Given the mix of excitement and bemusement that greeted her election, there were always going to be high expectations for Mhairi Black’s maiden speech.
Since ousting Labour’s Douglas Alexander in May, she has become the youngest MP in 348 years and taken a first in politics from Glasgow University before reaching her 21st birthday. (I’m not sure of which achievement she is prouder.)
The clamour to hear her address the parliament she promised to “shake up” grew in recent weeks, with one newspaper urging “Speak up, Mhairi”.
The Paisley and Renfrewshire South MP is in good company in biding her time before introducing herself to the House of Commons. Members had to wait four months to hear Churchill and Thatcher, and just shy of five months for Gladstone.
In the end, it took Black ten weeks to have her say and the wait was worth every minute. She prosecuted her case against austerity – as economic theory and social cyclone – with confidence and just enough moral anger to be on the right side of pious.
The 20-year-old MP outlined the state of the constituency she inherited: “We’ve watched our town centre deteriorate. We’ve watched our communities decline. Our unemployment level is higher than that of the UK average. One in five children in my constituency go to bed hungry at night. Paisley job centre has the third-highest number of sanctions in the whole of Scotland.”
She recounted the story of a charity she volunteered with and a man who came there regularly for food. He was a person “battered by life” but instead of being helped, he was sanctioned for arriving 15 minutes late for an appointment. He had fainted from hunger on the bus to the job centre.
Seizing on a well-worn Conservative soundbite, she turned it around to devastating effect: “When the Chancellor spoke in his Budget about fixing the roof while the sun is shining, I would have to ask: On who is the sun shining?”
Piling in on George Osborne’s blueprint for repairing the economy, Black contrasted the way she is treated as an MP and the life that faces others her age.
She told the House: “The government quite rightly pays for me through taxpayers’ money to live in London whilst I serve my constituents. My housing is subsidised by the taxpayer. Now the Chancellor in his Budget said that it is not fair that families earning over £40,000 in London should have their rents paid for by other working people. But it is okay as long as you’re an MP?
“In this Budget, the Chancellor also abolished any housing benefit for anyone below the age of 21. So we are now in the ridiculous situation that because I’m an MP, not only am I the youngest but I am also the only 20-year-old in the UK that the Chancellor is prepared to help with housing.”
The remarks she directed at the Labour Party were her most acute and are where some will have shifted uneasily and others felt a flash of anger. She had not left her Labour background, it had left her. That once-great party had lost its way and to reacquaint it with its socialist traditions, Black quoted a Labour elder statesman.
With not a little presumption, she reminded those along the Opposition benches: “Tony Benn once said that in politics there are weathercocks and there are 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 remind you why. Tony Benn was right when he said the only people worth remembering in politics were signposts.”
An audacious broadside for someone Black’s age and this made it all the more potent. Her speech will stand or fall for you on these words but you will have an opinion on them.
As well as argument, there was humour. Her colleagues’ debut contributions had made tortuous efforts to smuggle Robert Burns into the history of their constituencies. Black said she could trump them all: William Wallace was born in Elderslie, in Renfrewshire.
It was a sharply political address, which is unusual for a maiden speech, but as the Labour left-winger Michael Meacher commented she “just about got away with it”. Lefties were not alone in lapping it up. The DUP’s Jim Shannon – more Unionist than a bulldog in a Union Jack waistcoat eating a shepherd’s pie shaped like the Queen’s head – heaped praise on Black.
In fact, her oratory and passion reminded me of one of my favourite maiden speeches. Margo MacDonald, when she first stood up in the Commons in December 1973, pleaded for another west of Scotland community battered by economic and social change.
She told MPs: “I represent a constituency – not just a constituency but a community – within the city of Glasgow which has almost had its heart torn out. I say almost because, although Govan is the most desolate part of Glasgow, the people have still not given up. For years they have watched their community being physically demolished, but the community spirit that is referred to so often nowadays has been present in Govan for hundreds of years and still remains.”
With just as much fluency and spirit, Black portrayed for the House the impact of its decisions on her constituents and their communities. It would be jejune, to say nothing of unjust, to claim this as the first time the people of Paisley and Renfrewshire South had their voice heard in the Palace of Westminster. Black’s predecessor, for whom she had some kind and well-judged words, was a decent and conscientious man whose commitment to centre-left politics was never in doubt. All the same, Black spoke with a vividness that amplified her cause and captured the despair that grips parts of her home town.
The speech will not have been to everyone’s tastes.
Some might cavil about the picture she paints of an SNP surge driven by social democratic impulses rather than nationalism. The party’s election slogan, after all, did not read “Fairer for Scotland”. Where its manifesto sought to redistribute wealth, it was by adopting wholesale existing Labour Party policy. It is true that Labour fails to see Scotland’s new politics as joyous and progressive but so does half of Scotland.
Some might raise an eyebrow at the SNP digging another party over ideological constancy. The SNP that has over the years been left-wing and right-wing, gradualist and fundamentalist, for the Scottish Constitutional Convention and against the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The SNP, like Labour, is a political party, not holy orders – though we can’t even expect saintly conduct from the clergy anymore.
Some might mutter from the side of their mouths: Give it time, within or outwith the Union, and SNP politicians too will come to dread the chief whip’s call, instructing them to vote the party line on some awful bill or amendment. Tony Benn was a signpost and for much of his career it pointed to electoral oblivion for his party.
Those are fair critiques but they are for another day. Even if you can’t make peace with Black’s politics, you have to credit her extraordinary rhetorical style. No 20-year-old has any business speaking that spellbindingly in the world’s most vaunted parliament.
Mhairi Black was underestimated by her opponents, much of the media, and even some within the SNP. Her maiden speech suggests the doubters are due generous portions of humble pie. In the years to come, she will make mistakes, speak rashly then wish she’d bitten her tongue, hold her peace then kick herself for not speaking up. She will take chances that fall flat and miss opportunities that were meant for her. But she will always have that maiden speech and, if she lives up to the potential it hints at, a long and illustrious parliamentary career besides.
Decades from now, the doubters will lie to their grandchildren and tell them they believed in her all along.