Adrian Burbie popped down to Westminster for a chat with Mhairi Black about all things SNP, being an MP at 21, and the role of the young in politics.
I’m led by Mhairi into a dark, sparsely furnished room which, devoid of any comforts or luxuries, seems more like a prison cell than an MP’s office. One side is lined with shelves, mostly bare except for a card which says, “Congratulations!” – a leftover from her shock victory in May over Douglas Alexander, I presume. She’s wearing a “ONE” campaign badge on her lapel and a “ONE” bag is strewn on the floor by my chair – she’s wild about all things Bono and U2. Despite the chilliness of the room, she seems relaxed and welcoming. “I presume everyone’s rushing about for the Chinese state visit later on?” I ask. “Oh no!” she says irreverently. The fact that the leader of arguably the world’s most important superpower is popping in that afternoon doesn’t bother her in the slightest. “I’ve been trying to crack on with this tax credits speech I’ve got to make later,” she says, pointing in the direction of her desk.
What’s it like being a 21-year-old in Parliament? She sighs and looks into the distance: “Stale and stagnant.” In particular, she admits that for women of all ages, it’s an “old boys’ club”. “And when you throw in the fact that you’re young, it’s like a double whammy.” So she hasn’t enjoyed her experience? Another pause – she seems reluctant to dwell on such matters. “Yes and no. No, because it’s incredibly depressing at times and can feel quite uncomfortable – just boring and stale – but yes, I’ve enjoyed it because I’ve got so many colleagues down here. You can see they’re actually making a difference.”
But what do her friends make of her new job? “They slag me all the time!” she blurts out. “They think it’s absolutely mental!” She giggles, then admits sheepishly, “They’re all very proud – though they would never tell me that!” And her parents? Well in the inimitable words of her dad: “I saw you on the telly again… I’m sick of the sight of your face!”
So would she encourage other people her age to make the decision she made? “Don’t just do it for the sake of it, otherwise you’ll be eaten alive… but there are far too many arrogant men [here] who think they’re far better than they are.” Working from 8:30am to midnight is not uncommon, she admits, and she often forgets to eat for over 12 hours due to the sheer volume of work throughout the day. “People always ask me, ‘What it’s like living in London?’ I’ve not seen any of London, ‘cos I’m in here all the time!”
How long does she plan to stay in Parliament? Will she stand again in 2020? “If in 2020, I don’t see any need for me to be here, then no, I won’t. But if I think, no actually, there’s still stuff to be done, then I might – but even then, by 2020, I might have decided, ‘This is hellish – I’m getting shot of this!’”
The fact that so many people make a big deal of her age irritates her. “I can’t help my age any more than I can help my gender and it’s of no relevance.” But does she feel like a standard bearer for young people? “I’m always reluctant to say that… but I can understand why people are looking at it because I’ve had so many younger folk saying, ‘God, you’re actually doing a good job… maybe I could do that.’ I think that’s actually really good – I’ve actually influenced somebody… but I’m always sceptical of carrying torches.” So how can young people get engaged in party politics? Confidence building is key, she asserts. “Know your stuff, and then be prepared to put yourself forward… Ignoring politics isn’t an option if you want things to get better.”
And what about voting? “As far as I’m concerned, you can’t complain if you don’t vote.” Does she think voting should be made compulsory? She pauses. “I’m always wary about using a stick to beat people, so it’s one I’d have to think about more.” The right to vote, she tells me, is the most powerful thing anyone can have as it shifts “power from the wallet to the ballot paper,” and is something which should be denied to no-one. Does she support prisoner voting? She pauses even longer this time. “My honest answer is, I don’t know. I’m not convinced either way yet.”
Onto the SNP’s record: which bit is she proudest of? Unsurprisingly, the answer is the abolition of tuition fees. But doesn’t that make her out-of-touch with public opinion then? (Three-quarters of Scots believed that at least some students should pay tuition fees.) She disagrees, casting doubt on the survey’s validity. But what about richer students? “There are certain things where you say, ‘This is a principle.’ It’s like the NHS. If you say to me, ‘Should rich people be made to pay for the NHS?’ I’d say no. In fact, the best argument given to me was by my lecturer at university. He says to me, ‘A welfare state designed for the poor is a poor welfare state.’”
And what about Jeremy Corbyn? Is she worried? The answer is a simple emphatic “No.” “For a while, I thought maybe we’ve got an issue, but I think it was hit on the head at conference when the first minister said, ‘Jeremy Corbyn is allowing Labour to change him, rather than him changing Labour.’ I like Jeremy a lot, but every decision he’s made since he became leader of Labour, I’ve been disappointed with… no, I’m not convinced at all.” But isn’t the SNP’s mission statement all about standing up and fighting for the marginalised and voiceless in Scotland? “So what are you doing to help Scottish Labour?” I ask. She leans back and lets out a hearty chuckle – “I like what you did there,” she says. “I have to admit, they’re not helping themselves… they’re intellectually bankrupt… I don’t feel a lot of sympathy, especially not for Scottish Labour.”
We move onto music; my disgust for her taste is poorly concealed and she guffaws, admitting she’s also got a U2 keyring in her pocket. “Me and my brother do a cracking rendition of Paul Simon’s ‘Call Me Al’.” And what about Partick Thistle’s recent performance? She sighs. “Well, we’ve won our two last games, so we’re on the up! No, I was not impressed in the slightest, but as a Thistle fan, we’re used to that feeling – we’re used to being rubbish!” At that, she chuckles once more and looks up at the sky as Big Ben begins to chime.