Sunday 3rd January 2016
Mhairi Black, Scottish National Party MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, tells Marcus Papadopoulos how her path to Westminster began and her opinion of the House of Commons
At the start of this year, Scotland’s political map was red. Voting Labour in Scotland had been second nature to many Scottish people for decades and traditional Labour values were seen as constituting an integral part of Scotland’s identity. However, by the morning ofu Friday 8 May, Scotland was awash with yellow and black, as the Scottish National Party decimated Labour, removing the party of Keir Hardie from the front seat of Scotland’s politics.
Of Scotland’s 59 constituencies, the SNP took 56, obliterating Labour by taking 40 seats from them and also by taking 10 seats from the Liberal Democrats. Huge Labour majorities were cut to pieces as the SNP advanced from one constituency to another, unseating major Labour figures such as Jim Murphy and Anne Begg. A new dawn has appeared over Scotland, which is also being seen at Westminster, changing UK politics dramatically.
One of the stars of the SNP’s success at this year’s general election was a 21 year old year old from Paisley by the name of Mhairi Black. She made the news in the early hours of May 8 when she won the safe seat of Paisley and Renfrewshire South, defeating the incumbent Douglas Alexander, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary and chair of Labour’s General Election Strategy.
The youngest MP in the House of Commons, Mhairi delivered a maiden speech that confirmed her place as one of the SNP’s most talented representatives at Westminster. Now settling down in her role as an MP, after having successfully completed her degree in politics and public policy this summer, Mhairi is pursuing SNP policies and causes close to her heart with rigour, candour and ceaseless energy. One of the most likeable and down to earth politicians at Westminster, Mhairi never ceases to forget both her roots and the lives of ordinary people in her constituency.
In this exclusive interview, Mhairi discusses how her interest in politics came about, her reasons for joining the SNP as oppose to Labour, her thoughts on the House of Commons, what she will be fighting for at Westminster and where next for the SNP.
Q When and how did your interest in politics come about?
A Well, my family had always taken an interest in politics but probably more subconsciously. So they were always aware of what was happening both in Britain and abroad and, generally speaking, took a view on events. However, no one in my family was a member of a political party and hence there was no canvassing or leafletting by them. But what really sparked and galvanised my interest – and my family’s interest, too – in politics was when the Scottish Government announced that it would hold a referendum on independence. I began spending a lot of time thinking about what the benefits to the Scottish people would be of having independence and concluded that they were numerous: economically, politically and socially. Consequently, I joined the SNP and began campaigning rigorously for the Yes campaign during the referendum. So there was a natural progression whereby I started out by manning street stalls, distributing leaflets, canvassing and attending and speaking at public meetings all across Scotland. I was then selected as the SNP prospective parliamentary candidate for the safe Labour seat of Paisley and Renfrewshire South, where the incumbent was Douglas Alexander.
Q Had your family voted SNP before?
No, as they were all traditional Labour voters with traditional Labour values – from my parents to my uncles and aunts to my grandparents. We were very much a Red Clydeside family. And I was brought up on the notion that the Labour Party were the good guys while the Conservative Party were the bad guys.
Q Was there anything else which made you join the SNP? And how old were you when you joined the party?
I joined when I was 15, and it was the invasion of Iraq which sowed the first seeds of doubt in my mind about Labour as my Father fiercely opposed Tony Blair’s illegal and disastrous war. Following on from the announcement that a referendum on Scottish independence would be held, I developed the view that the only way Scotland could be governed with traditional Labour values – and by never again being governed by the Conservative Party – would be through an independent Scotland. The more I discovered about the SNP, the more I realised their achievements for Scotland, such as on social justice. While Labour had failed to take care of the Scottish people, the SNP were resolutely committed to serving the interests of Scotland.
Q What was the response of your family and friends to when you were elected as an MP at this May’s general election?
Everyone was delighted for me and proud of me and, of course, I was extremely happy. But I found that my pride was more due to having being part of history on that election night, with the massive swing to the SNP across the whole of Scotland, breaking Labour strongholds in every part of the country, as I did in Paisley and Renfrewshire South.
Q How are you finding the House of Commons so far?
To be absolutely honest, I find the place utterly ridiculous. Everything that we said during the referendum campaign about the House of Commons being out of touch with people’s lives and of being old fashioned, is completely true. The voting process is both archaic and time consuming and it is the taxpayer who is footing the bill for this. Ironically, the Conservative government is very pro-business yet fails to see how inefficient and costly the voting process is. What exists at the House of Commons is a bizarre tradition which no one wants to change and I find this very frustrating. People in my constituency and in constituencies across Scotland could never relate to what happens at Westminster – it is that alien to them. And my fellow SNP MPs all hold the same opinion, too, that Westminster is a far cry from the real world. Furthermore, some people who work at Westminster believe that the House of Commons is one of the best parliaments in the world when it is not! The House of Commons is unbelievably inefficient.
While the Houses of Parliament look nice on the outside, on the inside the building is literally falling to pieces. If it was any other public building, it would be shut down due to health and safety reasons.
Q What policies will you be pursuing in the House of Commons?
The challenge for myself, and all other SNP MPs, is to make sure that Scotland does not get sidelined. As a result of the Government’s English Votes for English Laws Bill, Scottish MPs are becoming second-class MPs and this is very dangerous to Scotland and its people. We have to defend the interests and welfare of ordinary Scots. So firstly, we need to make as much noise as possible about what the Conservative government is doing to Scotland’s MPs; secondly, to educate people about what is happening at Westminster because usually what happens behind the walls of there is quite secret and so we need to make the place more transparent; and thirdly, to oppose anything the Conservative do which is detrimental to progressive politics and ordinary people’s lives.
Furthermore, the Conservative government is making it a lot more difficult for young people in particular to gain creative skills because of how the Tories are cutting the benefits that millions of people rely on. That is preventing many people from being able to learn creative skills, which are essential for their futures.
Q Can the SNP and Labour work together in the House of Commons and, if so, how?
I believe so. From the very beginning, the SNP made it categorically clear that we will work with Labour on any issue that we can work together on. For the first couple of months after the election, we found that it was Labour that was not prepared to work together. Hopefully, however, Labour’s initial attitude will start to subside and we can work together effectively, as we did when it came to the tax credits debate where we put a lot of pressure on the government over its harsh policy. The ball is in Labour’s court, as oppose to ours.
Q Finally, where next for the SNP?
Well, first of all, I would like us to win in the Scottish parliamentary elections next year! And anyone who knows Scotland intimately knows that the issue of independence has not gone away and will not go away. So the job of the SNP is to build on the confidence that the Scottish people showed to the SNP when they elected 56 of us this May. The referendum was lost because the Sottish people did not have the confidence in themselves to govern themselves independently. But this May was a turning-point for Scotland and we now have a solid base to demonstrate to the Scottish people that Scotland will never reach its true potential as long as it is held back by the Westminster parliament.