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Saturday 12 December 1992
Profile: The beast that roars from the pits: Dennis Skinner MP, incorruptible class act
To enter the House at 38 with a safe seat could have been the starting point of an ascent to the higher reaches of political power. But Skinner started with a number of defining beliefs. One was that power, and acquiring it, corrupts, and, as even his worst enemies will acknowledge, he is absolutely incorruptible. There were to be no compromises, no bribes, no favours: he will not even take a cup of coffee off the Morning Star. If he had an ambition for power, it was for Labour Party power: he has fought a long, losing battle on the National Executive Committee against the drift to the right. In Parliament, he was committed to remain among the proletariat.
It is not easy to shine as a backbencher of an opposition party, but, like the old hoofers and troopers of the northern variety circuit, Dennis Skinner has worked hard to perfect a performance whose style rarely betrays his acute understanding of professional truths.
First, you secure yourself a good position on the stage. Over the years he has worked his way to a prime site on the front bench, below the gangway. It is the perfect seat from which to harry the front bench opposite. Just above his head is a microphone - which means that when he intervenes without being called by the Speaker his witticisms are clearly audible.
Next, he is always there: he is consistently recorded as the MP who votes most and invariably attends the high-profile afternoon debates. When not in the chamber, he spends hours in the library, gathering ammunition for the next skirmish.
Finally, you have to be memorable. No trouble with that one: if he were not remembered for his wit, he would be remembered for his rudeness - which has led to several expulsions from the House and made him the darling of the parliamentary sketch writers - or for the relentlessness with which he will pursue his quarry by all procedural means.
Some Labour members can be brought to the brink of apoplexy by the mention of his name. 'He's just a show-off, a knockabout turn,' said one Labour MP. 'And a bully.' Ask his friends if that's true and the denial is neither swift nor absolute. 'He has a robust style,' said Bob Cryer, MP for Bradford South, after a pause. 'And you have to have your wits about you when you engage him in argument. But he's absolutely consistent. Nothing false whatever.'
'I didn't expect to like him,' said Ken Livingstone, 'because of the aggression. But, in fact, he's a really cuddly person, though he'll probably sue me for saying so.' Another prominent Labour MP said: 'I have enormous respect for him, but my reservation is that he's a very good hater and I don't like hate as a political weapon. I remember once that he said he was 'prepared for his socialism to hurt him'. There's something rather self-consciously hair-shirted about it.'
script of Dennis Skinner's early life could have been taken from one of those grimy British films of the Sixties: poor Derbyshire miner's son, born in 1932, the third of nine children, to a staunch trade unionist who was victimised after the miners' strike of 1926 and a mother who took in washing; a childhood divided between playing on the coal tips and roaming the local woods for chestnuts and blackberries while mother, despite her heavy load, sang old music hall songs to her children and father talked the politics of the class struggle over the meagre meals; bright lad gets to grammar school and university beckons, but he gives it all up at 16 to go down the pit, because that's where his mates are.
In the movie, it would end in gritty tragedy, because then, at least, it was beyond the imagination of British movie makers to create a working-class hero who would not be broken by the betrayals implied in social ascent. It takes Skinner to write the real script.
The first rule of this kind of script is, the Hero is Always Right. No doubt or ambivalence, just the certainty that exploitation is universal and the struggle against it eternal. When the young Dennis went down the pit at Glapwell Colliery, he entered a world in which solidarity was a condition of survival. He has behaved that way ever since.
The second rule is that the Exploiter will try to break the Working-class Hero by every means available: if co-option fails, force will be used. His father was sacked from the mines for his role in the miners' strike of 1926, then re-employed in the late Thirties when war was in the offing. He was sacked again in the late Fifties, when, as the miners' delegate, he told the manager 'a few things' that were on the men's minds. He was invited to apologise or lose his job. 'Apologise?' he replied. 'It would be like putting me head in t'oven.' Shortly thereafter, Dennis was elected delegate in his father's stead. He did not mistake the message.
There is a third rule: cockiness is class treason. You can be as arrogant as you like in attacking the Tories, but never claim personal credit for any achievement. Little Dennis was clearly clever: he used to chant his times-tables backwards, 'just to show the other that it weren't that difficult', and recite poems the moment they were up on the blackboard; he passed the 11-plus at nine and a half and went to grammar school at 10. But he deprecates this as 'just having a decent memory'. If asked what achievement in politics makes him proud, he will snort that a socialist can't achieve anything on his own. When his mother was invited by a reporter to express her pride in Dennis, she said, in no uncertain terms, that she had seven sons and treated them all alike. Dennis was proud of that.
When he spurned university he did not know there would be a second chance. But Dennis, though this must only be whispered, was a young man of talent and a leader. In 1964, he became the youngest ever president of Derbyshire National Union of Miners. Had history taken another course, it might have been Dennis Skinner, rather than Arthur Scargill, who led the titanic struggle for the future of coal mining in the Eighties - and things might have turned out differently.
As it was, in 1969, after a man from the BBC had been spotted touting for the rock solid Labour seat of Bolsover, the miners decided they wanted Skinner to be the candidate. They decided, he insists, not him: 'I never put my name forward.' It was not much of a fight, and once elected, he clearly had a job for life. But on the Monday following the election, he turned up at the pit as usual. 'I didn't know when Parliament started to pay my wages,' he said later.
His father gave him some advice. 'It's just like going to the pit, lad. Examine the workplace and keep an eye on them that's down there.' The first week Dennis had spent down the pit, he had started to learn the Mines and Quarries Act. On his first day in the House of Commons, he started to learn Erskine May, the bible of parliamentary procedure.
It is part of his defining beliefs that the People's Representative should never try to be liked - and certainly not by the class enemy. He was there to harass the Tories, not to come to cosy pairing arrangements that allowed them, as he put it, to swan off to Ascot. Nor, famously, does he hang around the Westminster bars: he has long suffered from a duodenal ulcer that stops him drinking, but the medical explanation has not prevented him making a moral point. If a miner can't drink and work, he says, nor should an MP.
If he was to remain a backbench MP, fighting for the working class against the hordes of exploitation and corruption, he was going to make a job of it. He was helped by a physical fitness that he developed as a cross-country runner and sustains by a passion for cycling. His other great gift could have led him in a different direction entirely: he had been celebrated for his stage imitations of celebrity crooners - Al Jolson, Frankie Lane - and once dreamt of a show business career. At Westminster, with the arrival of television, he was to get one.
Dennis Skinner, no doubt to his relief, is in no danger of suffocating under the affection of his own front bench: he is too awkward for that and makes no secret of his contempt for Filofax Socialism. The front bench's problem is that Skinner is, as Jeffrey Archer is for the Tories, a crowd puller, one of the few who can pack 300 people into meetings up and down the country.
There is every reason to suppose that he is a man content with his choices. Within his chosen role, there are achievements that others, at least, can credit to him. Since his youth, neither his politics nor his tastes - he married in 1960 and has three children and a Lawrentian passion for countryside and horticulture - have shifted. At 60, he risks no accusation of treachery, but there is another, awful danger: he runs a high risk of popularity, of becoming a kind of national pet.
When he lost his seat on the NEC this year, he consoled himself with the thought that the televising of Parliament had brought him a bigger audience than he had ever dreamt of. 'He has become the victim of his own image,' said a fellow MP. 'He is the blunt man, prepared to say things that others do not. When you become attached to that, you become its prisoner.'
Ken Livingstone disagrees. 'I don't think he'll ever be a pet,' he said, then paused. 'Except, perhaps, in the sense that a pet is allowed to do terrible things on the best carpet.'
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