Future Feature: Mhairi Black

Mhairi Black was the same age as a large majority of TSA’s readers when she was voted MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South in May. At just 20, and in her final year of university, she became Britain’s youngest MP since 1832. However, in our latest future feature interview she is keen to point out why her age is so uninteresting, along with discussing ‘cloudhopping’, how the referendum ignited her interest in politics and the harsh realities of being an MP.

I’ve read about how much you dislike discussing your age, and the fact that it is the ‘least interesting thing about you’, but we are a student newspaper and our readers are students. They find it fascinating that someone their age has achieved such a feat and it would be fair to say you have inspired many to become more involved in politics. So I’m afraid I will have to broach the subject of you becoming the youngest MP in the house of commons. Firstly, where did your interest in politics stem from and why did you want to get involved with the SNP?

My conscious interest in politics began when the referendum was announced. For years politics in scotland had become false, shallow and stale – so when the referendum was announced it was something new and interesting that could really result in fundamental change. I began to look into the facts and arguments and overwhelmingly reached the conclusion that Scotland and the UK would be far better off if Scotland was independent: politically, socially and economically.

From this I began campaigning heavily for the Yes campaign and attempted to spread the same political information that I had discovered. Obviously, we did not get the result we wanted, however, because of the political education that swept through a now wakened Scottish electorate, the general election campaign was like one we have not seen for a generation.

Political spin no longer worked. Soundbite slogans no longer sufficed for campaigns. People were too switched on. They were reading manifestos. They were scrutinising some of the most complicated policy suggestions and reached the same reasoned conclusions that the SNP had reached, hence to massive swings towards us on election day. That is why I say my age is the least interesting thing because no-one mentioned it at doorsteps.

People were not interested in aesthetic things like gender, and age. They were interested in cold hard policies. Did I understand the issues they were facing? Was I committed? Did I know what I was talking about? I understand why my age is of interest south of the border because it is unheard of, but in Scotland – nobody cares! It is a symbol of how far politics has came in the last two years and we are all the better for it.

When and why did you decide to stand as a candidate? Had you decided before embarking on your politics and public policy degree or did the idea come to you whilst at university? Also, congratulations on the first! I’m sure our readers would also appreciate your number one study tip, it must have been hard juggling your final exams with your new job.

 There is an old Billy Connolly joke that says, the minute someone says, “I want to be a politician, it should bar them immediately from ever becoming one” and I think there is an element of truth to that. I never wanted to be a politician. I originally studied music and public policy but dropped music after my first year because I didn’t enjoy it.

I was encouraged by local members of the community and members of my SNP branch to put my name forward. After so many people were asking me to put my name forward I would have felt guilty if I didn’t! If I could give one piece of advice it would be: don’t listen to lecturers, Wikipedia is your friend!

Speaking of university, obviously having a degree isn’t the ‘be all and end all’ but how important do you think having one is when it comes to your particular job?

I think that the most important thing in this job is to be engaged and informed. You have to know what ‘real life’ is like. You need to be in touch with ordinary people and what their issues are. I personally am incredibly grateful to have went to university as it taught me how to think.
It taught me the art of picking apart arguments and getting straight to the point, however I often feel that sometimes there can be an air of arrogance that can follow someone with a degree and a false belief can develop that you are smarter than others (I work with people like this every day), when the reality is that quite often the average person knows more about life and the problems people face than a lot of the members of parliament.

mhairiWe know about the basics of standing as a candidate but could you take us through how you actually got to where you currently are, from first joining the party to now?

I joined the party and began leafleting in Paisley town centre. That naturally progressed into manning street stalls and canvassing different areas of Paisley and Johnstone. I was asked by my lecturer, with about 40 minutes notice, if I could fill in at a referendum debate at the university with a panel including Ruth Davidson.

I agreed and was subsequently invited to speak at multiple public meetings. I once shared a platform with Jim Sillars in Springburn, after which he invited
me to become a permanent member of the Margo Mobile campaign team to travel throughout Scotland. Therefore, when I did eventually decide to put my name forward for the general election candidacy, I had a lot of campaigning experience and a good few incredibly talented and experienced individuals to support me throughout.

What is a ‘typical’ working day like for you?

There honestly is no such thing as a ‘typical’ day in this job. My week consists of different meetings with groups, companies and organisations that are relevant to my brief. It consists of hearing evidence from different appropriate bodies as I sit on the Work and Pensions Select Committee.

On top of this, I spend a lot of time in the library sifting through reports and briefings in an attempt to stay informed and find holes in different arguments. I also try to spend as much time as possible in the chamber.

Could you share with us the most common misconception that people have about your job?

The most common misconception is that if you are not in the chamber then you are not doing your job. The reality is quite often the opposite. The chamber is for show. I cannot think of any examples whereby someone has come into the chamber with one opinion and voted with a changed opinion.

People play to the cameras. Where an MP is most productive is on the phone, on their email, and talking to appropriate people in corridors and lunch halls
in an attempt to either work on a certain project or try to solve the problems of a constituent.

What is the single best thing about your job and which element of your job do you most dislike?

 The best thing is by far working in the constituency. Being able to deal with real people and potentially help them directly. The worst aspect of the job is the media. I think it is fair to say that I have had a different experience than other members of this, however, knowing that some journalists are just waiting to trip you up, often unfairly, causes nothing but anxiety and unnecessary grief.

Also, being away from the constituency for most of the week is a constant frustration.

What kind of skills, both practical and personal, does a person need to succeed as an mp? Do you think having this type of job, where you are representing the public and are in the public eye much of the time, means that you need to have thick skin?

1) A thick skin (especially if you are a woman) – the level of, often unwarranted, abuse towards MP’s is incredible. I am regularly sent emails or tweets telling me I’m ugly, useless, a slut, a whore, and that I am stupid and dress in my father’s clothes. I was once also told I looked like a foot. The insults are creative, cruel and constant. You must be able to let it all wash off you like water off a duck’s back. This job hardens you quickly.

2) You must be informed and articulate –the only way you can be an effective MP is if you know your facts and know your arguments. Otherwise, you are just wasting everyone’s time, spouting nothing but self indulgent hot air, something politics already has more than enough of.

In a recent interview with the guardian you said: “once we’ve got independence, i’ll do other things. I know i’m not going to become comfortable in westminster because i’m fundamentally uncomfortable there. I don’t want to be there. I don’t want to make decisions there. I don’t like being away from my home for four days of the week.” so what other career aspirations do you hold, politically or otherwise? Where are your sights set in terms of future employment?

There is a phrase my father uses which is, “cloudhopping”. He says that in life we are always told that you must constantly be aiming higher, shooting for the stars and always striving to achieve more and move higher. But why should we? I believe it is okay to sometimes simply be content and appreciative of what you have. If you want to go for something then by all means pour your heart into it and strive to achieve it, but recognise that it is okay to be content and to enjoy what you have already achieved.
‘cloudhopping’ is the concept that opportunities float by you all the time and it is up to you if you want to ‘hop’ on and try something different. I have cloudhopped all my life and it is how I ended up here. So the honest answer is that I have no idea where I will be in the future or what I would have done had I not been elected.
Obviously becoming an mp isn’t a typical job. It is a very important position but, as we always ask our future feature interviewees, what piece of advice would you give to someone thinking ‘I want to do that, that’s exactly what I want to do’?

Very simply my advice would be, make sure you know why you want to do it. If it is for any other reason than to help people then you should not strive to become and mp. However, if you do care and you know your arguments and have thought long and hard to shape your ideas into intellectual policies then go for it – you are what politics needs.  

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