We must not lose Mhairi Black MP from Westminster, argues Heather Saul.
Mhairi Black’s once unbridled enthusiasm is at risk of being stamped out. The SNP politician and “baby of the house” has said she finds Westminster depressing.
Black is fed up because so little actually gets done, characteristically refraining from mincing her words when she told the Sunday Post: “It is so old and defunct in terms of its systems and procedures – a lot of the time, it is just a waste of time.”
To hear her sound so deflated less than two years into the job says much more about the institution than it does about her.
Black, 22, is a breath of fresh air in Parliament, that overwhelmingly male, white, middle-class and middle-aged institution remaining so stubbornly elite.
What a shame it would be to lose a politician like her, a woman whose voice cuts through in the “boys’ club” at a time when the number of women ever elected to the Commons has only just surpassed the current number of sitting male MPs, to lose a politician who famously summed up her trajectory as being born, going to school, leaving, working in a chippie and then being elected MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.
“I fried a fish,” she told The Guardian. “Now I’m an MP.” Those two sentences seem inconsequential, but they matter. They translate to ‘I have lived in real life, and I actually have the capacity to empathise because of it’.
Her impressive maiden speech about inequality continues to be one of her defining moments in Parliament.
Watched by 11 million in one day, what Black told the House resonated because there was conviction behind it, honesty underpinning it and real anger coursing through it.
How many MPs would even consider highlighting how their own salary and London rent is tax-payer funded in their first speech to underscore the hypocrisy of austerity? “In this Budget,” she told the House, “the Chancellor also abolished any housing benefit for anyone below the age of 21. So we are now in the ridiculous situation whereby, because I am an MP, not only am I the youngest, but I am also the only 20-year-old in the whole of the UK that the Chancellor is prepared to help with housing.”
Black doesn’t speak in jargon – her message cuts through. She is understood, loud and clear, by the people she serves, becoming one of a number of MPs fuelling the backlash against political spin and pivots.
A talented orator, she understands how effective her voice can be and uses it to challenge the Government on a variety of social causes. On International Women’s Day, Black headed down to a demonstration against changes made to the state pension for women born in the 1950s.
“I just came from the Budget and listened to what the Chancellor had to say, and he did not mention you once, “ she told demonstrators. “Apart from anything else, on International Women’s Day, that is a shame.
“It is women who suffer underneath their policies. It is women who suffer the worst of austerity.
“It is women who bear the brunt of the problems in society. History has a way of making what would once seem acceptable look absolutely absurd.”
Black has been vocal about Westminster’s glaringly outdated traditions.
For that especially, I am grateful. Prime Minister’s Questions, that weekly cacophony of jeering, howling, elbow-nudging and self-satisfied smirks, is supposed to be a session holding leaders to account. Yet often when I watch it all I see is MPs either letting off some steam, executing a vendetta or developing the next one.
This is how our politicians are presented to the world. It is embarrassing.
A white, privileged male in a bastion of white maleness
Perhaps Black is also fed-up, as the rest of us are, with incidents denoting just how far we do have to go, such as when Nicholas Soames woofed at Scottish MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh as she tried to speak during an emergency debate on Donald Trump’s travel ban.
Just a “friendly canine salute”, according to Soames, who said he woofed because he felt Ms Ahmed-Sheikh had “snapped” at Boris Johnson.
Soames also joined the debate surrounding Black’s comments on Monday, saying he was sorry to hear Black is depressed by her parliamentary life: “I find it to be endlessly fascinating and a great privilege.” He then added a hashtag: #sadreally.
“Do you think that might, in part, be the result of being a white, privileged male in a bastion of white maleness?” wondered Alison Camps in response. His one-word reply? “No.”
No wonder she is disillusioned by it all
Black did not go to Westminster for the privilege of being an MP, she went in to effect change.
Members of Parliament are supposed to stand in Parliament and speak for the most vulnerable people, to use the platform they were given by their constituents to fight their corner.
While nothing is getting done, Black’s life is turned upside down. Her age leaves her under constant scrutiny, her viral speech grants her fame overnight.
Her Twitter was trawled, “maths is shite” and “Smirnoff Ice is the drink of gods” were gleefully unearthed (although these only served to endear her more).
No wonder she is disillusioned by it all. This is an inner battle spoken aloud: perhaps to enjoy Westminister, you have to become one of them. That this may be unpalatable to Black just makes me miss a Parliament with her even more.
This column originally featured on our sister site.