Parliament Finally Sees Some Beauty in Britain's Beast of Bolsover For 40 Years, Irritating Lawmaker Has Been a Scold on Expenses. Now People Listen
LONDON -- Over four decades, the man known as "The Beast of Bolsover" has richly earned his reputation as Parliament's No. 1 killjoy.
Impolitic and often ill-mannered, Dennis Skinner, a representative of the English town of Bolsover, has made a career of verbally shredding colleagues and ridiculing Parliament's ancient protocols. His acid tirades -- publicly branding one member of Parliament "a pompous sod" and another "slimy" -- have gotten him ejected from Parliament 10 times. His relentless barrage of attention-grabbing stunts and statements haven't endeared him to fellow MPs, who often tend to regard him as a loner.
But these days, one habit of Westminster's resident grouch -- his reflexive need to vote against pay raises and extra allowances for members of Parliament -- has put this antisocial 77-year-old outlier in sync with the mood of both the public and other politicians.
For the past month, Britain has been riveted by an explosive scandal revealing how politicians have used taxpayer money to claim reimbursement for everything from "glitter" toilet seats to payments on mortgages that don't exist. It has brought nationwide condemnation of politicians and an early end to the careers of more than a dozen.
On Thursday, the redacted copies of more than a million expense claims and receipts from the past four years were put on Parliament's Web site after a nearly five-year fight between politicians and freedom-of-information campaigners.
As a result, Britain's leaders are racing to embrace reforms. Repeating language Mr. Skinner has uttered for years, Prime Minister Gordon Brown wants to rein in the self-regulating "gentleman's club" of Parliament. Cabinet minister Ed Miliband called for an end to much of the pomp and ceremonial garb that make Parliament less of an "open and welcoming place for people."
In this environment, the Beast has been lionized. The Daily Telegraph -- the right-of-center newspaper that broke the expense scandal -- recently declared that the hard-left Mr. Skinner gives U.K. taxpayers more value than all but one other politician. Mr. Skinner himself had the second-lowest expense claims in all of Parliament, and nobody has shown up for more votes than he has.
The only member of Parliament who claimed less in expenses than the Labour Party's Mr. Skinner was Conservative MP Philip Hollobone, a former paratrooper who is so careful with the public's pennies that he employs no staff and uses second-class stamps.
The Beast Speaks
Dennis Skinner, nicknamed the "Beast" for his scathing comments, has been ejected from the British Parliament 10 times. Below are some of his biting remarks, not all of which resulted in his ejection.
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In 1992, Mr. Skinner referred in Parliament to the Conservative Minister of Agriculture John Gummer as "slimy" and a "wart." Mr. Gummer did not return calls seeking comment.
Mr. Skinner called Liberal Democrat MP David Owen a "pompous sod" in Parliament. When asked by the House speaker to withdraw the remark, he said he would withdraw "pompous" and was ejected. Dr. Owen did not return calls. Asked last month about Dr. Owen, Mr. Skinner was unrepentant: "he was a pompous sod."
In 1995, Mr. Skinner was thrown out of Parliament after accusing the government of a "crooked deal" to sell off Britain's coal mines.
In 2005, the Beast was ejected from Parliament after accusing Conservative finance spokesman George Osborne of taking cocaine in reference to a newspaper allegation. Referring to the economic record of the Conservatives in the 1980s, Mr. Skinner said, "The only thing that was growing then were the lines of coke in front of Boy George and the rest of the Tories." Mr. Osborne denies the allegation.
Mr. Skinner frequently taunted the former leader of the Liberal Democrats Paddy Ashdown in Parliament by calling him "Paddy Backdown" for what Mr. Skinner said was his changing views on politics.
In 2006 he accused deputy House Speaker Sir Alan Haselhurst of leniency toward remarks made by Conservative frontbencher Theresa May "because she's a Tory."
Mr. Skinner asked Black Rod -- an official of the Parliament -- if he had Helen Mirren on standby for the queen before she opened Parliament in 2006, in reference to the actress's film portrayal of the queen.
In 2007, Mr. Skinner shouted at Black Rod "who shot the harriers?" in reference to the shooting of two protected harriers near a royal property. Prince Harry and a friend had been questioned but not charged by police over the incident.
In 2001, MPs approved a near 50% increase in living expenses for themselves, one of many such votes since the 1980s, so they wouldn't have to vote themselves salary increases. Mr. Skinner warned at the time that the measure would one day backfire, telling colleagues it was "a bad day for Parliament." Lately, he has reminded other MPs of those votes.
Mr. Skinner hails from a family of nine children, and followed his father into the coal mines of England's Derbyshire region. Mr. Skinner says that when he left for his first day of work amid the ornate gothic pinnacles of Parliament, his father joked, " 'At least you won't have to test the roof so it's safe, like in a mine.' "
Among Mr. Skinner's targets are the many traditions Parliament has accrued in its 900 years. Coat hangers still have pink ribbons to attach members' swords. The Speaker of the House of Lords sits on a large pillow stuffed with wool, meant to symbolize Britain's ancient wealth. There is a snuffbox full of snuff that MPs never touch.
Some traditions have already been killed. At one time, MPs had to don a top hat when calling a point of order. Collapsible top hats were kept for the purpose. That was discontinued in 1998. Some aren't worth the effort of squashing, such as the rule forbidding politicians from wearing a suit of armor in Parliament.
Mr. Skinner's attacks on tradition have become an institution themselves. Every year, he rants against a ritual involving an official who traditionally dons tights as the "Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod." When Black Rod, the monarch's representative in the House of Lords, knocks on the door of Commons to invite MPs to listen to the Queen's annual speech to Parliament, the door is slammed in his face to symbolize the independence of the House of Commons from royalty. When it is opened again, Mr. Skinner pounces.
In 2001, the role was played for the first time by Sir Michael Willcocks, a 5-foot-8-inch former three-star army general. He was unprepared for what Mr. Skinner had planned.
"They've shortchanged us! He's nowt but a midget!" Mr. Skinner shouted as Mr. Willcocks entered on his second day on the job.
"Nobody had warned me," Sir Michael recalls. "It threw me, and I fluffed my lines." Sir Michael has grudging admiration for Mr. Skinner, despite the humiliation he regularly suffered at Mr. Skinner's hands: "He's held his staunchly republican principles and he's never compromised, and to some extent you have to admire him for that, even if you think he is wrong."
Not everybody is so forgiving. Conservative MP Patrick Mercer says Mr. Skinner is "capable of grave misjudgments," and some of his comments are immature. Mr. Mercer says he was interrupted once when he was talking about helping the family of a British army captain who had been killed in Afghanistan. Mr. Skinner denies he heckled. Other politicians say Mr. Skinner's political beliefs -- with an emphasis on state-owned industry and trade-union activism -- are as out of tune with the modern world as some of the traditions he bemoans.
Three Saturdays ago, Mr. Skinner took the call that all British politicians have come to dread: The Daily Telegraph was phoning to ask about his Parliamentary expenses. The paper later wrote that Mr. Skinner hadn't paid taxes on fees for tax advice that he claimed; MPs can claim for the advice, but not the tax on the claim.
Mr. Skinner says he did pay and has checked that with Internal Revenue. A Revenue & Customs spokeswoman said "we do not comment on individuals' taxes."
A colleague, Labour MP Austin Mitchell, said it was good news for all MPs because the attempted attack on Mr. Skinner, after all his years of "Puritanism," was a sign that the Telegraph was "dredging the bottom of the barrel" in its expenses exposé.
It turns out that the Beast's habitual savaging of Parliament hides a deep secret: He loves the place.
When Mr. Skinner arrived here in 1970, he immersed himself in Parliament's history, studying its bible, Erskine May's 19th-century book of Parliamentary practice. "I stayed in the [Commons] for many hours...listening to the little things that happened, watching people as they raised questions," Mr. Skinner recalls. "So by the time I was ready to pounce, I knew how to do it."
Late at night, Mr. Skinner sometimes lingers in the empty debating chamber, home to a ceremonial gold mace that, since the 17th century, has served as a symbol of the monarch's authority in Parliament. The mace has been brutalized at times: Former Conservative minister Michael Heseltine won the nickname Tarzan after swinging it round his head during a heated debate in 1976.
Mr. Skinner, however, once tested the weight of the mace, and handled it with care. It helped him gauge the place. Eventually, Mr. Skinner says, you get to "understand the chemistry" of Parliament.
Write to Alistair MacDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org