Dennis Skinner: Nature of the Beast

Issue section: 


Dennis Skinner

This is a touching account of the life of a formidable politician, known for his rebellious nature and principled character.

From his very early days living in a mining town, Skinner was conscious of class and inequality in society. He describes growing up in a political household, where he had “politics for breakfast, lunch and dinner”, and he pays tribute to his father for giving him socialist principles, and his mother for her sharp memory and love of singing. Skinner credits the latter for his ability to deliver the inspirational and memorable speeches for which he is rightly celebrated.

His career in politics began in the trade union movement, when he was elected miners’ delegate to Parkhouse colliery and then president of Derbyshire National Union of Miners. From there he was encouraged to stand for local council and then for parliament. He was elected MP in 1970 and he eventually earned the title “The Beast of Bolsover”.

The documentary is filled with interesting and inspiring anecdotes, the best of which are told by Skinner himself. He is a captivating storyteller — which has undoubtedly boosted his popularity. He describes, with astounding humility, how he “saved stem-cell research” in 1985 by scuppering a private member’s bill introduced by Enoch Powell.

Skinner is feared and revered due to his unwavering principles and refusal to be silenced or swayed by privilege or patronage. Describing him as an uncompromising left-winger who has “never lost his roots”, the documentary also illustrates his disarming charm and dry humour.

Despite its rather soft tone, the film is politically serious and insightful, with class as a central theme. Skinner acknowledges the limitations of electoral politics, and recognises the power of the working class through protest and resistance.

As his proudest achievement he still cites his involvement in the protests that ultimately defeated the 1971 Industrial Relations Act after thousands marched demanding the release of five dock workers locked up in Pentonville prison under the new legislation.

Skinner’s refusal to accept ministerial positions and commitment to “live as a socialist” has earned him respect. However, it has also led to the somewhat perverse situation where he does not feel he could play a role in a Corbyn cabinet, further highlighting the contradictions of reformist politics.

Although Skinner understands the potential of class struggle, he is not a revolutionary, acknowledging that he doesn’t believe that “the job of socialism is ever completed”.

The film is a fitting tribute, not just to Dennis Skinner MP, but to the tradition of working class struggle.