betty Boothroyd, after giving him three opportunities to apologise, asked him to leave the chamber. The event reminded me of his father who was sacked for refusing to apologise for an insult he made to a Coal Board boss. I didn’t ask him whether he had ever apologised to anyone for his sharp tongue, I wish I had but I didnt.
He is fearless, without a doubt and clearly the opposite of a “career politician” – if he doesn’t believe it, he won’t say it, which is a paraphrase of his response to Jim Callaghan, the Labour Prime Minister who offered him a seat in government that Skinner declined.
Whatever your politics, it is undeniable that the constituents of Bolsover are fortunate to have a Member of Parliament who just does the job and is not seduced by the glamour (and it is an extremely glamorous life no matter what anyone says, if you indulge yourself in the peripheral froth). He hardly ever misses a sitting “if you missed a day down the pit, you didn’t get paid, simple as“. He has no business interests whatsoever outside parliament and arrives at the House every morning at 8am. When I ask him why, he refers back to his days as a Miner “You got in, got your job allocation and then you could get ahead of the game, get your work done – its the same in politics”
We talk about his recovery from both a Heart By-Pass and Cancer and I say that he must have been delighted to overcome them both. He tells me that he was most delighted at recovering from Cancer and that when he got the good news via a cheery “see you again in six months” from the Doctor, he walked back to the underground at South Kensington tube and suddenly realised that he had passed the station, on cloud nine at his good news. He found himself marvelling at the Blossom Trees lining Sloane Avenue as he walked the two miles or so back to the House “I realised I’d been given a second chance at life, and that I would carry on working“. I had an image of him skipping down Sloane Avenue and smiled at what a photo opportuntiy that would have made.
I was curious as to what made him cry – “I have cried when I give the Eulogies at friends funerals who were down the Pit with me or who I have known for many years – it is difficult to get through them without crying, often“.
He speaks passionately about everything, no matter how trivial. I made the mistake of deciding to lighten the interview with innocuous questions such as “Favourite music?” Favourite word? He didn’t think much of these “They’re a bit childish, these questions” but warmed to my wondering what made him laugh: “Woody Allen, Peter Kay, Tommy Cooper, Hancock, Trigger character (actor Roger Lloyd Pack) who I actually marched with, is my favourite“.
Whilst writing up this interview, Margaret Thatcher died. She would have no truck with anything that smacked of “socialism” or he with “conservatism”. I wondered how he would react when I put to him that he and she were alike “People say she was a conviction politician, I don’t think she was. Even if you look at Europe, she had a lot to say about the Treaties but she signed every single one of them. She was one of the first people in British politics to talk about enlarging the European Union – now look at it, it’s a mess. She was for the rich: the gap between the rich and poor has continued to widen ever since she first took office”.
He refuses to attend when Parliament is recalled to mark her death. Ironically, Mrs Thatcher’s description of him as the “consumate parliamentarian” is demonstrated in his determination to put parliamentary business first: “When Anthony Eden died, Parliament went back on the Monday and, after tributes, we finished early” he explains. He makes a speech in the House the day before her funeral that has been hailed across Twitter as “his best ever” and he received more emails in support than he ever has on any other issue, he says. I look it up on Hansard and it is a great speech even if you didn’t agree with a single word:
“It’s almost like history repeating itself. In the mid ’70s I came down on the train and my Whip told me that there would be a few tributes to Anthony Eden and that then the House would finish for the day. I thought “Surely that’s not fair: we are actually packing up because Anthony Eden, who was living in the Caribeean, has died……I had been a miner for 20 odd years, I said that when I worked down the pit and somebody died, four people took him out on a trolley along the rails and they were allowed to go home and the rest of the pit continued to work because people like us had managed to secure a tiny agreement with the National Coal Board to get £250 for the miner’s widow. On that basis, the rest of us went to work. What I am trying to convey is that the people who concern me now are the people out there having to suffer austerity, the benefit cuts and the increasing costs of their own funeral.
When Skinner is interrupted by Nadine Dorries who suggests that “as the body of Mrs Thatcher lays just a few yards away, as a matter of good taste we should call an end to this matter”. Skinner retorts:
“I do not need any lectures from Tories about what they did to Mrs Thatcher, because I remember that night and the following days, when she stood at that Dispatch Box. She had not had a night’s sleep and she was making her final speech in Parliament. Why was she making the final speech in Parliament? It was not because the Labour MPs had put a knife in her back. There is no question about that: a succession of Tory MPs had gone to her in the night and said, “I don’t think you should run again for the second ballot”. That is the truth of it. So, whatever I am saying here today does not compare with the fact that a woman who had won three elections in a row then suffered the indignity of being kicked out like a dog in the night by her own Members of Parliament. That is the truth of it, and whatever I say today is minimal compared to that“.[Hansard Report]
You can hear the Skinner rhythm and the passion throughout. If I sound like an admirer then I am now – for his parliamentary knowledge and his passion for the welfare of the working man. In today’s culture, anyone with a nickname of “the incorruptible” is indeed to be admired .
Dennis Skinner may not know it but the Skinner name comes with a Crest and a Motto: “Sanguis et vulnera” translated as “Blood and Wounds”.
He is a perfect example of a person whose life took a different destination than the one first set out for him. If he had followed his original path he would probably have used his oration skills in union meetings and council committees instead of taking on the high and mighty in the House of Commons.