Exclusive interview with Mhairi Black
Exclusive interview with the MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South
Mhairi Black - image credit: Alister Thorpe
Mhairi Black leans out over the railings of the faux balcony at her Westminster office window. It overlooks the glass atrium of the coffee bar in Portcullis House where MPs mingle with the press, drinking coffee and trading stories. She points to the adjoining office where her former colleague, Natalie McGarry, was once housed and tells me they used to “hang out the windaes” chatting like Glasgow housewives and had once joked they should hang out their washing there just to make themselves feel more at home.
It’s two and a half years now since Black was first elected amid a flurry of media attention about her youthful age, and while all may have changed in the office next door, Black’s irreverence for the Mother of all Parliaments has not diminished and she most definitely does not feel at home.
“I don’t enjoy it in the slightest,” she says in characteristic bombast. “It is over 300 miles away from my home, it is filled with sociopaths, and if it was any other building, health and safety would shut it down in a heartbeat.”
Black’s conversations are basically a stream of political consciousness, humour and self-deprecation, filtered slightly by a caution about what her mum might think about what she is saying. She speaks her mind (which is razor sharp) and despite a continued focus on her age – she was just 20 when she was elected in 2015 – she has a wise head, a keen interest in others and a good sense of her own place in the world and what she wants to do with it.
Black was just 18 and at university in Glasgow studying politics when real life politics intruded. She became completely engaged and absorbed by the independence referendum and when it was all over, she didn’t want the feeling to stop.
She had joined the SNP in 2011, not for any other reason than a desire for independence and a “socialist Scotland” and while she believed she was probably “Labour in her heart”, she says the SNP was the best vehicle to get to independence “in the shortest time with the least possible damage”.
“I get the SNP has that wee string of neoliberalism through it and that kind of Edinburgh pandering to banks and to businesses, and stuff like that, and I get that I’m totally the opposite,” she says. “I think it’s almost like I’m a micro example of what the SNP is as a party in that you’ve got Karl Marx in one corner and then you’ve got somebody who’s basically got a conservative point of view in the other and the two of us argue it out and by the time that’s done, we reach something that’s pretty digestible for most people and that is the SNP.”
It was a chance meeting with former SNP deputy leader, Jim Sillars, during the referendum campaign that allowed her to “feel comfortable about being a bit uncomfortable in the SNP”.
She says she took one of her “undecided pals” along to a referendum debate at the university and there was a panel that included Michelle Thomson, Tommy Sheridan, Ruth Davidson and James Kelly. Someone from the ‘Yes’ side pulled out at the last minute and Black’s tutor encouraged her to take up the empty place about 40 minutes before the start.
“I had no notes or anything and I’m sat down beside Ruth Davidson,” says Black. “They all got out these folders and everything and I’m sitting there like, ‘I’ll just go and get a pen and paper’ basically to make it look like I’d prepared. It was brilliant, though, because not once did I hesitate at all throughout the whole thing because I know the stuff and I realised I could convince people [including her now decided pal] to use their vote for ‘Yes’ for a reason.”
She then took part in another debate in Springburn that Sillars was also speaking at. She was captivated by him and Sillars recognised a political star. The two subsequently spent time talking politics and Black started travelling around Scotland on the so-called ‘Margo-mobile’ campaigning alongside Sillars for independence.
“During the referendum, I just never let myself get into the argument about whether we were going to win, I was just more thinking ‘Jesus, we need to win’.
“And when we lost, it was like a death. There was honestly mourning. There were stages of it that I can’t even talk about now without feeling it, it was that big. I remember me and Dad were sitting on the sofa and the two of us just thought at the same time – ‘we can’t give two years of our life to just go back in the box’ – and that’s when we started thinking we’d campaign for the SNP because everything we’d been doing before had been for ‘Yes’ and we couldn’t have given a toss about the SNP but we wanted to do more.”
She stood for selection to be a candidate in the 2015 general election because “too many people were asking me” to do it and while she took it incredibly seriously, she honestly didn’t think she’d win. On the day she was selected as the SNP candidate for Paisley and Renfrewshire South – a seat held by former Labour minister and party big-hitter, Douglas Alexander for 18 years – The Daily Record splashed with a story about tweets she had written when she was just 14. Like most teen twitterings, they were littered with profanities and dubious references to football loyalties, along with vivid descriptions of nights out fuelled by alcohol. And with growing calls for her to step down as a candidate, she was worried more about what her mum would say and left it to others to worry about her suitability to be an MP.
“It was horrible because I was powerless. Nobody had ever heard of me and this was their first impression of me and their first impression was totally inaccurate of who I was. It was bullying, I would say. It was unjust. That was really getting to me because if you’re going to argue with me or have a pop at me then do it for political reasons, do it because I’m genuinely doing something wrong, don’t be picking on a 14-year-old lassie’s tweets because apart from anything else, that’s creepy!
“I never asked who had sent the tweets to the papers, I never cared. I just had to deal with it. I remember realising the severity of it when Kevin Pringle [then head of communications with the SNP] came around to the house. My mum opened the door with the biscuits and the whole ‘would you like a cup of tea, son?’ and me and my dad were just sitting in there being our cheery usual selves and Kevin is like ‘right, so what’s your comment going to be for the Michael Crick interview?’ I jokingly said, ‘it’s all true about Celtic but I hate Rangers more’ and Kevin didn’t laugh…
“Look, it was just stupid, childish stuff from a teenager and it shouldn’t have mattered but it did. The reaction was over the top.
“Hugh Henry [former Labour MSP] was in the news saying that I was a bigot and that was the irony of it, all these plastic Irishmen tweeting me dug’s abuse and saying that I’m anti-Catholic and I’m like, ‘my mother’s got 13 brothers, my granny took me to Mass every day, have you seen the chains I wear?’ But there was no vehicle for me to say that, to fight back, and then there was a big bit of me thinking it’s none of your bloody business so why should I justify myself?
“It was quite a conflicted time. It was a horrible election campaign. I didn’t have time to think, it was all about dealing with the today. I was also still at uni trying to finish my dissertation, and I remember before the Michael Crick interview I had a tutorial and I couldn’t remember even what we talked about in it because I was just fried in the head. I went straight out of that and did the interview and aye, it was horrible.
“It was more the powerlessness that I felt. In many ways, I suppose, it was kind of like second year at school again when I was being bullied. It was certainly a baptism of fire but in many ways, I’m glad it happened because I now know how high the stakes are. I know I’m never feeling like that again and you’re never going to catch me in a sex scandal or anything…”
Black is an interesting mix of vulnerability and confidence. She can stand in front of hundreds and give a barn-storming speech, get up in the Commons and accuse the Tory government of injustice, make a maiden speech that goes viral worldwide, but she is also very young, had never lived away from home, until elected, and is cocooned by her very large extended family and the support of her long-term girlfriend like a comfort blanket. There’s something very fragile about Black. Despite all her brashness and bravado, you want to give her a hug. She mentions being bullied at school frequently during the interview, then when we try to explore it, dismisses it as something that she dealt with and that other people “got much worse”. I wonder, though, how much support she got from the SNP, given her youth and how she was so brutally thrust into the media spotlight.
She laughs. “All the women candidates got a mentor assigned to them. Mine was Fiona Hyslop. I met her once in a café and I think I frightened her, then another time and that was it. That’s not to say that she was rubbish, it was just I never contacted her, really. It was kind of almost too forced. I wanted to ask things like ‘what do you do when there are 14 cameras in your face? Is it OK to put your hand up? Can you push them? Can you tell them to fuck off? What can I do?’ All that kind of stuff, I had to figure out myself and that’s where my mother, the teacher in me, kicked in. I was just like ‘right, everybody step back, I’ll deal with you all one at a time’ when I just wanted to say ‘gie us peace’.
“I struggled a lot with the media being completely inappropriate and downright invasive at the start so I was on the phone to a lot of editors for the first couple of months but that died a death very quickly once folk were put in their place but I had to do all that myself.
“I’ve been really lucky in the support network I have from my family and my friends – they are just solid, absolutely rock solid. I mean, my pal, I think it was the Daily Mail or the Sun, offered her money for photos of me and the first thing she did was screenshot the offer and sent it to me and asked, ‘how much?’ I was like, ‘aye, if they go over £60,000, just give me ten’.”
Black does play the media scrutiny down but it was intense. For the three days after the election, she and her family moved into a Travelodge because the press was camped outside their home and photographers were even climbing over the garden fence.
“I don’t blame the party for all that. I think the SNP was still struggling in terms of the huge influx of members and structures that had been in place were probably no longer fit for purpose. I understand that, everybody was fried, everybody was absolutely scunnered, because that had been three solid years of campaigning. It was more individuals that were supportive to me.”
She then laughs at a memory and tells me that Alex Salmond did take her out to lunch in the House of Commons shortly after being elected but even that meeting between the party veteran and the newbie wasn’t entirely comfortable.
“… I was just sitting chatting away to him and the whole time I’m thinking, what’s the point of this meant to be – is this a date, do I need to come out to Alex Salmond? It was fine, really, he was just giving me tips here and there and then he says, ‘I’m sure Taz [Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh, then a fellow SNP MP] will take you out to go shopping or something at some point and you’ll find your own style’. He then said that the last time he’d had this conversation it was with a young woman called Nicola Sturgeon. I thought, ‘oh, very good’ and I just left the awkward silence hanging when he asked me if I wanted him to arrange it with Taz. I’m like, ‘I am never going to be told how to dress, especially by a man.’”
However, she says that Ian Blackford, now SNP group leader, took her under his wing and other individual MPs were equally supportive.
“Eilidh [Whiteford] was great. In fact, that’s why I got this office, she wanted to make sure I was near her so she could keep an eye on me. I didn’t find that out until a couple of months ago and looking back, I think that was really first class of her. I was able just to go across to her office and not feel as isolated or whatever. In terms of the party, though, there wasn’t a lot of support at all.”
This shocks me. I assumed that with Black being tipped almost immediately as a future leader, the party hierarchy would have protected and mentored her. Surely she and Nicola Sturgeon have a close relationship? They must have had an early one-to-one?
“No. She came down to greet us all but no, we’ve not had that kind of chat. The only time that I really sort of had a conversation with her was when she asked me to do the youth stuff during the Scottish elections, but other than that, no. I mean, we’ve been at public things and meet and greets but nothing special.
“When you said you were surprised, it got me thinking and because this is my first time in politics, I didn’t know if that was the norm, I didn’t know the protocol. And yes, I am in the SNP and I have an element of responsibility to them, it was an SNP ticket I got elected on, but at the same time, I know I’m in this for my constituents, I’m in this for the stuff I believe in. That’s at the core of everything I’m doing and every decision I make. So, when I was first elected, I wasn’t really focusing on what should and shouldn’t have been happening.
“This is only me thinking back reflectively but at the time, I was just thinking – how can I be in this job and survive – and I figured out a way to do it and that is really keeping my family close. I think things should change and that it might be an idea for Nicola to take the time to talk to folk or whatever but I hope that someone else further down the line does have a different experience to me.
“There should be more care… there you go. I know I’m doing that thing again, where I’m maybe minimising it because it’s myself I’m talking about and I don’t want to make out I was really needy or anything but I think that’s an area where the party does need a kick up the backside, especially given the kind of caring ethos that we like to preach in the party.
“Politics is not like any other workplace. It’s all so strange in that there’s no real distinction for many people between you and the work you. Some of the folk on Twitter, they hate me, they absolutely hate me but they’ve never met me but they cannot differentiate between Mhairi Black and Mhairi Black MP. That’s fine but it’s going to have an impact, so I think there must be more of a recognition of the stresses to keep our politicians functioning and all on the same team. That’s true of wider society too, we need to take more time for just looking out for each other.
“At the beginning, I struggled a lot with unfair criticism. I have no problem with people criticising my politics or even me as a person if it is constructive and genuine. But when I see people who should know better deliberately choosing to distort and misrepresent me, I get very angry because that just feels like bullying to me.
“This job takes a real toll on people, in every sense – emotionally, physically and mentally. The constant travel is just a field day for bugs and germs. I was really unwell for a few months back there with stomach problems and I’m still getting tests but I literally couldn’t get out and about. Then I got the norovirus as well. I kept calling it the no-voter virus because I just couldn’t get into my work to vote. I wasn’t fit to travel and was given a medical line, etc, and yet the entire time I was getting sent dug’s abuse for not being in, not voting. Twitter, Facebook, email was full of it and it even crept into the workplace itself.
“At the Budget, one of the Conservative MPs across from me, who had been muttering through the entire thing, had a pop and said, ‘Oh how nice of you to join us, Mhairi’ with an irritating smug grin. I knew the other Tories could hear so I thought, no chance am I taking crap off this guy – his government is literally the reason thousands of people are dead. So, I said, ‘excuse me’ and he repeated himself, so I warned him that he should think very carefully about his next sentence which was, ‘They Work For you [a website that registers MPs’ voting activities], heard of it, Mhairi?’ so I boomed back, ‘Aye, and poor health, have ye’ heard of that?’ to which his face dropped, he went bright red and began profusely apologising and then his budget suddenly became conveniently interesting.
“So, I’m still on the mend, but when I was telling my doctor about that encounter and many others, they were astounded at how horrible it was down here. In any other job, if a doctor says you’re not fit, then you’re not fit. End of. Anything else is literally no one else’s business.”
There is no denying how ‘wee’ Black has shrunk in the last few months but her delicate size doesn’t detract from her big personality and she is clearly defensive about her commitment being questioned.
“I always find it strange when people use my disdain for Westminster as a criticism of me because I have never hidden my dislike of the place, and neither have I been shy in explaining why. It is not some childish vendetta, like when the Celtic fans on the school bus would hold their breath passing Ibrox Stadium. It is a legitimate grievance, with a voting system so archaic that it often results in MPs being paid a fortune to literally wander down the same corridor, over and over again, for two to three hours, with votes at 11 o’clock at night and sometimes carrying on right through the night. It is not a parliament that is fit for purpose.
“I certainly don’t want to spend my life at Westminster, and I always feel like it’s a brass neck to say but it’s the truth – it is tough. The number of failed marriages, affairs and miserable and soulless relationships that exist at Westminster is pretty depressing.
“I remember when we came back to work after the new year this year, I was buying my lunch and the guy in front of me turned to me and said, ‘It’s so great to be back, isn’t it?’ with such a genuine beamer of a smile that I couldn’t bring myself to be anything other than brutally honest. So, I said, ‘Well, naw… no really,’ with an awkward laugh. He went on, ‘I mean, it’s great to see the family and things but after a while, do you not find that you begin to miss the place?’
“It was honestly one of the most alien conversations I’ve ever had. It caught me so off guard and I just could not find any angle from which I could understand his point of view. I left that encounter thinking nothing other than what a sad and unsatisfying life that guy must have, and I truly don’t say that sarcastically.
“I am absolutely buzzing to get home from London, not just for family, but for professional reasons as well – you can’t represent somewhere well if you’re never in it. A few days down south and I’m even missing tap water and to be honest, some people need to recognise that I have a life of my own and I have responsibilities to the people in it. They’ve looked after me and supported me through all this because they recognise that I’m fighting a political battle that needs fought just now – but no one has the energy to keep going forever.
“But then when people say to me, ‘If ye hate it that much, why did ye sign up for it?’, I genuinely want to laugh in disbelief, because these are often the same people that constantly go on about ‘respecting the independence referendum result’. I am respecting it. We had a referendum on our independence three years ago. We were then promised all of these goodies from the British Government and told that if we didn’t take the goodies then there would be all hell to pay. A narrow majority voted to give the UK one last chance and look what they’re doing with that chance, so I cannot get my head around how me coming down here every week, despite my political beliefs and the horrible working environment, and fighting to make sure the UK delivers on the goodies they promised us, is not respecting the result?
“The fact is, I do not believe in Westminster, and I think that is self-evident. What is a parliament when it doesn’t reflect or even care about the society it’s supposed to represent? Even if the entirety of elected Scottish MPs were to vote one way, we could still be comfortably defeated by just the number of London MPs alone.
“People make the arguments about how London has a denser population, etc but it doesn’t get away from the fact that this is not the UK we were promised. What happened to ‘lead, don’t leave!’ or the devo to the max-iest max? I am not OK with how an entire country, the second largest country in the UK, can be outvoted by one city over 300 miles away. And then the irony of it all is that it is the Scottish Government that is expected to pay to put a plug in all the holes that both the Labour and Tory party created. So, yes, I see my time in Westminster as serving no other purpose than to fight my damned hardest for the people that need it most, and to point out how different our country could be, if only all our energy went into building a socialist and independent Scotland instead of constantly wasting all our money, talent and energy on defending ourselves from policies we never voted for in the first place.
“I’m tired of sitting in surgeries – and despite what’s been said, I have been doing them from the very start – having people coming to me with all these problems, and saying to me this is horrible, I can’t live, I can’t survive, it’s terrible, and I’m agreeing with them but when they ask me what I can do about it, I’m like, ‘well, we can raise it in parliament’. I can press, I can twist arms but fundamentally, they [the UK Government] don’t need to give a thing. That can change, and that’s what I think people need to realise. That’s why I try and always remind people that, yes, independence, to an extent, is a step into the dark, but God, you know what we’re stepping away from and surely it’s got to be better than this?”
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