Red in tooth and craw
Interview by Simon Jones
A veteran of the back
benches, the Labour MP Dennis Skinner rejoices in the nickname of
'The Beast of Bolsover'. Third Way lasted 100 minutes with
him at the Palace of Westminster.
Can you talk about how your background shaped
I was one of a family of 10. I was shaped, I suppose, in my early
youth by the environment of a pit village, and by the Second World
War. I lived and breathed the war. When I was 10 or 11, in order to
make a few pennies, I used to take the papers round early in the
morning and I used to read them all on the way, and then I would
chat to some of the fellers at the pit and tell 'em that we'd just
Your father was a trade unionist, wasn't he? Did he have
to make sacrifices for the sake of his political
Yeah, Santa Claus didn't come to our house. When I was born, it
was the Great Depression and my father was out of work, and he
would have been out of work as a miner for a long period anyway,
don't make any mistake about that. But because he was regarded as a
'militant' he was one of the last to get back in. He was one of the
people that would lead men and would have a go at the management -
because, you know, working underground in a pit was not a
hayride. You had to have people that were prepared to stand up and
When we interviewed Michael Portillo recently,1 he, too,
talked about how his father was a socialist -
Didn't do him any good, did it?
Well, in his case the apple fell quite a long way from
the tree. Whereas I get the impression that your politics and your
father's were fairly well aligned.
They were fairly well aligned. For the most part when I started
making my way in the trade union and in politics, he would not
overtly proclaim he was proud of me but I had a sneaking feeling
that he was.
There's a better example that sums my father up in many ways. I
was a good cross-country runner - I was champion at school - and
then when I were about 23 I started road-walking - you know,
heel-and-toe - because it was a big thing in our area. I was very
thin and athletic and somebody told me, 'You'd do well in that Star
Walk in Sheffield.' So, I practised it when I came up the pit and
one day he says, 'Oh up, thee! What the hell are tha doing at
night?' He says, 'Tommy Lunn said to me he's seen thee pass his
house a couple of times last week waddling thy bloody arse. What's
going on?' I says, 'I'm training for the Star Walk at Whitsuntide.'
'Star Walk?' he says, 'That Roland Hardy who walked for Britain in
the Olympics was in that!' He thought: 'What's he doing? He can't
compete with these people.'
On the morning of the race, 250,000 people lined the streets.
When I got home, my mother said: 'Didn't you do well!' I said: 'How
do you know?' She said: 'Oh, your dad told the manager he'd got
some union business at Chesterfield and he picked up one of the
early Stars and he saw it in the stop press.'
That sort of typified the relationship between us.
Did you win the race?
I came second.
You did well at school, didn't you?
I got a County Minor scholarship when I was 10. I hate to say this
- it sounds egotistical - but I've got a good memory and I could
remember a lot of things. The teacher used to write sonnets on the
board and by the time she'd put the chalk down I could go out to
the front of the class and repeat it.
So, how come you ended up down the pit
Because I lived in a pit village and the kids I'd been with before
I left to go to Tupton Hall [Grammar School] had already left
school and I'm still there and it was - it was a clash. They used
to talk about riding the ponies out [of the pit] at night - it was
rubbish, but they painted this picture - and I suppose they were
growing up in a way and I wasn't growing at the same speed. So,
eventually I left school and went to the pit and got a
There's no doubt at all that my parents were very unhappy about
What was the process by which your father's politics
I got it from where I lived. I mean, whenever we'd get into an
argument I tended to be on the side of those that needed a helping
hand. I think society is divided up into two groups: those that
will give someone a hand over the stile and so on - and do it
again, even though, you know, it's the same person and people say,
'Yeah, yeah, you can't help people like that' - and then there is a
much bigger group who tend to think the opposite.
I remember my dad coming home and saying that he'd been elected
as delegate to the union and I knew it was a good thing.
Why did it seem to you good that he was a
Because he was now a part of the union that mattered, and I knew
where his heart was and he was capable of saying to the manager:
'Don't you ever say that or we'll stop these wheels!'
It was helping people. In my family we were all able-bodied and
physically fit, and some families don't have that luck. And so the
discussions that you'd hear in our house would be about, you know,
'Isn't it terrible, that young lad there…?' Of course, it was a
different kind of society then, but I think my parents were on the
side of the underdog.
Did you consciously want to follow in his
No, I can't really say that I did. But I'd started going to union
meetings and a lot of people were saying, 'We want Tony Skinner's
lad. He's got all Tony's qualities, but he's sharp as a knife as
well. When he goes in with the management, he knows more than the
manager.' Because if you're arguing about the cubic feet of coal a
number of men have to dig, I was quicker at calculating it [than he
was]. There were no calculators then.
And it gave me a totally new lease of life. To know that two or
three times a week you might be going to see the manager or the
deputy manager and arguing the case for some individual or some
group of people and then coming out and on occasions winning…
Can you say a bit about your mother? I've heard you say
that she was often pregnant.
Yeah, she used to say, 'Oh, your father's only got to spit at me…'
She had her first child when she was 17 and the last one when she
was about 45.
And how did that later inform your position on
What do you mean?
I've read that you have said that the reason you take
the strong position on abortion you do -
Well, it wasn't because of that, whatever the media say. No, it's
all about the woman's right to choose. I'm sure that some
right-wing journalist has put two and two together, but…
My mother was always singing. When she got Alzheimer's disease
and I was on Desert Island Discs [in 1990], the first piece I
selected was one she used to sing when she was doing the washing in
the kitchen: 'If those lips could only speak…'. My brothers and
sisters got her by the radio, and when it got to the second line,
'And those eyes could only see'… And she'd not spoken a word to
anybody for three or four months!
I used to work in a nursing home and there was an old
woman with Alzheimer's who used to be a member of the Communist
Party in the Rhondda. When we needed to get her to stand up, I used
to sing 'The Red Flag' in her ear and up she got
There's no doubt there's a real connection. It's a wonderful thing
- like winning against the manager again.
Did your mum sing in church?
No, but we all went to Sunday school, for a while. But I got
thrown out. I went to the Methodist church once after I'd been
sliding down the pit tip on a piece of corrugated iron, which you
did when you were seven or eight, and this feller led me out. 'Come
on, my lad, you know you can't stay in here.'
The church must have seemed a conservative
Oh, I think it was. But nobody wanted me near 'em anyway, because
they were all in their posh frocks and I'd just come off the
But because I've got this great memory I knew all the songs, and
I knew all about the Bible.
Did you believe it?
No, I don't think so. I knew that Santa Claus wasn't real when I
were five, and I knew there were no fairies at the bottom of the
garden. In that kind of environment, where you don't have two
ha'pennies to rub together…
But it's in that kind of environment that some people
cling to faith.
Look, I don't knock it. I sometimes hold surgeries in the
Salvation Army. Why? Because it's a nice little place where you can
deal with people in a civil fashion.
You won a scholarship to Ruskin College in 1959. Did you
experience a culture shock when you went there?
I never went there. I got elected to Clay Cross council - [the
Labour members] begged me to stand after they got defeated by
Why do you think you were so successful so
Well, I would say there were two things that registered with
people, though I can't be sure. One was that I had tons of energy.
I was playing football for the local team, and cricket; I was
active in all sorts of other ways and I wasn't in the pubs every
night. And they also knew my past: that I'd won the scholarship and
that I came from a principled family and my father had been a
Did you see your job as to be the voice of the people
who had voted for you, or did you say to the electorate: 'This is
what I stand for, take it or leave it'?
I wasn't plucking things out of the air. I mean, there'd be
occasions in the pit, believe me, when in between talking about
football and what was running at Ascot there'd be arguments about
immigration, and I would talk about the black kids that were
running for Britain - 'Do you want to send them back?'
You have to bring politics in through the back door, the side
door, the front door and every door. You have to relate it to their
lives. You have to talk their language.
Obviously, it's important that people have a reasonable
standard of living, but does it matter to you whether people are
equal? As long as everyone is safe and warm and well fed, does it
matter if some are millionaires?
Well, there's only so much money in the world, and it would be a
better world if you could spread it around more equally.
Some people argue that millionaires create
Well, I've never accepted that.
Is it true you were something of a confidant to Tony
Blair in the early days of his government?
I used to talk to him about once a month, though after he made
friends with [George W] Bush I didn't see him very often. He'd got
a new pal.
I told him to give the pensioners some extra money. I said to
him one day, 'Why don't we give them a proper winter heating
allowance?' He said: 'We've agreed to the Tory spending plans. I
don't know how to sell it to Gordon.' I said: 'Well, go through the
side door, don't worry about the front door! This is a moral
issue.' And he said, 'How much do you think?' and I said, 'Between
50 and 100 pound.' And we got the hundred, first time round. He put
his thumb up at Budget just as [Gordon] Brown was due to divulge
Did you admire him in those days?
It wasn't about admiration, it was about the fact that he was
prepared to see people that didn't agree with him. And I wasn't
naive enough to talk outside his parameters. If I said, 'Look, why
don't you nationalise this, that and the other?' - do you think I
was going to spend my time doing that when I knew it wasn't within
his compass? Course not!
Mainly how it began was because I was determined to build
factories where the pits used to be. Those areas were ready and
ripe to be built on. I helped to produce the coalfield plan with
[John] Prescott and we presented it at the Durham Miners' Rally in
July 1997. They all laughed at me in the House of Commons because I
wanted a junction straight off the M1 into Markham pit yard, but
after three years of banging away I won it and now it's open and
there'll be 5-8,000 jobs there.
There wasn't a single pit left in Derbyshire, and the same was
true of five or six other regions in Britain - we're talking about
15-20 per cent unemployed in pit villages. And by the time I got
the junction agreed, just before this credit crunch began,
unemployment in Bolsover was a third below the national average.
And that was because I was smart enough to take whatever chances I
had to talk to ministers and convince them that this was a smart
thing to do.
You've said a lot about the processes of Parliament, how
antiquated they are and how arcane, and objectionable, some of them
Do you think I spend my time thinking about that?
Well, no, but -
No, but you've made some very strong assertions, as if somehow or
other it's got me all worked up.
When you talk about arcane this, that and the other, it's just
that I decided when I came here that I was going to stick to
certain principles; and one was not to go in the bars - not because
I'm puritanical but because I know that it's a sloppy embrace and I
don't want to be with the journalists and they're all of a drunken
heap and then you're letting your tongue rip about this, that and
the other. I don't want to be in this - what people call 'organised
happiness'. Let's go and have a drink and be happy! You can't
And I wasn't going to have people paying for me to be travelling
abroad, whether they were British taxpayers, foreign governments or
quangos. I'm not averse to travelling, but I believe you pay your
own way, on Easyjet or Ryanair.
You have a reputation for being very
It's the way I've been brought up. When I first came here, I
rented a place with Prescott, and then I got fed up with the buses
and tubes and I thought: 'If ever I see anything that's handy, I'm
going to think about buying it if I can.' I remember an MP saying
to me, 'Don't forget, Dennis, get an interest-only mortgage!' I
hadn't a clue what he were talking about, and I bought a flat out
of my own back pocket. I never took a penny off the taxpayer. Is
that being frugal? Come on! Come on!
I meant that you claim less in expenses than almost any
That's different, though, isn't it?
Yes, that's different.
Right. Thank you very much.
When you first became an MP, the salary must have been a
lot bigger than what you were earning before…
You'd better believe it!
Did you find that embarrassing?
No. I found a good use for it, didn't I? I said to my kids: 'I've
landed on my feet and I want you all to go to university. No need
to get a grant from Derbyshire County Council, I've enough money
here to send you all.' And they all did go to university. I mean, I
had to bribe the last one with a car…
Did it needle you when the MP who claimed the least
expenses last year turned out to be a Tory?
Do you think I'm upset about that? No, not at all. Now we've
passed these new rules, there's going to be more competition for
the lowest. That's good, isn't it?
I think you've got a funny impression about me. The 'frugal' bit -
you were totally wrong about that. I mean, just forget these things
you've heard from somebody else! I can't stand it, quite
I meant you were frugal with taxpayers'
Right. I'm not in looking after people that matter!
I'm one of the few MPs that gives money to the Labour Party
both locally and nationally. I travel to constituency parties all
over the country, helping them to raise money so they can compete
with the money [Lord] Ashcroft is giving to the Tories, and I pay
my own way. You can ask all of 'em and they'll tell you I never ask
for a penny. Is that being frugal? Come on!
One of the things many people dislike about Parliament
is that it's adversarial and confrontational…
Life's a bit like that, mate. We've just had a good
demonstration of it, with you. You can't get rid of it. Every
waking moment of every day, there is somebody that's involved in a
serious argument, at home or at work, and it is as natural as night
following day. That's life.
So, when people say they can't bear to watch Prime
Minister's Questions because it's so gladiatorial -
And the rest of Parliament is different, that's what I'd say to
'em. Debates are not like that, by and large - apart from a couple
of frontbench swipes at one another.
But there are two different ways to attempt to resolve a
dispute, aren't there? One is to browbeat the other side and the
other is to search for a compromise.
Well, I don't know what world you've been brought up in, but I was
brought up in the trade union world and every so often, either
locally or nationally, you have to say to the management: 'I'm not
wearing it.' And sometimes you have to withdraw your labour. I've
been in a union that's had a proud record of fighting for the
miners; there's nothing more adversarial than that, and it's all
been absolutely necessary. That is life. So, don't tell me that you
want this wonderful organised happiness for ever and a day! You
can't have it.
It's understandable that people become adversarial if
society is polarised in that way; but society today is not where it
was 25 years ago. My dad was in a trade, and then he became a
manager - and his pension means that in effect he is an investor in
huge companies. It would be hard to represent him in terms of that
Well, I'm not advocating for one moment that you're searching for
all-out attack. I've never tried to describe myself as being like
that. What I'm trying to say is that you can't stop life being
adversarial at times. You can't avoid it. But that doesn't mean
you're searching for it.
I was very amused by your quip in 2005 about George
Osborne snorting cocaine -
Well, it was Chancellor of the Exchequer's Questions and he was
making a big song and dance about the fact that the growth in
production was only 1.75 per cent, as if the roof had fallen in
because it wasn't 2 or 3 per cent. It just got on my craw and I
said: 'Mr Speaker, in the mining industry when the Tories were
shutting the pits in the Eighties and Nineties, we would have
thanked our lucky stars to have had a production increase of 1.75
per cent. But the only thing that was growing then was the lines of
coke under Boy George's nose.'
That was pure satire. The Speaker told me: 'You'll have to
withdraw that.' And I said: 'I can't withdraw it, because it's
true. It must be, because it was in the News of the
World.' And that was even more satire.
Do you think that sort of wisecrack helps you to achieve
your political goals?
What political goals? Do you think I had a political goal that
day? I wanted to put him in his place. And I did do. Because he was
getting excited about little or nothing. And that's how some of
these Eton people are - they're educated beyond their
I'm struck by the number of politicians who the general
public warm to, such as you and, on the other side, Ann Widdecombe,
who never acquire any significant power.
I've never sought it. What are you talking about?
Have you never sought it?
Callaghan came to me in 1976 and said, 'I'm thinking of doing a
reshuffle.' I said, 'I'm not surprised.' I don't know whether he
thought I was going to get all excited, but I said, 'Well, there's
a feller next to me who I think is a likely candidate.' He says,
'Yeah, but I'm talking about -'. I says, 'Jim, you can give me a
job but you can also fire me. It's not truly democratic.' I says:
'I believe in a system like they have in the Australian Labor
Party, whereby the party people elect so many to be members of the
cabinet and then you have the chance to put the pegs in the right
holes.' That's what I believe.
It's got nothing to do with whether I want power. I don't
believe in patronage. If you look through my life, you'll not see
where I've received any.
I asked because you are so respected for your integrity
and your refusal to compromise - in the best sense, in that there's
a kind of purity to it. I just -
No, there ain't purity. I never said I was perfect. We're all
imperfect. I mean, let's get that straight!
Yes. Please don't pick me up on language again! I just
wondered whether you ever thought that if you had ever compromised
and had been, let's say, Secretary of State for Employment, you
might have been able to -
What, produce a coalfield plan?
You could have done more of that kind of
I don't think I've ever been idle. I've done loads of other things
- like when I stopped Enoch Powell from [getting his Private
Member's Bill passed] banning stem-cell research [in 1985]. Nobody
had ever heard of that idea, what I did that day.
I moved a writ for [a by-election in] Brecon & Radnor to stop
him speaking. No backbencher had ever done it before in the history
of Parliament, and the clerks told the Speaker I couldn't do it,
but because I knew [the parliamentary 'rulebook'] 'Erskine May'
like I used to know the Mines and Quarries Act, I knew I could do
it. And I stole the show. But I did it for a cause.2
Believe me, in parliamentary terms that day was one of the
finest. And every time they say on television that they've got
another cure for this, that and the other from stem-cell research,
I think to myself: 'Well done, lad!'
Are you optimistic about the way politics is
I've been an optimist all my life. Coming from the background I
come from? Of course. Always battles to fight, always things to
And where does that optimism come from?
Because you have to be optimistic. A socialist has to always dream
But some people would say, 'Humans can regress as well
as progress, societies can fail' -
Of course they can, and then you have to fight harder.
What is it that keeps you going after so many
When I get a letter like I did today, that said I'd got a feller
back all the money for his clamped car… That's another victory.
That's what excites you. And the fact that when they're saying that
MPs daren't go to their constituencies after all the revelations
[about expenses] and I walk round Bolsover Market Place and they're
all waving, 'Dennis, how're you going? Are you keeping all right?'
Do you think that doesn't make you want to carry on? And when
somebody says: 'Do you think you can help me with this, Dennis?' Of
I love to win these battles. It's like beating the manager of
the pit when I were 24.
Thank you for being so generous with your time. And I'm
sorry I irritated you.
Well, you're not the first. Don't think you're in a bloody special
category, because you're not.
1 'Hard Man, Soft Man', Third Way, June 2009
2 The full debate can be found posted at