Unparliamentary language: Neil Kinnock

Posted On: 
10th November 2017

Agnes Chambre sits down with Parliamentarians to find out about the human side of politics. This week, Neil Kinnock on getting in trouble at school and why he distrusts beards

Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock
PA Images

What is your earliest memory?

It was August 1945 and it was VJ [victory over Japan] night. It was spectacular. I’d never seen fireworks before. I remember being in a pushchair and there were thousands of people around me. I was about three and a half and I can actually remember the feeling – which is extraordinary given it’s 70-odd years later.

What were you like growing up?

Boisterous. After I made a mess of my O Levels and realised that some work was required, I had a very easy time. I was with a bunch of boys and we were very comfortable in the middle of the B stream, we didn’t make any effort at all, just drifted along. It was a hyper cream grammar school, you had to get exotic marks in the 11+ to even get in there, it was an all-boys school with very smart black and white uniforms and rigid discipline.

Did you get in trouble?

Perpetually. In fact, I had the record for the number of whacks with the Head’s cane over the years to the end of the fifth form. Until it was taken from me the last week we were in the 5th form by my best friend. He put his bum through the window of a gym, got caught going home early and smoking, all in one week. He got nine strokes and he beat my record by two.

What did you do?

Oh, everything. I wasn’t a wicked boy but I just crashed into trouble. I learned the secret of whistling without moving my lips and it used to irritate the hell out of my teachers. I used to sit at the back of the class and whistle something complicated like an overture and dream of being a ventriloquist. I never mastered that but I had an enjoyable time at school, apart from every school report, which my parents never saw…

How did you manage that?

I intercepted the post. I managed to get away with diving and ducking and dodging until my O Level results. Then things changed dramatically. Then I worked, and then it was ok.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

My father, after I came home from university after just having been elected to the student council, said ‘you won’t be growing a beard, will you?’ And I said: ‘What the hell’s that got to do with it?’ He replied: ‘I think all politicians should shave as soon as they wake up.’ I said this to Robin Cook years later and he said ‘comrade, you are ugly, but if you were as ugly as I am, you’d have a beard too.” Fidel Castro once said to me – and this is name-dropping – that he stopped shaving after he was hiding in the jungle for a few days. As he hid, he worked out if a man lives to be 70, he spends three months of his life shaving. So he decided to save three months. I guess at 75, I’ve used up at least three months.

Have you ever given anything up?

Sugar. At university, Glenys didn’t take sugar, she said ‘you don’t need it’, and I spent the last 50 years obeying.

What’s something that’s changed your life?

Meeting Glenys. I’m not actually sure how my life would have unfolded if I hadn’t managed to – I was going to say enchant but it’s scarcely the word – to secure our relationship, that’s the best way to put it.

Was she not sure when you first met?

We had a bumpy few months of her not sure and me not sure but my mother told my aunt that she thought I’d found the one. We’d been with each other about six months.

What’s the most scared you’ve ever been?

Standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon. When I was a youngster, I used to go caving and climbing but a friend of mine got killed climbing inside a cave. I wasn’t there, but from then on I’ve had a terror of heights. To try and address this, when we went to the Grand Canyon in 1992, I went right to the lip and I was terrified doing that. I stepped back and about 20 yards away, a piece of rock crumbled and I was almost paralysed with terror, even though by then I was safe. I’m scared just thinking about it now.

Do you have any recurring dreams or nightmares? 

Funny you should ask that, I’ve gone years without having any dreams but recently I’ve had bizarre dreams. Maybe it’s my age. Nobody hurt or falling off any skyscrapers but really confused nonsensical dreams. But most of my nightmares are when I’m awake, and most of them have been political. 

Do you have any regrets?

About life in general? Oh yeah. I’m sorry we didn’t win in 1992, things would have been different. Not so much for me but I think we could have made a big difference for the better.

Do you still think about it now? 

No, I don’t. I think there are only two ways to react to defeat, to succumb to it, or to resume normality as quickly and fully as possible. I was 50 years of age, very fit, a wonderful wife and family, terrific friends and a couple of decades of active life in front of me. It would have been really self-indulgent.

What are you most proud of?

Our kids.

If you had to be stuck on a desert island with any other ex-Labour leader, who would it be?

It would be between Gordon and Ed, depends who would be a better cook.

Who would make you laugh more?

Oh, Gordon is very, very funny, but Ed’s got a lovely dry humour. They’re both actually good company. 

What’s the most embarrassed you’ve been?

Earlier this year, I had a new white Fiat 500. I’d had it about three or four days and there was a parking warden in the business of sticking a ticket on my screen, and I knew I’d paid. So I went up to him and fairly gently remonstrated and it turned into a blazing row. He gave it me, I gave it back to him, and this went on for about five minutes. And then I realised I was at the wrong bloody car...I had to stop mid barrage and say “this isn’t my car”. We both laughed about it but god I was embarrassed.

What’s your favourite joke? 

I’m not sure I can tell you….I’ll think of a clean one...The problem is, if I tell you, I’ll be deprived of a gag in the next speech I make. Politicians look after jokes like hens look after chicks...only longer. A short printable one really does narrow the field. No, there’s none.

When was the last time you made someone laugh? 

A couple of minutes ago…

Apart from in this interview?

I made my wife laugh this morning describing the antics of our cat, who is less than ferocious but decided to have a standoff with the black and white cat across the road. I described it to Glenys and she fell about laughing.

What’s an interesting fact your colleagues don’t know about you?

I make sensational Mexican wraps. It’s the only thing I can do. Glenys says it’s because I’m so pernickety, everything is chopped up into tiny pieces. The meat is cooked to perfection and they are absolutely sensational.

What’s the best interaction you’ve had with a stranger?

I’m going to name drop again; it was with Nelson Mandela. I was invited by the then prime minister to go and meet Nelson in Stockholm. He came into the room with the Swedish foreign minister and squinted his eyes and said ‘Neil Kinnock’. I was absolutely flabbergasted. The next day at breakfast, I said “how the hell did you recognise me?” He said: “In my room in jail…I had many photographs on the wall, several from Trafalgar Square, so I recognised you from your speeches.” It was extraordinary to think, and it demonstrated the power of protesting against injustice because the message gets through to those who are victims of terrible injustice. That was the most impressive and heartwarming encounter.

If you weren’t famous for being a politician, what would you be famous for?

Being a very handsome rock and roll singer….No, I don’t think I would have been famous. Politics is showbiz for ugly people.

Do you still get recognised?  

Yes, mainly it’s a pleasant experience. But I’ll tell you a really funny one. In the late 1970s, I went to lunch with Alan Watkins, political editor of the Observer and a great journalistic figure. We came out after a lengthy lunch and a little old lady with an umbrella and said ‘“hey you’re Arthur Scargill’. And I said ‘no, no, I’m not. You may have seen me around talking about miners but I’m not Scargill.” “Yes, you bloody are,” she said. “I’m sorry, but I’m not. For a start, he’s from Yorkshire and I’m from South Wales”. She insisted “You’re bloody Scargill”, so I said ‘ask my friend,’ and Alan said “What’s that Arthur?” She hit me with her umbrella. Bloody Watkins, bastard!

What would you call your autobiography if you were to name it now?

Never Again.