The SNP’s Mhairi Black talks about her first few days at Westminster

Amid the 56 SNP MPs descending on Westminster this week, one is standing out from the crowd.

Mhairi Black sent shockwaves through the political establishment last Thursday when she ousted shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander.

In doing so, she turned a 17,000 Labour majority into a 6000 edge for the Nationalists in Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

That she is only 20, Britain’s youngest MP, and has still to finish her university exams (politics and public policy, natch) are just some of the reasons she is garnering attention from national and international media.

Black is also a formidable public speaker, her gift for wowing a crowd coming to prominence during the independence referendum in which she was a leading Yes campaign activist.

She and her colleagues are finding their feet and their offices this week but I managed to catch five minutes with her in the domed hive of political activity that is the courtyard of Portcullis House.

It is reassuring to find her just as grounded as she was when we first met on the campaign trail last month.

Back then, when I queried the sometimes rapturous response she received on the streets of her native Paisley, she was quick to put it in perspective, telling me: “This isn’t about me, it’s about the arguments. People are finally getting a party that is trying to put people at the heart of what it’s doing.”

She shows no signs of letting the grandeur and historical import of Parliament get to her head.

She says: “The best piece of advice I’ve had is to remember it’s just a workplace. It’s just a fancy office. I’m walking about that place and it’s so historical and so beautiful inside. You do get taken in and get swept up in this phenomenal building. But remember you’re not there to enjoy a museum. You’re there to work.

“I keep reminding myself: The only reason you’re here is because people have put their trust in you.

Black is acutely conscious that she is here for a purpose, beyond herself and her party.

She points out: “We’ve seen a higher voter turnout than in any general election in recent years. We’ve seen an incredible swing towards the SNP that a year ago I would have said was impossible. People have put their faith in us and it’s the people that are suffering.

“Everything we said in the campaign is still happening and despite the fact that I’m here in London sitting in a lovely building doesn’t change the fact that there’s still folk sitting up in schemes in Paisley who can’t afford to eat. It’s reminding yourself” Why am I here?

She hopes her constituents will come to see that she’s “not just in it to live down in this London bubble”, adding: “I said it during the campaign and it still stands now: The problem with MPs is that they would disappear to London and reappear five years later when it was time for re-election. I campaigned on the fact that I don’t want to be that and now I have this opportunity I full intend to carry that through.”

Resisting the Conservative government’s austerity policies is the priority for Black and she sees it necessary to break through the chummy political consensus at Westminster.

She tells me: “What we said throughout the campaign was that the reason we’re against austerity is not just because it doesn’t work but because it’s wrong. It’s not right in any sense, morally, economically, socially. It’s just plain wrong.

“Especially now that I’ve seen that Parliament and the way some MPs are so cosy and best pals. When we would describe it as a boys’ club, we were right because there’s elements in that building where they are just a boys’ club and you can see that with this big bulk of Conservative MPs.

“So I can understand how they do live in a bubble and they don’t see the folk in the schemes in Paisley, they don’t see the effects of their policies. We campaigned that Scotland would have a louder voice and now we need to be a channel for that voice to tell them: By the way, this stuff’s harming people. It’s got to stop.

Although the hard work begins in earnest, she has taken the opportunity to have a look around the Commons chamber, where she will sit for the next five years.

“It’s smaller than it looks on the telly,” she offers, “and the seats are quite uncomfy.”

I wonder what her mum and dad make of their daughter becoming a Member of Parliament. Black’s family were once rock-solid Labour but drifted to the SNP over a number of years.

“They’re just buzzing,” she admits. “I genuinely mean this when I say it: They’re more excited about the fact that there’s 56 of us going down. Because they’ve really been waiting for change, they’re really excited that Scotland has a presence in that Parliament now. That their wean’s part of that is just an added bonus.”

“My mum keeps getting on at me to eat properly, so we won’t tell her about this,” she adds, guiltily rustling around in a bag of crisps.

And what of her own political ambitions?

“Genuinely, my only priority is to make sure that in five years’ time I can campaign for re-election and say: This place is better than I found it. If I can do that, then that’s a good start.”

The unpredicted Conservative majority leaves the SNP’s influence in the Commons much diminished on what had been expected. Tory feet have nothing to fear from a Nationalist fire — yet.

But Black insists the party won’t be sidelined.

“With 56 of us, we’ll be quite hard to ignore,” she grins. “We can be quite loud.”

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Graeme Maclean by Creative Commons 2.0.

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