In 2015 Paisley and Renfrewshire south elected the youngest ever MP in the democratic history of the Houses of Parliament. At just 20 years old the young Mhairi Black, then still a student, defeated shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, and became the fresh young face of politics for a new generation of independence supporting Scots.
Since then Mhairi has gone on to national recognition and is famed as an irreverent and forthright defender of left-wing politics at Westminster, with speeches that regularly become viral social media sensations.
“To be honest it makes me hit a riddy.” said Mhairi, speaking about her experiences of becoming an internet hit. “Of course all my pals start bamming me up so my phone, I just put it off for a couple of hours.
“I mean, on a personal level it’s kinda embarrassing seeing your face everywhere but, given what my job is and given what my priorities are and what my objective was when I’m making a speech, you can’t ask for anything better than that, ’cause if it’s catching folks’ eye and folks’ attention then it means that you hit a spot there. If people are responding to that then they are experiencing it too, so if it’s raising awareness then all the better.”
Her latest speech surrounds the often gender based abuse she receives on a daily basis online and she shocked parliament by reading some of the messages, complete with the use of some very untoward language.
Mhairi said: “I blame the eejits that type it entirely. You know there’s a way of conducting yourself and that’s not it, regardless of what’s going on. Look, this kind of stuff, when you actually sit and think about it, this isn’t normal, and I bet you 50 years from now people will be looking back on this the way we look back on, for instance, racism in the 60s – with total shock and disgust.”
Born in Paisley, Mhairi has fond memories of playing football on the side-lines, as she watched her brother play, and of her mother taking her shopping in the Piazza, but she is under no illusions about the challenges Paisley faces today.
“I’ve always said it’s the resilience of Paisley I love. I love the fact that no matter how far back in Paisley’s history there’s always been some kind of problem. There’s always been living in the shadow of Glasgow, there’s always been an industry that shuts down or something that goes wrong basically, and yet we’re still here, we’re still surviving.
“I love the sense of humour as well but I think it’s changed a lot, I suppose in good and bad ways. In good ways recently, especially with the city of culture bid coming. It’s great to show that culture and arts and things you know, it’s not some arty farty thing that doesn’t make a difference. It really does make an impact and a very positive one at that, but I think we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t recognise that there’s been a lot of economic struggles as well.
“You know the high street, I mean I feel sad when I walk down the high street and I remember my Mum taking me shopping and the place being buzzing and now you don’t really see that until Saturday mornings and the street markets are out.”
Mhairi is not the only young politician to be elected by the people of Paisley and its surrounds. At the Holyrood elections of 2016, 21 year old Ross Greer of the Greens was elected to serve the people of Renfrewshire.
“There are plenty of obvious parallels between myself and Mhairi. We both represent the same area, we’re basically the same age and we’re both the youngest members in the history of our parliaments.” said Ross.
Ross too is no stranger to the targeted abuse which is sadly, becoming more a part of political life. He said: “I would never compare the abuse that I receive to any women in politics. I know because sometimes you just exchange Twitter feeds to see what each other gets. I know that the abuse that women get is more sustained and often far more sinister and threatening than what men get. That being said, I mean, I have received death threats. I’ve received plenty of threatening abuse on social media.
“Ageist abuse is something that I have experienced; often it’s something that people don’t actually mean. They’re not deliberately trying to diminish you, but they have really internalised something which means that they do, often inadvertently talk down to and be quite patronising to young people in politics, so I’ve certainly experienced that.
“I mean when I see people making comments like this the frustration is that, that kind of rhetoric is massively off-putting to exactly the kind of people we should be attracting into politics.”
For Mhairi Black’s part her parents have provided a great deal of support. Of them she said: “They’re proud. I mean my Mum near had a heart attack when she seen the headline – “Mhairi Black says the ‘C’ word in parliament – but nah, given the context of it they were incredibly supportive and, like I said in the speech, they’re the ones that are sort of rock solid throughout the entire thing. My Mum, she’s regularly on Twitter, just having a wee nosey to see the worst of it and to report the worst because she says that she’s fed up of seeing people getting away with this sort of stuff. So aye, they’ve been very supportive and things and they’re still sending me insults that they find funny.”
Western politics might once have been forgiven for appearing as a seemingly bland affair – a group of glorified bank managers who talk big but do little more than tweak the books within the prosaic confines of the postmodern, cynical capitalist world left to us by Thatcher and Reagan. Since the global financial crash of 2008, however, and the austerity policies that followed, the conversations have somewhat shifted. It has helped create the conditions for people like Mhairi and the potential for Scottish independence.
It has also helped create the popularity of the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Syriza and Podemos. On the other hand it has facilitated Brexit, Donald Trump, UKIP, Golden Dawn and the Front Nationale as well. There are shades of the 1930s here and there is perhaps more at stake in the politics of today than there has been for generations, but while drastically competing narratives fight over the scraps the inequality gaps continue to drastically increase.
Mhairi, who always admits to wanting to see an independent socialist Scotland, is also surprisingly honest about her party’s reluctance this year to push further towards a second independence referendum.
“I don’t think we’re ready for another referendum just now.” She said. “Why would we call a referendum if we don’t think we can win it yet? I have no doubt that Scotland will be an independent country. It’s going to happen, I just don’t know when.”
If Scotland is to gain its independence it will be people like Mhairi leading the way into that future. The future of Paisley also looks bright to Mhairi who spoke about the positive impact of the Paisley 2021 bid.
She said: “I think it’s changed how people view Paisley and maybe more-so it changed how people in Paisley view Paisley, because when I was growing up Paisley was always the butt of the joke, and even when this sort of ‘City of Culture’ campaign was announced it was still the butt of the joke. You know, speaking to people in private – even colleagues in private – you know that kind of facetious way that I’m sure everybody from Paisley’s experienced?
“But as time went on even I started to discover things that I’ve never known about Paisley and Christ, I’m the representative, so then why is it nobody else knows the tremendous history that Paisley actually does have? I think that it’s built a lot of confidence and distilled a lot of confidence in Paisley and out-with.”
Becoming a hero to some has undoubtedly vilified her to others, such is the nature of our polarised politics, but whatever one may say about the politics of independence, or Mhairi’s own outlook, there is no denying the colossal impact she has had and continues to have as a representative for the people of Paisley and Renfrewshire south.
In the words of the lady herself: “I suppose in politics I just think we need more level headed discussion, now more than ever. The more folk we can get engaged with that the better.”
Mhairi Black Twitter
To find more about our Pattern magazine and read the article in print click here .