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Dennis Skinner: National treasure or just a cantakerous old lefty? (Illustration by Michael Daley)

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.

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March 1st, 2019
9:03 PM
He has never held office because he wants to be a back bencher. And the film is 'Nature of the Beast'. No 'The'.

September 24th, 2017
6:09 PM
Great piece. Well said Mr Sharpe.

Robert Sharpe
August 30th, 2017
9:08 PM
This sneering old prat supports a political party that has cynically abandoned ordinary English men and women. He is a traitor to his class.

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