Mhairi Black doesn't fuck about. Yesterday, the UK's youngest MP for 300 years used her first speech in Parliament to point out that, before long, she'll be the "only 20-year-old in the whole of the UK that the Chancellor is prepared to help with housing". Quite a statement and one that, following the abolition of Housing Benefit for 18-21-year-olds in last week's Budget, is effectively true.
Not many politicians are famous before they've even been elected for the first time, but Mhairi Black is not your average politician. Then a student, Black was a complete unknown when first selected as an SNP candidate in Paisley earlier this year. As the SNP soared in the polls, it became clear she was poised to unseat Labour heavyweight Douglas Alexander. The scorn and vitriol soon followed. She's uncouth they said, and too young to be an MP. Inexperienced and – shock, horror – "boozy". It was claimed that Mhairi was an embarrassment to her party, as tweets she'd sent when she was 15 were dug up by the nation's newspapers.
When Black and the SNP's cohort of 56 MPs arrived at Westminster, things didn't improve. "Invasion of the McManiacs" shrieked the Daily Mail , as it derided the SNP's "boorish and puerile antics", which seems to have mostly involved eating chips, taking selfies and offering each other applause in Parliament. Just what did these Nats think they were playing at?
Because Mhairi Black happens to be young, self-effacing, a woman and from a normal background, she has borne the brunt of a smear campaign determined to paint the new SNP group as an unruly Caledonian mob. Recently, it emerged that one of Scotland's leading historians derided Black as a "slut" on Twitter ahead of the election. More hilariously, the Mail took Black's comments on an irreverent Scottish football radio show about how she's spending her new salary on "rounds for her mates and McDonald's" at face value. As if that would somehow be a bad thing anyway.
Yesterday afternoon, Mhairi Black answered and embarrassed her critics with her first speech in Parliament, which she used to tear into benefit sanctions, austerity, the Conservative Budget and the Labour leadership's impotence in opposing welfare cuts. She may have delivered the speech to a mostly empty House of Commons, but it didn't matter: the cameras were watching and now she's a social media hero.
Conjuring up a heady mix of passion, humour, common sense, satire and raw emotion, her straight talking speech left little doubt as to how genuine she is. It's the type of authenticity that people crave, that is sorely lacking among the vast majority of our stage-managed, polished and identikit politicians. Millions of views later, the video of the speech has seemingly managed to cast off any aspersions that the new MP somehow isn't up to the job.
"When the Chancellor spoke in his Budget about fixing the roof while the sun is shining, I'd have ask to ask, on who is the sun shining?" Black said, after telling the story of a man who collected food parcels from a charity she'd volunteered at. She recounted how he fainted from exhaustion on his way to a Jobcentre appointment after not eating for five days to save money for his travel fare. He was 15 minutes late and received a 13-week sanction. Stories like that are far from unusual, but it's refreshing to hear one emerge from the mouth of an MP.
Since May's election, there's been a clamouring from sections of Labour to say that they lost because the manifesto put forward by Ed Miliband was too left-wing. To escape from this "electoral wasteland", some figures have warned , the party needs to jump to the right and compete for the affections of Tory voters. Whatever case they might have for this line of argument, it's one which fails to account for the SNP's demolition of Scottish Labour, a victory won by vocally opposing austerity and calling for limited increases in public spending.
Black finished her speech by invoking legendary Labour left-winger Tony Benn in her call for the SNP and Labour to unite against the Conservatives. "Tony Benn once said that in politics there are weathercocks and signposts. Weathercocks will spin in whatever direction the wind of public opinion may blow them, no matter what principle they have to compromise, and then there are signposts, which stand true and tall and principled. They point in a direction and say this is the way to a better society and it is my job to convince you why. Tony Benn was right when he said the only people worth remembering in politics are signposts."
As parties go, the SNP have undergone as many dramatic policy U-turns as anyone else. In fact, it was only this week that the party announced that they intend to vote against any repeal of English fox hunting laws, a PR coup for their much vaunted progressive values, but still a reversal of their previous refusal to vote on English-only issues.
But in the context of Black's speech, these technicalities, or the SNP's questionable record of protecting public services in Scotland, barely seem to matter. After last week's bruising Budget and in the face of the Tories' plans to tear up the rule book when it comes to the welfare state, trade union laws and employment rights, people were looking for some hope. Judging from the overwhelming reception to Mhairi Black's speech yesterday, they feel they've found it, and if viral hype is anything to go, there's perhaps a lesson for those determined to drag Labour to the right as well.
Basically, if Mhairi Black isn't your new favourite politician yet, you should probably get round to watching her speech.
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