Overrated: Dennis Skinner
It’s time to debunk the myth that the Beast of Bolsover, the oldest member of the Commons, is a brilliant parliamentary figure
There seems to be a role in British constitutional life for an elderly left-wing firebrand to be adopted as a national treasure. Tony Benn used to perform this function; with his death in 2014 the torch passed to Dennis Skinner, the MP for Bolsover in Derbyshire for the last 47 years and at 85 the oldest sitting member. The only reason he is not also Father of the House, the MP with the longest record of continuous service, is that Ken Clarke, also elected in 1970, was sworn in before him.
Just as he has refused all preferment and has only ever served as a backbencher, Skinner insists that he would refuse to serve as Father of the House if his time came, denouncing the office as mere toffish, clubland flummery. The role has very limited functions. The Father of the House presides over the chamber when a new Speaker is elected and at the start of every new parliament when the Speaker is reelected. While Skinner could refuse to do this, it is very far from clear he could refuse to be Father of the House, any more than an MP could refuse to be the tallest, youngest or for that matter oldest MP member: length of service is an established fact, not a matter of opinion.
Skinner’s life is celebrated in a new film, Nature of the Beast, written and produced by Daniel Draper, apparently on a budget of £5,000. Very unusually for a movie with such a low budget, it has managed to get a cinema release. What has Skinner done in his backbench years to deserve his status?
Most importantly, perhaps, Skinner was fortunate to come to the attention of a parliamentary sketchwriter as talented as the late Frank Johnson of the Telegraph, who coined the sobriquet “The Beast of Bolsover”. Skinner would not be as widely known if it were not for such a catchy nickname; after all, there have been plenty of other left-wing Labour firebrands who have had careers almost as untroubled with front-bench duties but who are not household names. Outside Luton and eurosceptic circles, who knows who Kelvin Hopkins MP is?
Skinner’s politics are unwavering and simple — he sees the world as a constant struggle between “us”, the working class, and “them”, the ruling class. There are no nuances in his position. As he puts it, “If you work for the class interest, you will never have any trouble.” He claims to have come to this position at an early age. In Nature of the Beast he says, “By the time I was four, five or six I knew enough to know which side I was on.” This all-consuming belief is why he has never held office. In 1976 James Callaghan, the Prime Minister, spoke to the then still relatively fresh Skinner in the division lobby and mentioned that there would be a reshuffle coming up. Skinner made clear that he was not interested — at some stage he would be asked to vote against the class interest and he would never do that.
It is also why the Beast likes to make himself obnoxious to Conservative and indeed all non-Labour MPs. Skinner insists he has never had a proper conversation with Clarke despite their 47 years together in the House: he will not fraternise with the class enemy. Unlike other champions of the proletariat — Benn, George Monbiot, indeed even Jeremy Corbyn spring to mind — Skinner is of the class he lionises. One of nine children, he grew up in a left-wing Derbyshire mining family and worked for 20 years as a miner and trade union activist, before being elected to parliament at the age of 38.
Skinner has also earned an undeserved reputation as a great parliamentary wit, although his so-called witticisms largely consist of shouting low-grade abuse at Tories, Labour traitors or parliamentary officials. In a Trumpesque manner David Cameron was “dodgy Dave”, John Gummer “a wart on Mrs Thatcher’s nose”, and David Owen a “pompous sod”. This kind of language is deemed unparliamentary and is why Skinner has been suspended from the Commons more than ten times. For his champions, his rudeness shows how he stands up for the working class, but how it benefits them is less clear. It has become an annual custom for Skinner to shout out some well-prepared quip when Black Rod summons MPs to attend the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords. They are either republican in nature — “tell her [the Queen] to pay her taxes” — or remarks about Black Rod’s attire — his official garb consists of morning coat, breeches and stockings — such as “Here comes Puss in Boots.” Under any other circumstances such remarks would merely be dismissed as infantile cheek but for Skinner’s defenders they amount to a great parliamentary record.
So what has he actually achieved? Through a knowledge of obscure parliamentary procedure, he derailed Enoch Powell’s 1985 private member’s bill to ban stem cell research and an attempt in 1989 to reduce the maximum number of weeks at which an abortion could be performed. Whatever one may think of the issues involved, it is not much to boast about — as he relentlessly does in Nature of the Beast — after 47 years in parliament. Perhaps Skinner should be thought of less as a national treasure and more as just a cantankerous old lefty.