Fighting injustice

Mhairi Black: “Don’t worry, sexism is alive and well in Westminster”

The U.K. parliament’s youngest member in 350 years, Mhairi Black, says she’s had three strikes against her since her arrival in May — her age, her party and her sex

There is something refreshing about the way Mhairi Black speaks. It suits her physical presence — understated but bold and fearless with the warmth of a good Scottish whiskey.

With lines like “I am the only 20-year-old in the whole of the UK that the Chancellor is prepared to help with housing,” it is little wonder that the maiden speech of the youngest MP in Westminster in 350 years has been watched more than 10 million times. In it, she tore shreds off her older, more stodgy opponents.

She would not be dismissed for her age, for the fact her last job was in a fish and chip shop or because she had ridden into Parliament as part of the sweeping victory of the Scottish National Party (SNP).

Afterwards, she commented: “After the maiden speech, there are quite a few of them won’t even look at me anymore.” When asked if she was referring to Labour or Tory MPs, she said: “Tories. A lot of Labour wouldn’t look at me in the first place.”

Touted as a future SNP leader, last night she brought her youth and smiling frankness to the stage of the Women in the World London Summit at Cadogan Hall. Two things have changed since her election, in which she defeated Cabinet Minister Douglas Alexander – she has turned 21 years old and she has gained a Politics degree with high honors, for which she studied in the Commons library.

But she still lives at home with her parents and “mixes with her university mates who probably don’t have the money for a train fare to see me in London.”

She has the confidence of youth, far from being overawed by sitting in Parliament: “Why should I be daunted when everything I’ve said I believe in?” She revels in the appearance of David Cameron at the Despatch Box because “it serves as a reminder of why I‘m there. I just don’t like him.”

Yet behind the confidence there is the quiet reserve of a woman who can’t quite believe that it’s all happened. There is a throaty half laugh when she explains that her local branch put her up against Alexander because nobody else wanted to do it. Her father had pretended the count was close and told her to stay away from the counting room: “He phoned and said ‘don’t get ahead of yourself but get ready and come down.’”

The Scottish Referendum had been a pivotal awakening: “It wasn’t the result I would have liked but there was a momentum around the SNP. People were educated and political spin wasn’t working anymore. I wanted to be involved so I put my name forward.”

She believes that many “policies being put forward are terrible, so I’m not the one who should be nervous.”

Journalist Emma Barnett, Women’s Editor of The Daily Telegraph, challenged Black to be more specific about policies to right the wrongs Black says inspired her involvement: It all depended on if Scotland was in charge of its own future, Black said, while naming free education as a foundation of her beliefs. Austerity was unnecessary and morally repugnant, lining the pockets of politicians and bankers who had caused the Global Financial Crisis, she said.

Could she see a partnership with new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn? Black likes him and some of the things he says but feels he is trapped by his own party.

Barnett surely won’t be the last to question Black, who has been mentioned by others, including SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, as a possible future leader. The idea brings another laugh. Yes, people have said it and, yes, it is flattering but Black said she will not consider a long a career in politics. She was only interested in being in parliament while there was an injustice to fight (which means she could be there for a long time, of course).

Sexism has already been an issue since her arrival in May, she said, noting the three strikes against her — her age, her party and her sex: “A couple of people have called me honey or sweetheart. Don’t worry, sexism is alive and well in Westminster.”

Some journalists have also irritated her: “There are journalists who ask me about the clothes I wear, where I buy it from and what style I prefer. That would not happen to a man. What relevance does that have?”

Her story prompted Barnett to note that while she had happily accepted makeup before going onstage, Black had turned it down with a firm “no thanks.”

“If my mother can’t make me [wear] makeup then no one can,” Black retorted.

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