Principled Skinner rises above the fray
Dennis Skinner: He is that rarest of beasts – a MP who has never sent an email and only recently found out about Twitter. Yet the anachronistic Dennis Skinner is still ruffling Tory feathers after 40 years in Parliament. Andy McSmith meets him
At the grand age of 80, Dennis Skinner is enjoying his success at doing something he has not been able to do properly for years – annoying a Conservative Prime Minister. Previously Tory prime ministers generally knew better than to rise to the bait when Skinner taunted them. Margaret Thatcher paid a retrospective tribute to him as a "great parliamentarian". John Major amused the Commons and infuriated Skinner by congratulating him on the day he turned 65, expressing the wish that he would learn to smile before he was 66. Seemingly, Edward Heath was fated to be the only Tory premier flat-footed enough to let the man known as the "Beast of Bolsover" get under his skin.
Then along came David Cameron, who seemed to think that a really clever way to put down the veteran socialist was to ridicule him for being old. Replying to a barbed question about the former Downing Street spin doctor, Andy Coulson, Mr Cameron told him: "I often say to my children, 'no need to go to the Natural History Museum to see a dinosaur, come to the House of Commons'." At another session, last month, the Prime Minister ignored the question altogether, and peevishly remarked: "He has the right at any time to take his pension – and I advise him to do so."
Some of Parliament's older MPs were offended to hear a youngish Prime Minister imply that someone should shut up because he is no longer young. Mr Cameron took note and last Wednesday adopted a very different tone. Challenged again by Mr Skinner, a contrite Mr Cameron replied: "My last response to him was a bit more sharp than it should have been and I hope he will accept my apologies."
As far as Mr Skinner is concerned, the apology was pointless because the insults were water off a duck's back. "I don't let that worry me – never have. I think it diminishes him," he said.
He was even pleased when the "dinosaur" taunt introduced him to Twitter. "When Cameron said to me 'you're a dinosaur', several people in Parliament said to me 'you're trendin', Dennis, you're trendin' – and I didn't know what it meant. I know now what it is."
It is hardly necessary to add that Skinner has never tweeted. The list of things he has never done is long and telling. He has never texted, nor used a mobile phone. He has never sent an email, because "it's dangerous". If he needs to reply to an email from a constituent, he writes a letter, and if a reply is required, he encloses a stamped, addressed envelope. It helps to "keep the postman in work".
He has never been on any foreign trips paid for either by the taxpayer or by a foreign government. For about the first 50 years of his life, he never went abroad at all and boasted to a startled Labour Party rally 30 years ago that he had never had a passport. He has one now, but takes his holidays abroad at his own expense.
We met in a House of Commons café, where the Beast sipped a mug of tea, which he had paid for himself. He has never accepted hospitality from a journalist, nor visited any of Parliament's subsidised bars, nor taken a meal in a Commons dining room paid for by somebody else.
"I'm not puritanical at all," he said. "I don't go in the bar because I don't believe in this sloppy embrace, mixing with the Tories and anybody else, and in particular many of the people in the press. I've never been to a dinner that's laid on anywhere. I don't want to waste what few hours I've got. It's not a job where you've got to be here every day: you don't work as often as you do as a miner."
That comparison with a miner's life is revealing. There are a lot of people who do not like Mr Skinner, and not just because of the abrasive way that he tells people what he thinks. They find this self-denial irritatingly self-righteous and question whether it is genuine in someone who has drawn a middle-class salary for half his life. "Far from being a revolutionary firebrand, he's deeply smug," one Guardian journalist wrote of him.
But people are shaped by their early experiences, and Mr Skinner's earliest memories are of hardship and financial insecurity, held at bay by strong family bonds. His early adult memories include hard physical labour at stifling temperatures, 2,400ft below the earth's surface.
His father, Edward Skinner, was a miner who played an active role in the 1926 strike, for which he paid a price when recession set in. During his long periods out of work, his wife, Lucy, kept the family together by doing the washing for the local shopkeeper's wife, while raising a growing number of young children. Dennis was the third of nine.
"When the recession hit, the miners were on initially three and three – they'd work three days and be off three," he said. "They'd turn up at work, and sometimes they'd be sent straight back – and of course the ones that were involved in the union, they'd always be first up the road. Gradually, they started coming back to work round about '35 or '36, though they left the so-called militant group to the end. But I remember my dad coming in when I were a very young child and I heard him say, 'I've got a job at Moreton pit, Luce, on afternoons'.
"That was because Hitler had started kicking the ball about and they suddenly realised that they'd got to grow out of the recession – that's what you do in every recession: you've got to grow out of it. They decided that we needed coal for the steel industries, to build tanks, to build the guns, to fight Hitler. So suddenly even people like me father were back at work full-time."
Mr Skinner was a bright child who won a county scholarship to Tupton Grammar School. His parents hoped that meant he could escape life down the mines. His father once took him to a meeting addressed by the Communist leader Harry Pollitt to stimulate his interest in politics – and it was from the old Stalinist that Mr Skinner picked up some early hints on how to work an audience. "I said, 'he can talk, dad'. Me dad said, 'yeah, he can make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em think and send 'em home happy'. I do it myself, I did it at Nottingham last Saturday night," he said.
But while he was approaching school-leaving age, he was mixing with boys his own age who left secondary modern schools at 14 to work underground, "their hands gnarled with cuts", and he decided to be a miner. He worked at the coal face from 1949 until he was elected MP for Bolsover in 1970 – even going back down underground after the election, because he did not know that MPs are paid from the day they are elected. His new salary, before tax, was three times the old one.
There are just a handful of MPs who have been in Parliament as long as Mr Skinner and only one – the venerable Tory Sir Peter Tapsell – who has been there longer. Even after 42 years, Mr Skinner enjoys annoying Tories. There were shouts of outrage when he barracked Black Rod during the State Opening of Parliament earlier this month and the Tory MP Claire Perry tweeted that Skinner was "a disgrace – charmless, friendless and clueless" – which will only encourage him to do it again.
I was at a May Day rally in Sunderland, in 1981, where Mr Skinner was delivering the main speech. The man next to me said: "He'll be saying the same bloody thing in 30 years. He's the oldest Peter Pan in the business, that fellow." He was not wrong. Dennis Skinner has never changed. He is one of the last children of the 1930s' recession. But eventually the years will catch up with him and he will be gone. We will not see his like again.
Senior MPs: Parliament's oldest
Peter Tapsell, the 82-year-old Tory MP for Louth and Horncastle is Father of the House. He has held a seat since 1959, with only a two-year hiatus in the mid-Sixties breaking his stride.
Ken Clarke, at 71, is the oldest member of the Cabinet. He is the MP for Rushcliffe, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice.
Gerald Kaufman, at 82, is one of the oldest members of the House of Commons. He is MP for Manchester Gorton.
Bill Cash, the 72-year-old MP for Stone, has held a seat in the House of Commons since 1984.
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