Sun, 21 July 2024

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The House Live All
By Ben Guerin
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ANALYSIS: I thought I knew all there was to know about the Beast of Bolsover. I was wrong

4 min read

I had never been much of a fan of Dennis Skinner. 

Like many people who spend their lives watching Westminster, I find his diatribes in the Commons tedious, his partisanship irksome and his manner rude. Those who champion his parliamentary career seem only to be able to point to his longevity as opposed to any real tangible impact in the House, though I know that that’s doing him a disservice.

I’ve not met the Beast of Bolsover and given his treatment of fellow journalists I’ve not sought out an opportunity to do so, although a competitive spirit within me does relish the challenge he would present as an interviewee. You would have to be well-researched to not allow him to get the upper hand early, and be prepared to absorb a few blows to the body. It would be an experience, for sure.

While on YouTube this morning (it’s recess) a BBC video from May 2016 caught my eye about the Labour MP, headlined ‘A rarely seen, or heard, side of Dennis Skinner MP’. In the short clip, which trailed a longer BBC radio piece, we learn that Skinner, whose mother and sister suffered from dementia, used to sing songs to them to bring back memories. He speaks with endearing affection about how his mother “worked her fingers to the bone” to make all the clothes for her family. “Almost everything I had on my back as a young school kid was made by my mother,” he says.

When describing her period suffering with dementia, Skinner recalls: “At the end there was this passage in her life that lasted four or five years, but I still think when I took all those risks about singing On The Welfare with her and she joined in, it wasn’t a bad day’s work.”

Skinner, it transpires, continues to sing for care home residents in his constituency.

It’s funny how we draw conclusions about people we’ve never met. While we like to think we take an empathetic approach we can so easily fall into the trap of thinking we’ve got people all worked out with only surface-level knowledge of their character.

When a public figure is caught up in a negative news story, we drop any knowledge of human fallibility and judge them to a point above which we would critique ourselves, friends or loved ones. When those close to the person defend them in public we judge them for doing so, tarring them with the same brush. And yet when one of our own is under fire, we, the people with a nuanced understanding of that person, their frailties and how they came to be, will defend them to the hilt.

It's one of many depressing aspects of current political discourse and debate. We are so swift to disparage and cast aspersions. In a period of hyper-partisanship, efforts to bridge the gap have fallen by the wayside. We so readily forget the human side of people, or that such a composition exists, as I did with Dennis Skinner.

How often have we met someone we knew only from social media or other sources and been surprised by how much we liked them or were more pleasant to one another than we would otherwise be behind the keyboard?

Dennis Skinner has earned the right to his reputation as the Beast of Bolsover and as a divisive figure at Westminster. This short video doesn’t change that. It doesn’t strike me that he would be too concerned that political obsessives like me had drawn negative conclusions about his character, or care that I now view him through a slightly different lens.

I doubt too that Skinner holds an empathetic view of his political enemies somewhere deep down, but I’ve been wrong about him before.

Regardless, the next time he points that right index finger at some poor unsuspecting junior minister and embarks on yet another two-minute soliloquy, rather than sigh, I’ll smile, knowing there's more than meets the eye. 


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