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Why Stormont could do with an independent voice like Mhairi Black

Published 17/07/2015

Inspiring newcomer: the SNP’s 20-year-old MP Mhairi Black
Inspiring newcomer: the SNP’s 20-year-old MP Mhairi Black

It passed without fanfare, just a seven-minute speech, delivered to a three-quarters empty House of Commons. But for those of us paying attention, it was the brightest beacon of hope UK politics has offered in years. When 20-year-old student Mhairi Black stole the seat of Paisley and Renfrewshire from Labour stalwart Douglas Alexander, she was written off by many as the undeserving beneficiary of a zealous wave of feeling in Scotland that would have seen a hatstand elected.

There remains some truth to this; the passion for the SNP, and against Labour, is so strong in Scotland right now, there are some election winners who had to do little more than not die to get the vote.

Perhaps Mhairi Black was one of them. But, in a few short weeks, she has shown herself to be an inspiring politician and an even better human being.

She has shown us what British politics could be, if it focused more on common sense, personal conviction and compassion and less on archaic etiquette, class-based intimidation and macho, point-scoring egotism.

The signs that Black had the stout heart of a revolutionary were there from the start. One of the first public photos of her showed her laughing with her colleagues, her distinctly un-girly, un-Westminstery tie (not of Oxbridge, or golf club, provenance) inside out.

In the House, she sat among Labour MPs until she was asked to move, reminded that she was not a member of the official Opposition.

Rather than revel in her new privileges, when she and her plate of chips came up against a false partition in the Commons canteen signposted "MPs only beyond this point", she turned back to sit with the kitchen staff.

According to her diary, they told her "many MPs take their position so seriously they refuse to sit anywhere unless it is exclusively for MPs, or Lords". Her verdict? "Ridiculous."

You might think Black would be cowed by the knowledge that she's the youngest MP to grace the Commons in 350 years, arriving at the mother of parliaments with little political experience and even less information about How Things Roll in Westminster.

Instead, her youth seems to have given her a devil-may-care freedom, a healthy disrespect for ancient rules and the entitlement-assuming college chums who run the show.

This week, she made her maiden speech and it was a humdinger.

She documented the levels of poverty in her constituency - where "one in five children goes to bed hungry" - and then, very simply and without melodrama, told the shocking tale of a foodbank-dependent man - "one of these guys who has been battered by life" - who was sanctioned for 13 weeks by the Jobcentre when he was 15 minutes late for his appointment after collapsing of exhaustion on the journey there.

"The Chancellor said we should fix the roof while the sun is shining," she said. "On whom is the sun shining?"

She then attacked the abolishment of housing benefit for under-21s ("I'm the only 20-year-old in the country the Chancellor is prepared to help with housing."), before calling out Labour with a quote from "a hero of mine": Tony Benn.

Unpretentious and honest, rousing and inspiring, it was how politics ought to be, but so rarely is.

The influential Belfast-based website Takebackthecity posted footage of the speech under the headline "If only we had politicians like this".

It was met with exclamations of support for her "proper politics, not the kind of nonsense we get in Northern Ireland".

You have to ask, in Stormont's atmosphere of old-school entrenchment, could we ever see someone like Mhairi Black handed power here?

Be philosophical about learning

The single most crucial skill for getting on in life is good conversation. It sounds trivial, but whether in interviews, or on a first date, being an impressive, engaging speaker who is fun and interesting to be with and has a range of subjects to talk about with passion and knowledge, means you stand out above all others as someone people want to employ and be around.

Teaching philosophy in primary school has been poo-pooed by some old-school dinosaurs, but the results have been close to spectacular regarding improvements in reading, maths, social skills and self-esteem.

Good sense says it's time to get more philosophical.

Death of singer's son a tragic loss

I was shocked and extremely sad to hear that one of Nick Cave's 15-year-old twin sons had been found dead this week.

I was 13 when I saw the scowling gothic prince on TV performing a track so twisted and threatening it literally gave me a nightmare. He has explored the darkness ever since, always retaining his cool loucheness.

Which is why my favourite story about Nick is about him being spotted in a Brighton panto audience with his kids, enthusiastically waving two huge polystyrene hands. He is a great artist, but more importantly, he's a loving dad, and I cannot imagine his pain now.

My heart goes out to him.

Belfast Telegraph

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