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High Profile

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.

Skinner1.jpg

Can you talk about how your background shaped you?
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 captured Benghazi.
Your father was a trade unionist, wasn't he? Did he have to make sacrifices for the sake of his political principles?
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 fight.
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 yourself?
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 job. 
There's no doubt at all that my parents were very unhappy about it.
What was the process by which your father's politics became yours?
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 delegate?
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 footsteps?
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 abortion?
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 straightaway.
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 force…
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 tip.
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 independents.
Why do you think you were so successful so quickly?
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 fighter.
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 wealth.
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 it.
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 organise happiness.
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 frugal…
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 other MP.
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 frankly.
I meant you were frugal with taxpayers' money.
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 old 
confrontational style.
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 intelligence.
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 thing.
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.
The filibuster?
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 going?
I've been an optimist all my life. Coming from the back­ground I come from? Of course. Always battles to fight, always things to do.
And where does that optimism come from?
Because you have to be optimistic. A socialist has to always dream more dreams.
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 years?
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 course! 
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. n

Can you talk about how your background shaped you?
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 captured Benghazi.

Your father was a trade unionist, wasn't he? Did he have to make sacrifices for the sake of his political principles?
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 fight.

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 yourself?
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 job. 

There's no doubt at all that my parents were very unhappy about it.

Skinner2.jpg

What was the process by which your father's politics became yours?
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 delegate?
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 footsteps?
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 abortion?
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 straightaway.
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 force…
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 tip.

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 independents.

Why do you think you were so successful so quickly?
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 fighter.

Skinner3.jpg

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 wealth.
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 it.

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 organise happiness.

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 frugal…
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 other MP.
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 frankly.

I meant you were frugal with taxpayers' money.
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 old 
confrontational style.

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 intelligence.

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 thing.
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.

The filibuster?
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!'

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Are you optimistic about the way politics is going?
I've been an optimist all my life. Coming from the back­ground I come from? Of course. Always battles to fight, always things to do.

And where does that optimism come from?
Because you have to be optimistic. A socialist has to always dream more dreams.

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 years?
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 course! 

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 http://hansard.millbanksystems
.com/commons/1985/jun/07/new-writ-brecon -and-radnor.

 

 

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