Earlier this week, 20-year-old Scottish Nationalist Party MP Mhairi Black made her maiden speech in the House of Commons. The allegedly ‘dazzling speech’, which has already been praised on social media for proving young people can engage in politics, was, in fact, far from impressive; it sounded more like a polished version of one of Russell Brand’s video blogs. Of course, her praise was mainly confined to the internet; as one headline read: ‘Mhairi Black gives Commons maiden speech, Twitter explodes with support.’
Black’s speech ticked all the right anti-austerity and anti-Tory boxes, repeating every opposition politician’s favourite slogan at the moment: ‘We now have one of the most uncaring, uncompromising and out-of-touch governments in living memory.’ Black also satisfied the current trend for anti-austerity sob stories, describing how one of her constituents burst into tears in front of her because his benefits had been sanctioned. To conclude, she turned her attention to the Labour Party, denouncing it for failing to face-off the Tories before extending ‘a genuine hand of friendship’, calling on Labour to form a proper opposition with the SNP.
Her entrance into parliament might be considered a revolutionary event by some people on Twitter. But such overexcitement about Black only reflects the dire state of British politics more broadly. Having become accustomed to rehearsed, sloganistic politics, people don’t seem to remember what a real, kickass speech sounds like. In 1969, another young woman - 21-year-old Bernadette Devlin - was elected MP for the Mid Ulster constituency in Northern Ireland. The maiden speech Devlin gave that year was packed with more political power than Black could ever hope to muster.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary, with the support of Unionists and the British government, were beating and brutalising people in Derry at the time of her election. But, instead of pulling on the heartstrings, Devlin got straight to the point. ‘There is no place in society for us, the ordinary “peasants” of Northern Ireland’, she said. ‘There is no place for us in the society of landlords, because we are the “have-nots” and they are the “haves”.’ Devlin concluded her speech, not by pleading for state protection, but by insisting that if the British Army were sent in to occupy Ulster there’d be hell to pay: ‘If British troops are sent in I should not like to be either the mother or sister of an unfortunate soldier stationed there.’
Devlin was a real force to be reckoned with. Six months after she made her powerful speech, she was jailed for standing with residents in the Battle of the Bogside. And, in 1972, when the home secretary Reginald Maudling stood up and lied about Bloody Sunday in the Commons, Devlin crossed the floor and punched him in the face. She stood as an independent MP to fight for the freedom of her constituents and of her country. By contrast, Black’s empty speech, calling for a bit more fairness in the welfare state and more handouts for young people, only reflects an empty political climate, in which gaining lefty support is as easy as creating a good hashtag.