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JENNY HJUL: Mhairi Black’s clothing comments reveal so much about Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon

Mhairi Black says Alex Salmond suggested Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh would give her some style help once she was elected to Westminster.
Mhairi Black says Alex Salmond suggested Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh would give her some style help once she was elected to Westminster.

Thank heavens for rookie politicians! Mhairi Black, the SNP’s youngest MP, has inadvertently given two wonderful insights into her party, nuggets that shine a light on the past and present Nationalist leaders.

Miss Black is the member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South who was elected to Westminster in the SNP triumph of 2015 and held on, with a reduced majority, this year. Just 20 when she entered the Commons, she has earned a reputation for speaking her mind and for fine oratory, qualities that don’t always go together.

Fortunately for us all, she has yet to acquire the cynicism of the jargon-spouting political automatum and, whether on the back benches or in front of the cameras, she tells it as it is.

Thus she has shared, during an interview with Holyrood magazine, the surreal moment when Alex Salmond attempted to offer her sartorial advice. It was shortly after the 2015 general election and the then MP for Gordon had taken Miss Black out to lunch in the Houses of Parliament.

“I was just sitting chatting away to him and the whole time I’m thinking, what’s the point of this meant to be – is this a date, do I need to come out to Alex Salmond?” said Miss Black.

“It was fine, really, he was just giving me tips here and there and then he says, ‘I’m sure Taz (Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh, then a fellow SNP MP) will take you out to go shopping or something at some point and you’ll find your own style”.

This exchange is revealing on several fronts, not least that Mr Salmond sees himself as an arbiter of the correct female attire – or why would he have brought up the subject?

Chauvinism

Miss Black – like Mr Salmond – opts for ill-cut suits and nondescript shirts, with only the tie missing. Was she singled out because of her youth or her androgyny? And interestingly, though, of course not politically significant, the former first minister regards ‘Taz’ as the paradigm of feminine chic, for he selected her as Miss Black’s clothes buddy above dozens of other female colleagues, including the not-that-badly dressed Fiona Hyslop, who was assigned to mentor Miss Black (but apparently didn’t).

Mr Salmond admitted he had once had the same conversation with a young Nicola Sturgeon, which confirms that a) his chauvinism and conceit have long been out of control, and b) he is even further removed from contemporary social mores than many of us thought. However, of much more relevance than Mr Salmond’s preoccupation with image was rising star Miss Black’s disclosure that her current boss has been distant towards her.

Ms Sturgeon, said Black, had had a conversation with her about doing the “youth stuff” in the Scottish election campaign but there hadn’t ever been a one-to-one between them.

As a novice, Miss Black thought this was normal but on reflection felt her party needed “a kick up the backside, especially given the kind of caring ethos that we like to preach”.

No baggage

There has been growing criticism within the SNP that it is run by a too-tightly-knit group, mainly comprising Ms Sturgeon and her husband, the party’s chief executive, Peter Murrell.

Former justice minister Kenny MacAskill blamed the party’s poor showing in the June election on its over-centralisation, and other SNP veterans have questioned the promotion of Ms Sturgeon the personality at the expense of the party.

But Miss Black’s words carry more weight, given that they come from a party member with no baggage and no grudge to bear. She speaks rather as a concerned employee, who would like to see her organisation perform better, stating: “It might be an idea for Nicola to take the time to talk to folk or whatever but I hope that someone else further down the line does have a different experience to me.”

Lofty chiefs

She hits the nail on the head, comparing the public face of the party, as the self-styled champion of community values, with the private reality, of lofty chiefs with little time for their minions.

After a decade in power, the SNP has lost touch with ordinary voters, failing to recognise a shift in public opinion away from the Nationalists’ obsession with constitutional upheaval.

This resulted in a dramatic downturn in the party’s fortunes at the last election, and a continuing slide in the popularity of Ms Sturgeon.

We knew all that but now, thanks to Miss Black, we can also glimpse the yawning chasm between the party hierarchy and its own grassroots, and see how the SNP’s next generation has been expected to fend for itself.

It is possibly this lack of support that has contributed to Miss Black’s unhappy experience of the Commons so far, though she has many other grievances.

It is certainly something her party should address, and quickly. As she put it, ‘there should be more care’.

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