The results of the UK’s general election may have left David Cameron the biggest winner in the country — a man whose party has a mandate to govern without forming a coalition, as was predicted — but that doesn’t mean the nation was devoid of other quiet successes. The election’s other big winner was the Scottish National Party, which, under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, charged to a resounding victory in Scotland. And the most startling of SNP success stories might just be Mhairi Black, now Westminster’s youngest MP for centuries.
Black, a 20-year-old undergrad, won the Paisley and Renfrewshire South seat from Labour old-timer Douglas Alexander to become the country’s youngest Member of Parliament since 1667. On Thursday night it became clear that Black held 23,548 votes compared to Alexander’s 17,854. The news comes as a major upset, given that the latter is a political heavyweight and former shadow foreign secretary, and that Labour had held the seat since the 1920s. So how did this turnabout happen — and who is Mhairi Black?
Black is a politics student, for one thing, which makes a lot of sense — and she’s not yet finished her degree. In April, Black told Buzzfeed News that, should she be elected, she would return to Glasgow University to finish her dissertation, before taking up her seat. At that time, she made clear that she had no qualms about her parliamentary ambitions. Asked whether she was nervous of heading to Westminster, she replied:
Nope – and I’m not saying that in an arrogant way, I’m saying that because I’m not the one who should be nervous – it’s all of them down there who have to answer for what they’ve done, they’re the ones who have to be accountable. If I become an MP, the nerves should be on their part. Not mine.
Well, now that has come to pass, and Black has the chance to hold her fellow MPs accountable. Having heard the results, she responded with a strong and simple statement. “I’d like to thank the people of Paisley for putting their faith in me, and putting their faith in the SNP,” she said. “The people of Scotland are speaking, and it’s time for their voice to be heard in Westminster.”
In the 2010 election, Alexander took a whopping 60 percent of vote, and held a majority of 16,000, Buzzfeed reports — making Black’s success even more surprising. Yet she herself, speaking in April, sounded unflappable, as if sure of her path. “I understand people who think a 20-year-old standing for parliament is unusual and people ask me all the time if I’m sure I want to do this,” she said, “but when I speak to them they know I’m ready.”
At the tender age of 20, Black is not the UK’s youngest parliamentarian ever (in the 17th century, 13-year-old Christopher Monck took a seat in Westminster under Charles II), but she's also not afraid to act her age. The Daily Mail reports that she has previously admitted to having to stop herself from head-butting Labour councillors, and she has also come under fire for obscene language on her social media accounts. One Twitter post reportedly included the phrase, “Smirnoff Ice is the drink of the gods.” Ah, there’s the glint of the undergraduate poking through.
Yet her political approach is mature and her motivation rooted in a firm belief in social justice. She became a parliamentary candidate in the hopes of combating “the level of poverty and injustice prevalent in our society,” according to the Mail. Her website makes clear how this might be achieved. “I truly believe that the only way to bring the powers we were promised, and the social justice that Scotland so desperately needs, is to have a strong group of SNP MP’s at Westminster to ensure our voices are heard,” it states.
The Guardian reports that Black, along with her father (a retired teacher who acts as her campaign manager), became disillusioned with the Labour party. From a socialist background, she decided to do something with her political frustration. “You've got ordinary people being told to tighten their belts and all the while MPs are considering giving themselves a wage rise,” she told BBC. “Look at bankers - some of them getting paid more than they were before the crash.”
Despite her political acumen and recent success, Black isn’t too busy for hobbies. She’s a football fan, apparently, and an avid musician. She can play both the drums and the piano, and when asked by the BBC to name a favorite song, Black selected Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.” She added, “I think that sums it up for me at the moment.” The changes she lists include an updated wardrobe (“Running for MP is the longest job interview of my life and you wouldn't wear jeans to a job interview”) and a flurry of media interest (“The New York Times did a piece on me. It's so mad”).
The madness is not going to stop anytime soon. After her victory speech Thursday, reporters asked what she would do next. “Sleep,” was her immediate response, The Guardian reports. And then, “Breakfast.” But her message after winning was earnestly and broadly inclusive. “Whether you voted for the SNP or not, and whatever your views are on Scotland’s future, I will seek to represent you and everyone in this constituency to the very best of my ability,” she said. “This election is about making the voice of this constituency and the whole of Scotland heard more effectively at Westminster than ever before.”
And what do her university friends — who presumably are busy downing beer when they’re not debating John Rawls’ Theory of Justice — think of her political career? “My mates think what I'm doing is a bit mental but they think it's great,” Black told BBC. “They're excited about the prospect of change, it's just an added bonus their friend may be a part of it.”
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