‘I worked in a fish and chip shop. My next job was as one of the UK’s youngest-ever MPs’

Mhairi Black

When she won her seat in the 2015 general election, Mhairi Black became the youngest MP to be elected in Britain since 1667. She features in a book, The Female Lead, which is designed to inspire a new generation of girls

Mhairi Black is a Scottish National Party politician and MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South. Born in Paisley, she studied politics and public policy at the University of Glasgow, gaining a first-class honours degree in 2015. She joined the Scottish National party and campaigned for Scottish independence in the run-up to the 2014 referendum and then stood for parliament in the 2015 general election at the age of 20. Black ousted the shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander from his previously safe Labour seat, becoming the youngest MP to be elected in Britain since 1667. On 14 July 2015, she made her maiden speech in the House of Commons. By the end of the day, the speech had had 11m views online. Her last job, before becoming a politician, was in a fish and chip shop.

Her story features in a book that is designed to inspire a new generation of girls: The Female Lead.

“I was brought up in Paisley. It was mum, dad, my older brother and me. We used to go on caravan holidays up to the north of Scotland. My mum’s mum had 13 children, so I had lots of cousins to play with. It was a good childhood.

Our family has always been politically aware. My grandparents were involved in trade unions and mum and dad were teachers. They exposed us to politics. My parents were not knocking on doors during elections, but we went on Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches. When I was eight, my parents, aunties, brother and I marched in Glasgow against the Iraq war. I remember my mum explaining that we were doing this because the prime minister was trying to take us to war, and we shouldn’t be going to war.


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Tony Blair was in Glasgow for the Labour party conference, but apparently he got word of the march so, by the time we were marching past the building, he’d already disappeared in a helicopter. I remember finding that really unfair, even at eight.

Inequality of any kind is the thing that really drives me. I always look at who’s losing out and why. Everything that I am interested in, be it foreign affairs or welfare reform or LGBT issues, boils down to the fact that there’s an injustice happening somewhere.

When I went to university, my course was music and public policy. I did music for my first year but I hated it – I love music but wasn’t interested in the technical aspects. So I
thought, ‘Right, what other courses go with public policy?’ I gave politics a bash and found that I loved it.

Everything that I am interested in, be it foreign affairs or welfare reform or LGBT issues, boils down to the fact that there’s an injustice happening somewhere

When the Scottish independence referendum was announced, I decided to start looking into things in order to make up my mind. I was definitely a ‘yes’ vote for independence and I thought, if there was ever a time to join a political party, it’s now. So I joined the SNP and started campaigning. My immediate family were ‘yes’ voters, but my aunties and uncles were all Labour voters and dead-set ‘nos’.

I had no idea what I wanted to do after university and I had not thought of becoming an MP. But I have a habit of falling into things – whether it be university, politics or whatever it may be. I think it’s good to try things and, if you’re good at them, to keep going and see how far you get. Mum and dad taught my brother and me to have confidence in ourselves but never arrogance – there’s a fine line. Confidence comes from giving yourself credit when it’s due. I am passionate about football and when I was at primary school, I was one of the first girls to be in the football team. In fact, for a while, I was the only girl. My parents always said that as long as you know your stuff and you know what it is you’re going for and why, and if you’ve practised hard and think you’re good enough, then, by all means, stand up and make sure you’re counted.

I said, ‘Don’t be daft. I’m 20. What do I know about life?’ I was giving myself the sort of criticism that other people give me now

After we lost the referendum, a couple of folk in the local SNP party were saying that I should put my name forward to be a candidate. I said, ‘Don’t be daft. I’m 20. What do I know about life?’ I was giving myself the sort of criticism that other people give me now. People in the constituency, some of whom I really respect, started challenging me, saying, ‘Why is that a bad thing? Surely parliament should represent everybody.’ And I thought, ‘Actually, that is a good point.’

So I thought, ‘OK, I’ll go through the vetting process and see if I pass.’ I did and then I really had to think about whether I wanted to put my name forward or not. Mum and dad spoke to me about it, and asked me a lot of tough questions – but ones that I was asking myself. I remember dad saying, ‘If you do this, you might win and that means that you’re going to be down in London a lot of the week. You need really to think about that.’

Part of the problem with politics has been people viewing it as a career. You shouldn’t be in it in order to become first minister. You should be in it to try to do a good job

I’ve always thought that, no matter what job I ended up doing, it would be about working with people because that’s what I enjoy – and I think I am not too bad at it. I’ll be happy if, in five years’ time, I can say, ‘The place I am representing has been better represented than it ever was before.’ I think part of the problem with politics has been people viewing it as a career. You shouldn’t be in it in order to become first minister. You should be in it to try to do a good job. If you find one day that enough people are saying, ‘I think you would be good at the job of first minister,’ then that’s a different story, but if you are involved in politics, it has to be for a purpose and it has to be in the present. If more people adhere to that, then politics will become healthier altogether.”

The Female Lead by Edwina Dunn with photography by Brigitte Lacombe is published by Ebury Press in hardback, £30.

The Female Lead interviews were conducted by Marian Lacombe, Rosanna Greenstreet, Geraldine Bedell, Hester Lacey.

To watch The Female Lead documentaries or nominate a UK school to receive a free copy of the book and teaching materials, visit www.thefemalelead.com

 

Featured image: Mhairi Black, photographed by Brigitte Lacombe


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