10 August 2023

British politics is better off without Mhairi Black’s binary views on ‘Karens’


Political culture in Britain will be much improved by the departure of Mhairi Black from the Commons at the next election.

If you doubt this, check out her latest unhinged and childish attack on everyone who disagrees with her views on gender. As if the national debate about trans rights wasn’t already toxic enough, the nationalist Paisley MP has waded in with a bizarre claim that most Brits – and most Scots, let us not forget – are not “decent” people because they hold to the view that biological sex matters. Even the majority who sympathise with trans people but who draw the line at allowing biological males unfettered access to women-only spaces like prisons, women’s refuges, changing rooms and female sports, are compared by Ms Black to white supremacists who, in the past, claimed that black people were inferior to whites.

It’s a sign of the intellectual paucity of any argument, whether over Brexit, race, asylum or trans issues, when adherents of either side start name-calling, especially when “white supremacy” or, more commonly, “fascism” is invoked. If you can’t produce lucid, logical arguments for your position, then attaching playground labels to all your detractors is a sure sign that you have lost the argument.

And yet Ms Black remains, for many in her party, the next great hope for nationalism, that political movement that sidelines important issues like poverty, health care and fair taxes in favour of fetishizing an obsession with borders and flags. Perhaps, given the nature of nationalism, it’s entirely appropriate that the SNP should reach out, in time, to Ms Black, whose broad-brush and unsubtle approach to her political opponents fits in well with the party’s philosophy.

Ironically, while Ms Black berates everyone else for holding a binary view on sex and gender, she adheres herself to a binary view on politics. Those who support her side are the good guys (apologies for the gendered language) and everyone else are the baddies. You either support Scottish independence or you don’t, you either agree with her on trans issues or you’re a “bad actor”, akin to a racist, or a “Karen”.

It’s odd that she chose to use this last label to attack opponents, given that it is a racist, misogynist term invented by men who are angry that they can’t get women to go out with them. (Let’s add ageism to the charge sheet, since Ms Black actually attacked “50-year-old Karens” in her diatribe, as if getting old is in itself some sort of offence against progressivism). But then, maybe sexism, racism and ageism have their parts to play in promoting the political views that Ms Black holds dear.

There is a tone of frustration, disillusionment and spite (the personal kind, not the political spite that is a hallmark of the nationalist movement in general) in Ms Black’s remarks. This is a woman who has been usurped at least twice from her former title of Baby of the House, having been elected the youngest MP in 350 years at the age of 20 in 2015. Perhaps that shining new political dawn that her election heralded has not lived up to her own expectations. 

True, she lately became the deputy leader of the SNP at Westminster, and is frequently touted as a future party leader should she make the tricky transfer to Holyrood at some point, but the language she used in her interview with podcaster and comedian, Matt Forde reeks of bitterness. Who thinks that publicly stating that she spends the working week at Westminster ‘surrounded by arseholes’ is a measure of maturity and political judgment?

Is this really the figurehead the SNP needs to broaden the appeal of independence beyond the 45 per cent who voted Yes in 2014? Is Mhairi Black the kind of person that doubtful pro-UK voters can be convinced by, even as she traduces them for their views on other cultural matters?

There was an element of playing up to her audience at the Edinburgh Fringe – an understandable temptation but rarely a good idea for a mature politician. The applause of people in the room was no doubt satisfying but even she cannot possibly think that in hindsight, her personal reputation and that of her party were advanced in the process.

Disappointed by her experience at Westminster, Ms Black has announced she’s had enough of life as an MP and will not be a candidate at the next election. Counter-intuitively, this seems to be one of the few judgments she’s made in the last eight years that can be applauded. MPs need to be open to debate, even if they’re not open to changing their minds. They need to be able to respect the views of colleagues from other parties, even if they disagree with them. Crucially, they need to understand the opinions of their own constituents and resist the temptation to dismiss all opposing views with a wave of the hand and the evocation of a lazy insult or comparison.

Elected politics is not for Mhairi Black. Some of us have recognised this fact for a long time. It’s good to see her employing her own unique talents to confirm this truth.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.