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A 20-Year-Old Scottish Student Could Be About to Make History

Inspired by last year's independence referendum, Mhairi Black decided to run for UK Parliament—and she might even win.
May 6, 2015, 3:20pm

Watch our documentary including Mhairi Black—New Wave: Minorities

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

With only a few weeks to go before the end of her degree at Glasgow University, final year student Mhairi Black expected to be job-hunting around now. The 20-year-old "always wanted to help people," but she is not looking for a graduate position in social work. Instead Black has spent the past three months enduring daily interviews for a rather different role: Member of Parliament for Paisley and South Renfrewshire.

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If, as polls suggest, Black is elected on Thursday, the SNP candidate will become the youngest MP since Christopher Monck, who was just 13 and a half when he entered Westminster in 1667. Monck was the son of a general who had recently restored the monarchy—Black is a fervent Scottish independence supporter.

Black credits last year's referendum with launching her unexpected political career. She is not the only one. Across the country, many young Scots are standing for Parliament spurred on by the energy unleashed during the independence campaign.

"I was chapping doors, speaking to people actively doing things. That progressed to speaking at public meetings," recalls Black of the referendum. At one such public meeting, in Shettleston in Glasgow, former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars heard the fiery, blond-haired young Paisleyite speak. He immediately invited Black to join his "Margo Mobile" campaign, touring the country to call for "yes" vote.

"That was magic, going all around Scotland, seeing the campaign progress in the last couple of months," says Black. The referendum ended in defeat but on a turnout of almost 85 percent. Black found herself being drawn towards the forthcoming general election.

"I had never considered putting myself forward to be a candidate but too many people were asking me to do, encouraging me to do it, so it got to that stage where I felt I'd be letting people down if I didn't throw my hat in the ring. So I did," she says when we meet in a Paisley café.

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Black could be about to create political history. Paisley has voted Labour since 1945. Sitting MP Douglas Alexander is a Labour heavyweight, a shadow foreign secretary with a majority of over 16,000. Opinion polls suggest the SNP will take the seat. "I think this constituency is quite representative of what is happening across Scotland right now," says Black. "What we witnessed during the referendum was a political awakening across the country. It was always going to be the case that the general election was going to be different."

Many younger Scots were stirred by this political awakening. The referendum was the first time that 16 and 17 year-olds were able to vote. Three quarters did do. Legislation is currently going through the Scottish parliament to extend the franchise for next year's Holyrood election.

While young Scots were more likely to support independence, unionist parties have felt the upsurge in political activity too, says Fraser Galloway, Conservative candidate in Paisley and South Renfrewshire.

"What accelerated my interest [in politics] was the referendum," says Galloway, 26. "I'd not been involved in student politics but I'd always been involved in debating ideas, discussing policies, I was involved in the Glasgow university union. I wasn't involved in party politics at all but over a period time it just seemed an obvious fit."

It was while campaigning for the pro-union Better Together initiative during the referendum that Galloway decided to stand for parliament. "The referendum was a politicising event for a lot of people. I guess I am just one of those who got involved for that reason," he explains.

Pro-Independence campaigners on the eve of the independence referendum.

The SNP, however, has been by some distance the biggest benefactor of this spike in political engagement is the SNP. The nationalist are at an all-time high in the polls—last week one even predicted that the nationalists would win every seat in Scotland. A remarkable 71 percent of 18-24 year olds intend to vote SNP, according to a recent poll. Labour trailed behind on 17 percent, with the Westminster coalition parties struggling to muster a tenth of electoral preferences between them.

Nineteen-year-old Scottish Socialist Party candidate Liam McLoughlin began his political education three years ago when he was asked to give a talk in his English class on the question of independence.

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"I discovered upon reading up on the issues, that I was firmly on the Yes side of the debate. A girl in my class told her dad about the talk and from there he invited me out to campaign with the local Yes group which had just started in the area," he recalls.

McLaughlin briefly joined the SNP before "realizing I was in the wrong party." He set up a branch of the left-wing Radical Independence Campaign in the East End of Glasgow, helping to secure one of the highest "yes" voters in the country. In three years McLoughlin has gone from "a wee boy nervously asking people to sign a declaration" to the Socialist's general election candidate in Glasgow East.

"The referendum was my first experience of a political campaign, what a start. It was fundamental for me in shaping the kind of country I want Scotland to be, and gave me new confidence in my ability both in terms of organizing and speaking."

McLoughlin's chances of pulling off an unexpected victory in Glasgow East are slim, but it's probably Braden Davy who has had to endure the toughest baptism in Scottish electoral politics. Davy, 23, is standing for Labour against Alex Salmond in Gordon. The former SNP leader is overwhelming favorite to win the Aberdeenshire seat but the former McDonald's worker believes Salmond should move aside for a younger man.

"For anyone my age in Scotland Alex Salmond is the establishment. He has been the first minister for eight years. He has been an elected politician longer than I've been alive. He's been an elected politician for 28 years or something," says Davy, who also previously worked for Aberdeen Labour MP Anne Begg.

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Davy believes that the referendum has changed how young people view politics. "It showed that young people can be trusted with an important decision, it showed that young people can make an informed decision whether that is yes or no," he says.

Related: The New Wave: Lib Dems

Younger voters, however, are often put off by tribal electoral politics. "Young people want to be told what somebody stands for rather than "vote for us to stop x" or "if you vote this it will cause that." The big problem with that is how the voting system works for UK politics," he says.

Being a young candidate can have its drawbacks. When Davy's candidacy was announced social media wags posted photos of a birth scan labelled "Scottish Labour candidate for Gordon."

Davy remains unfazed. "Some people will always find a way to attack you but if the only thing they can say against me is I'm young then I'm quite content with that."

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