In Mhairi Black, SNP leaders cultivated an ersatz socialist to attract voters. We cannot be rid of these avatars and their faux radicalism until we confront them with something more real, argues David Jamieson.
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Mhairi Black choosing not to contest the forthcoming election – as deputy leader of the Westminster group and perhaps the party’s most high profile MP – is a damning vote of no confidence in the SNP.
A beleaguered Humza Yousaf put a brave face on her resignation: “It is difficult to overstate the impact that Mhairi Black has had on Scottish and UK politics since her election in 2015,” he said.
By most conventional measures, it’s difficult to understate the impact she had. She didn’t have a strong record in the parliament – either of voting or championing legislation as a backbencher. There have been MPs who have reasoned, with justification, that they could best represent their constituents and their own values through extra-parliamentary activity. But Black was simply never a campaigning figure. Her involvement in causes outside the Commons was minimal.
What we are hearing from Yousaf, Sturgeon and others is the last feeble notes of the carnival that surrounded Black’s election in 2015. As the youngest MP elected since the mass franchise was established, Black was presented as the new wave sweeping through stuffy old Britain. Rendered a socialist firebrand for a new age, she was equipped with a strong speaking ability and bolstered by an aura of working class authenticity.
Black didn’t invent this persona herself. It was provided for her by a party machine gearing up for a years-long demonstration in the triumph of aesthetics over substance. In some ways, she represents an entire generation of young people – welcomed with whoops and cheers as saviours of a weary world, before being abandoned to their own devices. It is still the practice of veteran liberal-leftists to tell young people they will destroy the old conventions and liberate human potential from an evil past. It is a dishonest, disorientating and ultimately cruel ruse, serving only the already comfortable.
When Black asserts she’s quitting Westminster because its stagnant culture is harmful, she too is returning to the myth constructed for her 8 years ago. I’m not here to second guess Black’s description of the Mother of Parliaments, except to say it is categorically untrue that Westminster is, quote: “One of the most unhealthy workplaces”. It’s one of the cushiest places you can work in the whole country. And it’s too obvious an observation not to make that her own party, through the control of local authorities, emergency-nationalised industries, and national finances in general, has created and sustained workplaces far more ‘toxic’. But she’s playing her character to the end, and it’s the smart thing to do in the circumstances.
The motivations for Black’s resignation are obvious. In 2019, she reclaimed her Paisley and Renfrewshire South seat with a robust 21,637 votes, more than 10,000 ahead of her Labour challenger. On the day she resigned, polls showed Labour’s (yet unselected) candidate for the seat had dramatically reduced her advantage. Labour will be hoping for a late surge, particularly in Scotland, as the old binary of Tory vs non-Tory favours Labour once again. I imagine this eventuality informed Black’s decision to stand down. For evidence of how new this decision is, consider that in December 2022, just months before the onset of the SNP’s internal woes, she had wrestled in the Westminster group faction fight to become deputy leader – deposing Ian Blackford, who is also now standing down. Playing Brutus to new leader Stephen Flynn’s Cassius is not exactly the sign of someone running from the ugliness of modern politics.
Still, the Black myth rumbles on. What has she done to be awarded her image as some West Coast of Scotland prole Spartan?
Black’s plebian origins were emphasised in the construction of her identity, and the London media circuit lapped it up. Her colleague Flynn is also discussed in the London media as some noble savage proletarian archetype with metal filings under his skin and a whippet at heel. Incidentally, he and I have precisely the same class background – we share it with Nicola Sturgeon, also vaunted as having been pulled like some wholesome root vegetable from the dark earth of the common folk. Black might just be a shelf above us in the larder, her parents being small business people, as I understand it.
The provincial petit bourgeoisie is the prime class location of the populist breakthrough. As one study of ‘anti-politicians’ has it: “…many contemporary ‘populist’ leaders come from culturally peripheral backgrounds, rather than the traditional milieus of the cultural elite – though rarely from the working class itself”.
Regardless of how we interpret class categories, it is this sense of peripherality that the SNP has cultivated, especially since 2014. Its idea of authenticity seeks to elide class divisions as such for a sense of national community, with Scots an excluded and misunderstood people existing beyond the metropolitan bubble. This framing helps us understand the strange deficiencies of SNP ‘socialism’ – which Black, Flynn and many other SNP politicians all profess. The folk identity combines streetwise and canny, with cosmopolitan and modern, a mix supposedly alien to Londoners (who are we trying to kid). If there is a ‘socialism’ in the SNP, it is this strange mix of elitist liberalism and vague national populism.
And what of the working class itself – the bearers of socialism for past generations? They appear in Black’s popular speeches as victims. Those parliamentary orations, with views reaching over 10 million in some cases, relentlessly depict a prostrate class, under the blade of a callous Tory elite. It would be too easy to say that the working class appears as a straw dog because of Black’s focus on nation rather than class. A coherent political nation is at least as absent from her politics, and this is a version of socialist politics even more common on Labour benches, where workers vote Leave through confusion, and need to be saved from the resulting foodbanks.
Black’s socialism speaks to our own sense of political enclosure. Wanting something more real, the mass of wage workers who make up most of the population are invited to enjoy avatars. More than spokespeople who project our frustrations in words, they embody an alternative ethos, unmoored from any wider movement that might hold leaders to account. Black’s role is to provide this spectacle, and nothing more tangible.
It’s one thing to attempt a description of this type of para-social relationship from the outside. We are indebted to those, like The National columnist Kelly Given, who have been gripped by the emotional experience. She describes her encounter with the Mhairi Black avatar like this: “The power she held was firmly rooted in the people who saw themselves reflected in her. She afforded all of those people, myself included, the proof that they could do it too – that there is space for your voice wherever you make space for it.”
I don’t know where the avatar goes from here, if Black retires it in exhaustion, or finds a way to plug it back in to its audience here in Scotland – perhaps through a Holyrood portal. But I know both the type and its ersatz socialism will be with us until we can challenge it with something real.