By most accounts, the SNP’s Mhairi Black – Britain’s youngest MP in several hundred years – gave a great and powerful maiden speech when she finally spoke during the Budget debate this week. And so it was, if you lower the bar for greatness so far that it encompasses earnest, occasionally witty, wide-eyed socialist babble.
Certainly many Labour MPs were enthusiastic, as the Guardian reported approvingly when the speech went viral:
In the anti-austerity speech where Black called herself “the only 20-year-old in the whole of the UK who the chancellor is prepared to help with housing” after the age limit imposed on housing benefit, she also called for a healing of relations with the Labour party.
“I have never been quiet in my assertion that it is the Labour party that left me, not the other way round,” she said in the speech where she also praised the lateLabour grandee Tony Benn. “I reach out a genuine hand of friendship that I can only hope will be taken. Ultimately people are needing a voice, people are needing help. Let’s give them it.”
Several Labour politicians seemed receptive to her call for cooperation. Praise for Black’s speech was tweeted and retweeted by Labour MPs including Tulip Siddiq, Diane Abbott and Sarah Champion, as well as Labour’s Madeleine Jennings, the parliamentary researcher for MP Stephen Kinnock.
This blog disagrees with almost everything that Mhairi Black believes in, but has no personal animosity toward the twenty-year-old parliamentarian. In many ways it is refreshing and long overdue for someone so young to be included in the makeup of parliament, especially at a time when government policy (and state largesse) so overwhelmingly favours older people, with their selfish attitudes and non-means tested benefits. It is only a pity that Mhairi Black doesn’t represent a serious political party but rather a group of zealous, moralising fantasists who would tear up a three hundred year old union in a fit of pique over ten years of Tory Lite rule. But so be it.
But if Mhairi Black’s maiden speech in the House of Commons is any guide to what we can expect from the Tartan Tea Party over the next five years, we are all in for a disappointment. The speech may have been full of passion and burning with self-righteous anger, but it was also incredibly naive in the most non-endearing way, and reeked of the Good vs Evil mentality which has taken hold of such large swathes of the British Left.
But first, the good:
Tony Benn once said that in politics there are weathercocks and sign posts. Weathercocks will spin in whatever direction the wind of public opinion may blow them, no matter what principal they may have to compromise. And then there are signposts, signposts which stand true, and tall, and principled. And they point in the direction and they say this is the way to a better society and it is my job to convince you why. Tony Benn was right when he said the only people worth remembering in politics were signposts.
This is very laudable. Of course there is no zealot like a convert, and as Black attests to coming from a traditional Labour-supporting family and feeling that the Labour Party left her rather than the other way around, it is unsurprising that she is firm in her convictions. One can disagree entirely with what Mhairi Black wants and believes, but still admire her commitment to principle over party – a quality not widely shared in Westminster.
But the wheels soon start to come off:
No matter how much I may wish it, the SNP is not the sole opposition to this Government, but nor is the Labour party. It is together with all the parties on these benches that we must form an opposition, and in order to be affective we must oppose not abstain. So I reach out a genuine hand of friendship which I can only hope will be taken. Let us come together, let us be that opposition, let us be that signpost of a better society.
Because of course, conservatives want a worse society.
This is the same childish, foot-stomping nonsense that we heard during the BBC’s general election debate, when the four left-wing party leaders ganged up on Nigel Farage, the sole representative of the political Right. At the end of that debate, the leftist candidates memorably hugged one another, a sickening expression of the sanctimonious belief that they represented the combined Forces of Good against the great evil of moderate conservatism and euroscepticism.
Black structures her speech around an anecdote about a constituent whose benefits were sanctioned under what were (if true) shockingly cruel circumstances. Her words burn with righteous anger when she talks about this middle aged, vulnerable man who broke down in tears in front of her as he described his ordeal at the hands of seemingly indifferent Job Centre staff. And who can fail to be moved by this?
The problem – and it is by no means unique to Mhairi Black – is that there is no follow-up. She describes an outrageous failure of the state bureaucracy and points at the Conservatives accusing them of wanton cruelty. But never does she explain what she would do differently, or what different policies her ideal government would enact to help such disadvantaged people and make them productive members of society again (if indeed that is their aim). And so it is with nearly all of the most vociferous critics of David Cameron’s government and so-called ‘austerity’.
Cuts to Child Tax Credit and Employment Support Allowance are bad? Okay, so what should we do instead? Keep benefits at Gordon Brown levels? Increase them yearly by inflation? Double them? And what difference would this make? Should there be no penalties at all for failing to look for a job while claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance? Should JSA be kept the same, increased slightly, doubled, tripled or quadrupled? Under what circumstances should benefits ever be terminated, if at all? How do we ensure that the welfare state helps those who need it while not acting like a hammock for the lazy and failing to catch those in genuine need?
What should the top rate of income tax actually be? Should we have a wealth tax too? What about inheritance tax? What balance should we strike between taxing corporations and encouraging them to invest in Britain and create jobs? How much further should we pare back our military to pay for all this extra social spending? How much more money should we spend on the NHS, and how do we ensure that it is spent effectively? What is “fair”? What would be “socially just”? In short, if the Conservative government’s policies are all so goshdarned callous and evil, what is the wise and moral alternative?
Fortunately not everyone has been drinking the Kool-Aid, and some commentators have seen Black’s speech for what it was – a glib attempt to claim the moral high ground without putting in the hard work of creating a moral counterargument of her own (beyond advocating throwing more money at everyone until the country is bankrupt).
Iain Martin, writing in CapX, provides a refreshingly honest perspective:
But the risk with the spread of social media, and the way in which these maiden speeches go viral as though they are clips from Pop Idol, is that maximum points are awarded for gift of the gab fluency and “think of the children!” handwringing. This style particularly suits agitprop young left-wingers such as Black, who talks as though she believes that conservatives do not have principles and are bad people motivated by malice. Actually, they tend to just have different principles or inclinations from those on the left. Conservatives are often wary of the zeal of revolutionaries, because history suggests that many people tend to get hurt in the ensuing upheaval, and they reject the idea of attempts to socially engineer a remodelling of human nature, because, again as history suggests, this usually requires coercion which threatens freedom, saps innovation and kills prosperity.
It is not Mhairi Black’s fault that at age 20 she doesn’t have the answers to any of the issues touched on in her speech – her older, wiser fellow party members, not to mention their wounded rivals in the Labour Party, are equally bereft of inspiration. But a speech which adopts the tired old left-wing fallback of accusing conservatives of being callous and evil while singularly failing to specify anything that should be done differently is not “great”, or “inspirational”. It’s just more of the same socialist posturing.
By all means, we should welcome the fact that someone born in 1994 can sit in Parliament representing her constituency and the views and attitudes of the younger generation – it is long overdue. But let’s not pretend that Mhairi Black treated us to a fine piece of political oratory this week, or that her glib and ostentatious socialism holds any meaningful answers to the challenges of modern Britain.
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