SNP MP Mhairi Black speaks for me and many others. She will be missed at Westminster – Laura Waddell
“What I'm looking forward to is just being me without having to worry about how it will be perceived. I'm looking forward to getting rid of the MP bit and just being Mhairi Black.” This summer, Black announced her intention to step down at the next election, citing the “poisonous” culture in Westminster. I caught up with her to ask how she’s feeling about it all. “It’s odd not knowing when your final day's gonna be, but as with all things Westminster, it's outwith my control. So I just kinda need to ride the wave until it's no more.”
Colleagues at Westminster have taken notice. “What surprised me is the number of people from other parties who've approached me to say I think you’re really brave, we experience these things too. It’s nice in one respect but, well, we could do with more voices talking about what this place is like.” She believes in persistence. “The only way it's gonna change is if we get people in there challenging it continually... Everybody has a role to play. You might be disappointed your role didn’t cause a revolution overnight, but it makes an impact and it lays down a stone for somebody else to step on and to keep building and building.”
“Westminster is a big physical, mental and emotional drain for loads of different reasons. Every job is I suppose, but it’s very intense. It basically takes over your life because everything has to be planned around what's happening at Westminster and when Westminster is deliberately designed to be so unpredictable, that doesn't help you get your life organised essentially. Every time there’s a recess, or a prolonged period where I’m waking up in my own bed, I start to feel like a human being again.”
Black spent her parliamentary recess doing DIY. “I've learned that I'm somebody who needs a routine. When it goes out the window, I can cope with that, but only for a set period of time. I don't thrive in that sort of environment. I'm excited about reclaiming my time.”
She has spent her adult life in politics. I ask what in particular stands out. “Something I was proud of? The Waspi campaign. From my memory, it hadn’t really cut through, a lot of folk weren’t aware of it and I tried to really run with it. It started to pick up. I had more and more folks getting in touch with me from across the UK asking can you please look at my pension so I kind of became the MP for pensions at one point,” she laughs. “So although we didn’t manage to change it, I was very proud of being part of that, watching a very niche little topic build to a point where we were able to communicate it to folk so that they understood it.
“The second thing I've been really proud of is fighting for trans rights. It’s not a trendy thing to do. It's not something that's easy. And although some folks talk about it as just a social justice bandwagon and all the rest of it, if it was, we wouldn't be seeing all the columns that we’re reading in these right-wing papers, we wouldn't see the level of viciousness that folk are attacking the trans community with and the LGBT community more broadly.” She says that when she looks back in 20 years’ time, this issue will probably stand out. “I’ve put my money where my mouth is. I think it's the right thing to do.”
I ask Black what actually concerns her as a lesbian in Britain today. “Organisations like the LGB Alliance, insidious groups that crawl out the woodwork, like we've seen happen in America… seeing that in the UK – actually seeing it in rooms and meetings that I'm in – is truly terrifying. We're talking about the corridors of power here and overnight this full moral panic has been whipped up and it's been whipped up effectively. That's the sort of thing I've always assumed was America being mad over there, so to see us succumb to the same moral panic is really scary, not just in terms of watching that happen as a legislator, but as a queer woman myself, in my own life, having noticed the rise of hatred and abuse and bigots feeling emboldened. I don’t think the LGBT community has experienced this in at least a decade, if not more, because we were going in the right direction and now we're facing the pushback that always comes whenever you progress rights. But watching the pushback is really, really horrible.”
Does Black think the current moral panic will die down? “I’m hopeful it does, but it’s the lasting damage that’s left. I think any queer person will be able to tell you themselves that the shame put on LGBT people, we still all carry it because we’re still not viewed as normal. We’ve progressed to the extent I could get married to my wife – legally we’re making leaps and bounds – but it takes a lot of work to make sure society keeps up with that. If things carry on the way they have been, particularly when you’ve got a Tory government embracing any form of culture war, actively pouring fuel on that fire, it has very real consequences. Teenagers growing up now are experiencing that same shame. It shows how far we’ve still got left to go. By no means is it a pleasant journey, but I have faith people are in their hearts good enough that we’ll come through.”
As a fellow LGBT Scot, who was in school for the days of Section 28, the politician from Paisley reflects my own perspective. Westminster might miss the clear voice of Mhairi Black, but I have a feeling she’ll keep fighting for what she believes in on the outside.
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