Politics

Outgoing MP Mhairi Black on Trump, Tory culture wars and why UK is creeping towards fascism

A decade on from her rousing maiden speech, the departing SNP MP on her experiences of government and how it must change

Mhairi Black in Paisley in 2017

The last decade of Mhairi Black’s life tells a story of the last decade of UK politics.

The activist in her was awakened during campaigning for the independence referendum in 2014; the SNP may have lost the vote but they went on to win 56 out of 59 Scottish seats at the 2015 general election. At age 20, Black became the youngest MP in 200 years, representing Paisley and Renfrewshire South while she still had a final exam to sit to complete her politics and public policy degree.

The independence campaign switched younger generations onto politics in Scotland, but it shifted debates towards identity and ideology in a way that exposed divisions in communities and families that didn’t seem to exist before. Then the whole of the UK got to enjoy a similar, even more intense experience through the Brexit campaign, vote and continuing fallout.

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Through Brexit, then Covid, years of austerity evolving into a crippling cost of living crisis, handled or not by a literal handful of prime ministers, Mhairi Black has enjoyed a ringside seat. And it’s worn her out.

“I’m tired,” she said last summer when she announced that she wouldn’t be standing at the next election (whenever that may be). “And the thing that makes me tired is Westminster. I think it is one of the most unhealthy workplaces that you could ever be in. It is a toxic environment.”

The Big Issue visited her office in Paisley to find out how her expectations of parliament contrasted with her experiences, what stops government making positive differences in people’s lives and what it means for the future.

Mhairi Black. Image: S Meddle / ITV / Shutterstock

The Big Issue: What’s a typical day in the life like?

Mhairi Black: Genuinely, no two days are the same. It’s always unpredictable. Normally in London, Monday ’til Wednesday or Thursday then Fridays are constituency days.

Does the balance feel right?

Not for me. I would rather spend more time in the constituency than in London. But given the nature of how parliament works in practice, you need to be there.

How do you feel when you’re here compared to when you’re in London?

Much more comfortable. I’m dealing with what I label ‘normal people’, folk who speak my language and will knock you down to earth very quickly if you’re too full of your own importance. Every time I’m back home, it reminds me why I’m doing the job.

What are the biggest issues that people come to you with?

Just now it’s definitely cost of living. One thing that has got worse in the last decade, in particular the last six or so years, is people who are in work living in poverty. That to me is a damning signal of where Britain is at the minute.

The cost of living crisis effects every person and place differently. How have people in here been impacted?

Everything ultimately comes down to the fact that folk don’t have enough money. Glasgow’s next door, that should be a lot of opportunity. But if you can’t afford a travel pass, you’re not getting into Glasgow every day. If you’re having to choose between travel or a meal or childcare, which do you cut? All of them are necessary. So we have a situation where people are missing out on opportunities because they are just trying to survive.

People are feeling the strain, so too are local authorities and public services.

It feels like we’re at the limit of how many cuts we can make and still have services. No matter who becomes government at the next election, those cuts are probably going to continue. That’s terrifying, frankly, because so many public services are already on their knees. So it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

If we’re already at breaking point, what happens when everything is broken?

If services disappear then it leaves a vacuum. That’s where we see the rise in things like alcohol addiction, drug addiction, gambling. We see crime on the rise, we see divisions starting to creep in amongst communities.

Paisley has been through all this before when the ship industry on the Clyde vanished, right?

Certainly, looking back on when I was growing up, we were very clearly still in a hangover from the Thatcher years. How long are we going to still be feeling the effects of this 10 years of… you can’t even call it an era following a prime minister, because we’ve had five. We’re going to be feeling the repercussions for a long time, which is why there should be much more urgency about trying to change the direction Britain’s going in. We need to start investing. If that means we need to borrow, so be it, because it means that we’ll have healthy happy citizens, and a country can’t thrive if you don’t have that.

Mhairi Black delivering her maiden speech in Parliament, 2015. Image: Youtube

Mhairi Black’s maiden speech to the house was electrifyingly impressive. It went viral on social media, racking up millions of views. Even if you did not agree with her politics, it would be hard to disagree that parliament would not be improved by having more young, smart, passionate voices in it.

In her speech she spoke of how town centres had deteriorated, communities were on the decline, the unemployment rate was higher than the national average. Nine years on, what’s changed?

Overall, Mhairi Black says “it feels like fighting against a tide”. You can see ebb and flow on Paisley’s High Street. The Marks & Spencer’s is gone. Units in the shopping centre have signs not aimed at new retailers but for people looking for long-term storage. There is however a brand-new library that opened late last year, but is dealing with a pretty bad leak on one of its floors. There’s a real sense of community and some great events put on by the town, including an incredible Halloween extravaganza (that Black doesn’t any claim credit for), and the creative side of the town that gave us John Byrne, Steven Moffat, Gerard Butler and more still thrives. Near Mhairi Black’s office, I pass Paolo Nutini’s dad Fred raising the shutters of his chippy Castelvecchi, which has been in the family since 1914. “In 2015 they gave me a free chippie to say well done,” Black remembers, “But when I came in the next time they were like right, four quid.”

I thought, I have drafted a law that could really change lives and shouldn’t be controversial and nobody turns up. The whole system is, for me anyway, defunct and it needs an overhaul

Mhairi Black

What is it about the Westminster system that prevented you making being able to make changes in areas you set out in your maiden speech?

The first time I really got down about Westminster was when I had a Private Member’s Bill in 2016. You can have two types: one that’s fairly controversial or you can make it as reasonable and watered down as possible in the hope that it will get cross-party support. So I worked with a lot of organisations, the clerks of the house, talking to other MPs. My bill [entitled the Benefit Claimants Sanctions (Required Assessment) Bill] was saying that a Jobcentre cannot sanction you, unless they take into account your housing, financial and family situation – so nobody can be homeless because of sanctions, nobody can starve because of sanctions.

I jumped through every single hoop in the hope that even the smallest change would help somebody. Loads of folk were like, ‘Yeah, I support you.’ Then it got to the day, and nobody turned up except my own colleagues. I thought, I have drafted a law that could really change lives and shouldn’t be controversial and nobody turns up. The way the whole system works is, for me anyway, defunct and it needs an overhaul.

Is Westminster defunct or is any system destined to fail when politicians are having to juggle power and responsibility with party politics?

I actually think the Scottish parliament is a perfect example of how different it can be. It’s designed to make a majority as unlikely as possible. Once [the SNP] have achieved a majority but that was an anomaly. I’m in favour of proportional representation because it represents what society looks like much better, but also because no one party has a monopoly. It forces you to listen, engage and work with other people.

Was it a bad thing for the SNP to have a majority in Holyrood? Or what was bad about it?

I think yeah, one of the things that does get lost is having to work with others. Now we’re in a coalition with the Greens, which I think has been a brilliant thing for the Scottish government. On the whole, I favour having to work with others more than I do one party having total monopoly.

I guess many politicians don’t necessarily agree?

Oh yes, absolutely I’m unpopular in that view.

Our system may not be great. As we speak [on 15 March] the Russian election is taking place. Who do you think is going to win that?

Oh I wonder.

Looking at politics in Russia or America, does it make our system seem not so bad after all?

When you look across the world, in particular the rise of these global powers like Russia, like China, to me they should serve as a warning. For all I criticise how our parliament operates, at least we have one. Our oldest and best ally, America, if Trump gets back in – this is a guy who admires Vladimir Putin, who admires North Korea’s system – if that’s the sort of person we are going to be calling an ally, that makes me worry about UK democracy. Add the fact that we’re seeing a clamp down on protests, what you can and cannot say, this extremism bill that Michael Gove just put in. Fascism doesn’t just happen overnight, it’s baby steps that start to normalise things that 10-15 years ago there would have rightly been uproar about. I feel the UK is in danger of creeping in that direction. So when I look at countries like Russia I think thank god I’m not there. But I’m also like, is that where we’ll end up? Because I’m already too close for comfort.

Do you think Donald Trump will get back in?

I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump wins. The Democrats had an opportunity to put forward a really strong candidate that’s the exact opposite of Donald Trump. And they settled for another old white man. I think that’s ultimately going to bite the Democrats in the backside.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin during the G20 Japan Summit, 2019, in Osaka, Japan. Image: American Photo Archive / Alamy

Would it then be surprising if he wanted to be like his friend Putin and change the rules so that he could stand for more than two terms?

Absolutely. Once you do the unprecedented, like changing the constitution, which happened with Roe vs Wade, that sets a precedent. Next time around, it’s a wee bit easier, a bit less shocking to change things again. So it’s a perfect runway for Trump to start messing about with the American constitution. And when that happens, it’s dangerous territory, very dangerous territory, because it may also suit whoever comes after Trump to have the same grip on power. It’s a very slippery slope.

Speaking of fake news and extreme views, what have been the biggest changes over your nine years in office?

When I think back to when I first got elected, it was insane. Suddenly, you’re getting death threats every couple of weeks. You’ve got the police on speed dial. It’s a very strange existence. Social media has been warped over the last 10 years. There was a very quick realisation that Twitter dictates the news. So bad actors take advantage of that: if we can manipulate Twitter, then the journalists will do our job for us. I still see that now.

The loudest debates today are not about the economy or healthcare or education but about culture wars. How did that happen?

Undoubtedly it’s come from the Conservatives. They’re the ones relishing it. I know he’s not in the party anymore but Lee Anderson when he was deputy chairman said, “We don’t have a big issue to fight an election on like Brexit so we’ll do it on culture wars.” You have the party in power saying their strategy is to actively whip up hatred and disinformation in the hope that they get people angry enough to support them.

Was Lee Anderson right? I mean he’s not right, but was it correct to identify that as a strategy?

Anybody who’s been paying attention has seen this coming. The deliberate dog whistles, whether it’s on immigration, trans people, LGBT education. Anything where most people don’t know the ins and outs of – what it means to be LGBT or an asylum seeker, to be fleeing war. So let’s pump in lots of disinformation and give voice to pearl-clutchers rather than engaging with the real lives you’re impacting. We know that hate crimes are on the rise. We know that trans people’s suicides are on the rise. As manufactured as the culture wars are, the consequences are real.

It’s infected every party, hasn’t it?

Not a single party has got clean hands in this. That in itself shows why it’s a tactic. Divide and conquer. It’s just terrifying and shameful that it appears to work.

Mhairi Black is one of almost 100 MPs who have already said they won’t be standing in the next general election, many from the Conservatives who may be fearing a humiliating wipeout. Black’s seat would likely be safe, it’s the culture that’s pushed her out. But might she be in for a surprise when she finds out most other jobs come with toxic environments and high levels of stress. But she points out that these things are intensified in Westminster by the high stakes and level of responsibility people feel. “And there’s folk in Westminster who are carrying swords,” Black adds. Being from Paisley (William Wallace was born nearby – not to mention the gangs of bams that run about) must prepare you for that though? “But in Paisley they tend to be wearing tracksuits, not tights.”

Mhairi Black has been coy when asked what she plans to do next – “My problem is I’ve peaked too soon, it’s all downhill,” she says, tongue in cheek. Her stock answer, which she repeats is that: “I genuinely don’t know what I’m going to do next.” But I tell her I think I’ve figured it out – a show at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“Yes, I am doing that,” she says. “I mean, I’ve not put pen to paper yet. Where I’ve got to in my head is I know I like being creative. I know I like communicating with people. And I like helping folk. The one thing I’ve been missing over the last 10 years is an element of fun, because being a politician, you’re not allowed to have a sense of humour.”

She has another career ambition but worries another local has beaten her to it.

“I would love to be the next Doctor. David Tennant got in there first.”

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