Not unlike the political turmoil in the US, we’ve watched the travails and chaos of the Conservative Party in the UK. As its latest prime minister takes power, the more progressive elements in the British Parliament are sensing an opportunity to make their case.
Mhairi Black, a member of Parliament from Scotland and our guest on this week’s podcast, was elected in 2015 at the age of 20. Reelected again in 2017 and 2019, she embodies the progressive movement in UK politics. A longtime advocate for Scottish independence, she sees a nation that is, in her words, “drunk on the memory of a British empire that no longer exists.”
She pushes back on the privatization drive of the Thatcher era, something she thinks has gotten worse since the 2008 economic downturn. She sees the twin Conservative mantras of austerity and antiimmigration as the reason the country is not gaining greater economic prosperity.
According to Black, the two leading parties in the UK are much too close to each other in their approach to governing. The result, she says, is an out-of-touch government that she likens to a “crumbling movie set.” In her opinion the solution is clear: new, younger, and more progressive voices in Parliament.
Focusing on Britain’s National Health Service — whose mandate is to provide health care for all in the UK — she accuses the current government of going in the wrong direction with respect to protecting and expanding the NHS.
Bemoaning the influence of the United States on the British political establishment, she argues for a new kind of politics that is expansive, inspiring, and engaged, and that makes people care about the government and what it can do for people.
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Jeff: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. While it appears for the moment that we’ve stabilized or neutralized the crazies in the American political system, we still have a political world that is based almost solely on headline issues at best, and personality and celebrity at worst. The idea of serious debate about real policy — economic, or social — is something that seems a quaint and distant memory in the halls of Congress, but it seems like it’s still going a little stronger in the halls of Westminster, even amidst the British government’s own political upheaval and transfers of power.
While the current UK debates — about trickle-down economics, tax avoidance, the size of the national healthcare system, economic subsidies for energy, immigration, and globalization — sound similar to issues in America, it does seem that there’s a greater focus on policy, how it impacts people’s lives. And perhaps most of all, how members of Parliament get to address these issues in what seems like a political system, more like the days gone by in America, and even the ability in Parliament to talk about the threat of fascism.
All of this may just be a bit too romantic a view from across the ocean, but to clarify it all, I am joined by Member of Parliament Mhairi Black, elected in 2015, as then the youngest member of Parliament, just shy of 21 years old. Mhairi Black is a Scottish politician, a member of the Scottish National Party, who was reelected in 2017 and again in 2019, and brings to Parliament a passion and a purpose reminiscent of AOC and Bernie Sanders here in America. It is my pleasure to welcome the Honorable Mhairi Black here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Mhairi, thanks so much for joining us.
Mhairi: No, thank you!
Jeff: Mhairi, you entered politics when you were just under 21 years old. What was it about politics that you found compelling? What inspired you to run for office at a time when most of your peers were more interested in what they were doing on Saturday night?
Mhairi: So for me, where it started was when the referendum on Scottish independence was announced, and I believe that was in about 2012 or 2011. So I was about 16 then, and my father and I decided that we would campaign, and we really did. We threw ourselves into it. We were out knocking on people’s doors and speaking to people everywhere about the referendum. And long story short, we lost that referendum. And to my surprise, both myself and everyone else who had campaigned, we immediately thought, we are not going back in our box, we want to keep pushing and make sure that we hold Westminster accountable to the promises that they made to Scotland.
And from that, the people around me all said, “You should put your name forward.” And I thought, “Don’t be stupid. That’s a ridiculous idea.” And then as I listened to what their logic was in asking me to do it, it became clearer and clearer that actually if you want Parliament to represent society, then it should start looking a bit like society. And the fact that there’s no young people, or exactly at that time there were no obviously young people, I thought, why not? I’ll stick my name in and see how far I get. [laughs] And then I got elected.
Jeff: And you got elected at 20 years old, not only against an incumbent, but against somebody that had been a long-time player in the Labor Party.
Mhairi: Yes, it was Douglas Alexander. He was at one time the Shadow Foreign Secretary for the Labor Party. And at that time I think there was such a change, a seismic shift in Scotland away from the Labor Party as a result of the referendum. So a large part of it was due to that, I think, riding a wave that was flowing across Scotland anyway.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the importance that you saw at the time for Scottish independence. Something that I think for our listeners here in the US don’t really understand.
Mhairi: For me, Scottish independence, I support it for logical reasons. It’s often portrayed as this very Mel Gibson Braveheart, a very passionate, heartfelt argument. And in many ways it is, but for me, it’s because if you look at the way that our electoral system works in Westminster— I’ll give you an example. The city of London has, I believe, 73 members of Parliament, but Scotland, which is the second largest country of this union, has 59. So you’re in a bizarre situation where one city can and regularly does outvote an entire nation. And because of that, Scotland has not had the government it’s voted for, certainly not in my lifetime.
For the last 50 years, Scotland was always voting Labor, and yet the vast majority of the time we got Conservative governments, and that’s something that still happens to this day. And fundamentally, I just think if you want to see radical change, you have to get governments that you elect, and more importantly governments that you can get rid of if you democratically choose to. And that’s something that Scotland’s not had for years now.
Jeff: What are the fundamental issues that are important to Scotland that are separated in some ways from the way it has been governed, particularly by the Conservative Party out of Westminster?
Mhairi: I think the major difference is in political ethos, and because the Conservatives have always striven to privatize things, to create competition. During Margaret Thatcher’s government, she decimated entire communities across Scotland in particular, and the whole of the UK. Steel industries that fell away, mining communities that were left with nothing. And that has never changed and nothing has ever been done to try and reinvigorate or bring some life back into these communities. And because of that, I think particularly people in Scotland can feel that.
And to some extent, I think we are in a position where we clearly want to go in a different political direction, as we continually vote certainly to the left of the rest of the UK, and yet very few times do we get it. So I think the main one is investment, because I think that’s how you bring life back to these communities, if you can properly invest. Whether that’s in renewables, whether it’s in our food sector, whether it’s in— Even the oil and gas sector has been completely mismanaged by Westminster. So that’s what I think, surely the best people to be in control of our resources are actually the people of Scotland as opposed to what Conservatives down in Westminster say.
Jeff: If the Labor Party were to come into power in the next election, in a couple of years, would there be the same desire for Scottish independence?
Mhairi: I think so. And this is a tough question for the independence movement as well. Like I said, I support independence because I think, first of all, you get governments you vote for, but second of all, I think it creates more healthy competition. Because if you look at Westminster politics, it’s a very two-party system and it has been for a long time. And the Labor Party, when you look at their history, they moved further to the right, they became much more similar to the Conservatives, under Tony Blair. And that shift has never really changed.
So to a large extent, I would argue that there’s a cigarette paper between the Conservatives and the Labor Party with regard to many issues. But, in saying that, I think if we’re honest with ourselves, most people want to get rid of the Conservatives first before they deal with anything else. And that’s where I think the independence movement has a job to do in pointing out to people, “Look, even if the Labor Party does go into government, you’re still not getting the policies you voted for. You’re still having to live with laws made in an unelected House of Lords. You’re still having to endure the same economic policies, just slightly different.”
Would it not be better to actually have radical change in people, politicians actually vying to win your vote based on what their vision of the country is, as opposed to it being like, I suppose you’re slightly less worse than the other guy, so I’ll go with you?
Jeff: One of the things you’ve talked about is that a lot of the politics, particularly in Westminster, is, as you have said, drunk on the memory of a British empire that no longer exists. Talk about that.
Mhairi: This all stems back to my experience of being elected to Westminster, in that when you walk through the building you can feel it’s a bubble to the rest of the world. It’s a private club and I think in many ways it still is. When you are member of Parliament, people are waiting on you hand and foot. You’re given priority for everything.
You’re treated as though you’re very, very important. And in actual fact I would argue the way that Parliament works, it is one of the most inefficient parliaments in the world. It is so slow in dealing with things, even voting, which you see in other countries it’s a simple button. And of course we’d rather not have to do these laps of honor around the corridor, bowing as you go through a door in order to get your vote counted.
It’s bizarre. So that mentality bleeds through and to everything. If you are constantly surrounded by images of power; and very imperialist power, I would say; it is all based on empire. It was all paid for via the empire. So if that is what you are living 24/7, that begins to change your mindset and I think that’s what we’ve seen particularly since Brexit, which made no sense economically.
And the plans that have been put in place since then have just been self-damaging, and yet I still listen to politicians standing up one after another proclaiming it as a success. And I think what world are you living in? Are you even seeing your constituents? So I think it kids itself on and in many ways it’s almost like a crumbling movie set and I think it is going to be found out sooner rather than later, to be honest.
Jeff: Talk about what has taken place over the course really of just the past several months in terms of British politics.
Mhairi: Where to begin? So since 2015, I have had five prime ministers. I’m onto my fifth prime minister and three of those have been within the last year. So we had Boris Johnson, who is a scandalous figure. He was our Trump in many ways, and of course he eventually had to resign because the scandals were catching up with him; and then we had Liz Truss.
The Conservative members, they elected Liz Truss to be their new leader and within 49 days she managed to crash the pound, crash the economy, create havoc within the Bank of England. Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it. Even staff who’ve worked in the Houses of Parliament for decades were saying that they have never seen anything like it.
And lo and behold she then resigns because her position is completely untenable, and then we have another prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who’s now been a coordinated prime minister by Conservative MPs. So, basically, long story short, we’ve had two prime ministers in the last three months whom the people of the United Kingdom haven’t actually elected.
It’s been via Conservative members of Parliament, which I think speaks for itself as to how archaic our system must be.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the economic issues right now and really the economic problems that are facing the country, problems that Liz Truss made worse by the actions that she took and that the current prime minister and the current chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, are trying to dig out of it — and whether you think that they’re going in the right direction at all at this point.
Mhairi: There’s a scale I suppose as to how severe their policies can be, but ultimately I think, to keep it simple, there are two schools of thought really. So that on the one hand you have what we’ve been living through for the last decade, which is austerity, where the idea is that post-2008 financial crash, the response is that all ordinary people have to tighten their belts, government has to stop spending money.
We have to make cuts in places, difficult decisions, all that rhetoric. And I think I fundamentally disagree with that school of thought. I think that’s nonsense. I think post-financial crash you actually have to look at what caused the crash in the first place and the best way to get out of economic problems, ironically, as a country is to spend more, invest in people. Because when people have money in their pockets, they spend it and that’s what stimulates your entire economy.
It can keep a whole community going but if you end up in a situation where normal people don’t have any money to spend, that’s when things start crumbling and you start to see this wide economic inequality where it sounds like a tagline, but it is the literal truth: It’s the rich getting richer and everyone else being left behind.
And I think, like I say, there’s a scale and Liz Truss went to the very extreme of that scale, in that she was saying: “Bankers, you had a cap on your bonus, now we’ll take it off. Take whatever you want. You are earning over £150,000 a year; we are going to lower your taxes. But if you others can’t prove that you are out searching for a job every day of the week — I don’t care if your mother’s personal care-giver or if you have a disabled child or if there’s no jobs for you to apply for — I’m afraid it’s you that’s going to bear the brunt of all this chaos.”
Which to me just does not seem right. And that’s where you could argue that the likes of Jeremy Hunt and this new Conservative government are slightly less manic than Liz Truss, but fundamentally I still think they’re taking the wrong approach entirely.
So that’s where I think that what has to happen is investment. And we can have arguments about where that investment should be going, but it’s so frustrating when you can’t even have these conversations because the people in power are so opposed to even the idea of giving away money.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the National Health Service, which accounts for a staggering amount of the country’s budget.
Mhairi: So the National Health Service, I cannot do justice in telling you how valued the National Health Service is. And actually this is what might be the undoing of the Conservative Party, because this is something that they’ve been trying to do since the Thatcher years, which is if we can defund the NHS, or if we can starve it of resources to the point that it’s on its knees, the idea is they can then make the argument that the private companies would run it better or this is where we should get private investment.
And thankfully so far that line has never worked in the UK because people, no matter whom you talk to and no matter how wealthy they are or where they are from, everybody has someone who has been saved by the NHS. If I walk out of here and get hit by a car it doesn’t cost me to go in an ambulance. It doesn’t cost me to have my leg fixed or whatever medicines they have to use on me.
It doesn’t cost a penny. And in Scotland we actually went a step further and we said not only is the NHS going to remain free, but we’re also going to make your prescriptions free. If you’re prescribed something by a doctor that you need in order to stay healthy, the state will take that cost because we would rather you are healthy and looked after and able to participate in society than to leave you with nothing where in actual fact you might end up causing more problems for society. So I can’t emphasize enough just how valued that is.
Jeff: Talk about it from an economic perspective and, as there are concerns in the US with healthcare cost, the ever rising costs and the impact that has on the UK budget and on the broader economic framework we’ve been talking about.
Mhairi: So I think the first thing is actually that the main economic argument is the one that I just made. There’s plenty of studies. In fact there was a recent one, in Denmark I believe, that highlighted yet again that if you focus on wellbeing as opposed to monetary targets to judge how well your society is doing, it actually gives you a much better insight into what the quality of life is like, and that comes back to the money that we spend on the NHS. I do believe that the vast majority of the public would tell you that it’s worth every penny to sustain it, especially if it’s enabling people to participate and give something back, no matter how small it is. Particularly if you’re disabled, if you just need some bit of extra support that should be provided for you so that you’re able to participate in society like everyone else.
Now second to that, I think also this is where it comes back to what the government’s approach would be. And I would argue that this is one of the conflicts that we have, is that we have this very egalitarian system that works and everyone agrees works, but then, behind closed doors, you’ve got a Conservative government that doesn’t want it. But they know they can’t publicly say that because the public would turn on them immediately.
And because of that, I think there’s often a clash between things wherein in every other aspect of someone’s life they are constantly being put under pressure, whether it’s consistently losing their job, not having any secure wages, not getting any government support. I can understand how that doesn’t tie into the whole idea of supporting people to participate in society, if that makes sense.
I do think that the NHS is only one cog in the machine, and you have to look at the entire machine to get your full money’s worth, so to speak. But definitely, the personal— put it this way, the personal cost, if there wasn’t an NHS, would be far too high for the general public.
Jeff: Talk about economic growth and getting the economy pumped up again, moving again. There’s been a lot of talk about that. And on the other side, you’ve talked extensively about the obsession sometimes with economic growth and the damage that you see that doing.
Mhairi: Yes. So in fact, the perfect example is Brexit. We have a situation where some of the wealthiest people in the UK have made a fortune off of the political chaos that has been going on. Those hedge funds, disaster capitalists betting against the pound, and things like that. And the flip side to that is you’ve got the rest of the public completely suffering because of it.
And that’s when you look at the connections between some of the people who are in Parliament and those making money, it is not difficult to see where the overlap is. And because of that, I think we often have a warped sense of what success actually means. So for instance, with Brexit, we have this obsession with ending immigration. Now, that makes no sense economically for the UK.
It’s absolutely ridiculous. We need immigrants to come and to support the very kind of institution like the NHS. Part of the reason that we’re seeing such increases in cost is that we have chased away half of the people who do all the hard work. I mean, even if you look at Scotland’s own position, Scotland’s empty. I mean, literally, geographically the number of people that are in Scotland — we’ve got loads of space.
It makes sense for us to bring people in and to help expand their industries. I mean, the SNP [Scottish National Party] actually just commissioned a report that showed the renewable energy potential that Scotland has. And the problem that we have is we don’t have the proper investment. Government’s not throwing its weight behind it. And one of the main aspects is that it’s said we need at least another 200,000 people if we want this sector to be a success.
Now, I can guarantee you that there’s 200,000 people who would give anything to come and move to Scotland to help invigorate these institutions. But instead we’re crippled because all the potential is just sitting there and yet we don’t have the money — or seemingly we’re told, we don’t have the money — to invest in it.
And that’s the difference when you look at other nations like— in fact, another perfect example is if you go back to the 80’s when we discovered the oil. Well, when we started making profits off of all the oil and things, Norway was in a similar position. And what they chose to do was to put the profits from oil into an Oil Fund, as they called it. And there is only a certain amount of money that each generation is allowed to take out of that Oil Fund because it’s basically a giant rainy-day pot for Norway. And yet compare that to the United Kingdom: Instead of doing something similar, what we did was we just used all those profits to pile into a black hole of debt that was caused by these ideological changes that were more market-driven and conservative in their approach.
So you’ve got a situation where, fast-forward 40 years, you can see the difference between Norway and the United Kingdom — one’s thriving and one isn’t. And I suppose that comes back to where I think politics in the UK is stuck in this idea that Britain’s this massive world player with all the resources. And the truth is the picture has changed an awful lot since those times and we’re not as influential as we think we are.
Jeff: Is politics in the UK — either in terms of the general tenor of politics or even with respect to policy in some of the issues we’ve been talking about — to what extent is any of that shaped by what is being seen going on in the US these days?
Mhairi: Well, I think it’s very much influenced, very much in many ways. There’s an argument to say that the UK is always maybe five or ten years behind America in terms of its traditions or whatever. I mean even I was actually talking to someone recently about this with Halloween now. In the UK you’ll see pumpkins everywhere and it’s marketed everywhere. Even when I was young, I don’t remember Halloween being that big of a deal.
So I do think you can see trends that began in America and make their way over. And the same is true of politics. As I said, Boris Johnson I think in many ways was our Trump, and not just in the sense that they’re two blonde-haired guys that make a lot of gaffes in front of cameras. More in the sense that their rhetoric is dangerous because it’s very populist.
There’s not much depth to it, but you can understand how someone who doesn’t pay attention to politics a lot could be hoodwinked or fooled by it. I think there is also the element of total corruption, frankly. And that you see the way in which they behave — whether it be towards women, whether it be towards minorities, whatever it is — is completely unacceptable and ugly in many ways.
And yet that they’re the ones in a position of power should terrify all of us. And the fact that there’s not been a clear upheaval and I suppose an awakening that all we really need to sort our politics, politicians out hasn’t really happened. I think we are in a similar position in that our politics is turning into almost a reality-TV show where its politicians are becoming characters rather than professional people that you can trust to run the country.
Jeff: Do you see that changing over the next two years as it gets closer to your elections?
Mhairi: Hopefully, yes. Hopefully, I think it also depends on us, on politicians being prepared not to fall into these traps. It’s one of the things that disappoints me about the Labor Party, in particular, as I touched on earlier. For instance, I am a big critic, and I’ve explained why, of the Conservative Party’s immigration policies, and yet the Labor Party’s are pretty much exactly the same.
So I think it requires politicians to offer people something differently. That is, I still will argue to this day, exactly why Scotland was so exciting during the 2014 referendum. Because you could palpably feel all things could be really different — this really matters this election or this referendum. And because of that, people were taking it seriously.
You could literally stop a stranger in the street and ask them, what are you voting? And they would know exactly what you’re talking about. They would know it was the referendum and they would stand and tell you why they were for it or against it or what their worries were — oh it was incredible!
And that to me is what politics should be like all the time. It should be a case of people are inspired to talk and actually think that things could be different. And if you’re not giving that to people, can you blame them for becoming disenfranchised or for questioning the entire system?
But the unfortunate truth is if everyone stops paying attention to the system, then it eats itself and it takes everybody down with it. You know that that’s how you get these atrocious governments ending up in power — because people lose the will to care. And I think as politicians, that’s the one thing we should be fighting for, is making sure that people care and reexplaining why they need to care and why they should care. Maybe that’s too hopeful. I don’t know.
Jeff: As you’ve talked about, it’s when they don’t care that it leads to autocracy and potentially fascism.
Mhairi: Absolutely. The fact that in America we are currently looking at it from over here, the fact that Roe v. Wade has been withdrawn, that is something I never thought I would see. Truly never thought I would see that. I thought there would be absolute revolt if that ever happened because that’s archaic, the idea that a woman’s not in charge of her own body — and yet here we are.
And then you compare that to the UK: We similarly have very, very fundamentally right wing individuals who don’t believe in that kind of autonomy. I’ve sat in the chamber and listened to politicians stand up and say they don’t think that I should have the right to get married because I’m gay.
That’s terrifying. And the fact that we’ve got people who are able to voice opinions such as those without it ending their careers, that’s scary. And I think that’s on all of us to be questioning, well why is this being allowed to creep back? Even similarly with trans, you look at the campaign of disinformation in hatred against trans people. The same thing’s happening in the UK now. So yes, I do, I think that in many ways, watching America can give us a foresight into where the UK’s heading next.
Jeff: Member of Parliament Mhairi Black, I thank you so very much for spending time with us today here on the Who What Why Podcast.
Mhairi: Not at all. Thank you for listening to my ramblings.
Jeff: Thank you.
Mhairi: I hope I’ve been helpful.
Jeff: Thank you so much.
Mhairi: No, thank you.
Jeff: And thank you for listening and joining us here on the Who What Why Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio Who What Why Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to Whowhatwhy.org/donate