LEADING young SNP politician Mhairi Black and local candidate Miriam Brett used an informal Q&A session in Lerwick on Tuesday night to outline the case that their party is best placed to oppose the Tories’ spending cuts, welfare reform and plans for a hard Brexit.
The pair, who have formed a close friendship while working together at Westminster over the past two years, took questions from an overwhelmingly supportive audience – though a few folk from differing political persuasions were present too – at the Shetland Museum and Archives.
Such was the level of public interest that the evening was split into two hour-long sessions, with the 122-capacity room filled each time – not an occurrence that could have been envisaged for such an event prior to the surge in political interest surrounding the 2014 independence referendum.
Brett had previously vowed not to seek to exploit the saga that saw Alistair Carmichael’s 2015 election victory over the late Danus Skene subjected to a legal challenge, and she kept to her word. Black, however, made her feelings known on the matter in no uncertain terms.
“The representative for this area is a proven liar, and I don’t use that word lightly,” she said to loud applause from the party faithful. “I don’t know the guy personally, but in terms of his politics that was a representative who deliberately and knowingly lied to the electorate, lied to constituents.
“I don’t know about you but I don’t want somebody like that representing me in parliament.”
Tory coalition was a ‘fundamental betrayal’
Brett set out her case as to why the Northern Isles should break a habit of some 70 years and stop voting for the Liberal Democrats.
She said she grew up admiring much of Carmichael’s work at Westminster on issues such as human rights, but felt the party’s decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 was “a fundamental betrayal of what they used to stand for”.
Black said she could sympathise to an extent with the reasons why the Lib Dems entered the coalition, but did they succeed in trimming the worst excesses of the Tories? “Did they hell, it was exactly the sort of Conservative government that David Cameron wanted.”
Many of the audience questions focused on issues such as welfare cuts, the bedroom tax, food banks, the “rape clause”, nuclear weapons, human rights and trade union legislation – with relatively little discussion of some of the more localised matters that may prove pivotal in determining the constituency’s outcome.
Brett was asked by recently elected Lerwick North councillor John Fraser why her colleagues at Holyrood were yet to deliver on a promise to address the £7 million funding deficit on the SIC’s inter-island ferry service.
She replied: “As far as I’m aware there are discussions that have been going on with the likes of [transport and islands minister] Humza Yousaf, the local authority and Transport Scotland. I wholeheartedly support a reduction in cost for ferries.”
Former SIC member Iris Hawkins asked whether she supported an interconnector cable to enable big renewables projects such as the Viking Energy windfarm to go ahead.
Brett replied that she recognised “ongoing controversies” about that project and said she felt there were “lessons that could be taken” in “not just the quantity of engagement with people but the nature of it as well, to ensure it comes from a grassroots level up”.
She seemed unaware that the decision on whether to green-light the interconnector rests with the UK Government, and said she would “look into it at a Westminster level”.
Existence of food banks is ‘shameful’
Both women spoke passionately and with conviction about just how damaging they feel seven years of Tory-enforced austerity has been for the UK.
Recent figures show Shetland has a much higher rate of foodbank use than the national average, and Brett said their very existence was “shameful”.
Theresa May recently said there were “complex reasons” why people use foodbanks, backed by local Tory candidate Jamie Halcro Johnston, but Brett gave that notion short shrift: “People go to foodbanks because they are hungry. The reasons they are hungry are more complex, but they’re also driven by policy agendas that are fundamentally cruel.”
She said the Liberal Democrats had been complicit in voting for policies that were anything but “Tory-lite” such as the bedroom tax, while public spending austerity had failed on both social and economic levels.
“You cannot stimulate growth without injecting the economy,” she said.
While the SNP pursues a strategy of focusing primarily on Westminster-controlled policies, the Tories and Lib Dems in particular are campaigning heavily on Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for a second independence referendum once the nature of the UK’s departure from the European Union becomes clearer.
That, along with local issues such as the impact of Brexit on the fishing industry, may well be key in defining the Northern Isles constituency battle.
Brett acknowledged fishing was “definitely one of the issues people feel most passionate about” on doorsteps. Many in the industry have talked of Brexit providing a “sea of opportunity” for positive change.
She said the SNP wanted to “radically reform” the much-maligned Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), and “if it can’t be radically reformed we want it to be scrapped”.
Brett said that a few months ago when Banff and Buchan MP Eilidh Whiteford raised the industry’s future the Tories “said quite openly that fishing was a low priority” in the Brexit negotiations.
Facing criticism from opposition parties, Sturgeon has conceded the party’s record on education has fallen short and vowed to do more to bridge the attainment gap.
Black, the youngest MP in the UK since 1832, said she accepted steps were necessary to improve the Scottish education system and that was “not happening at the speed we would like”.
But she pointed out that Tory leader Ruth Davidson’s claim that a fifth of pupils left primary school “functionally illiterate” had been demonstrated by investigative journalism website The Ferret to be “a misrepresentation” of the facts.
Calling snap election a ‘cynical’ move by PM
Asked by recently retired councillor and new SNP member Jonathan Wills – whose daughter Kate Wills chaired proceedings – what the election was about, Black was clear that it was “nothing more than a cynical attempt by Theresa May to strengthen her power”.
Brett said it was an opportunist move by May to capitalise on Labour’s internal troubles and a “horribly motivated way to bulldoze quite a damaging agenda through because they know they can retain the power”.
She referred to “frightening statistics” about the number of EU doctors looking to leave Britain, saying it wasn’t just about those who may have to leave due to a cap on immigration, but also the unquantifiable number who “are going to leave because they don’t feel welcome”.
Black said she had received a Tory leaflet in the council elections that was all about the SNP and a second referendum, and Davidson’s party was constantly “banging on about independence”.
“Everybody knows the SNP believe in independence,” she said. “That’s not changed overnight and it’s not going to change. We will continue to argue for it, but so long as we’re within the UK we’ll try and do our very best for Scotland.”
Black suggested Davidson was keen to talk about the constitution to avoid defending policies such as the “absolutely disgusting” rape clause, whereby people with three children nor more will have to provide proof that they became pregnant as a result of rape before being given child tax credits.
Black said Davidson’s suggestion that the SNP at Holyrood should take action to reverse that measure was galling: “Try and have a word with your boss” was her advice to the Scottish Tories’ leader.
The SNP spent £100 million mitigating the effects of the bedroom tax, or “spare room subsidy”, for council house tenants and there were “countless examples of where Scotland has rejected the Tory manifesto, then we get shouted at to try and plug the holes that Westminster has created”.
On a day when Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party launched what schoolteacher Irvine Tait described as probably the most pro-trade union manifesto in decades, both women said they favoured scrapping legislation watering down trade union rights introduced not only in the last parliament but in the 1980s under Thatcher too.
Call for 16-17 year olds to have vote
Both women urged young people in particular to register to vote before the 22 May deadline for the 8 June poll.
Brett said it was “complete madness” that 16 and 17 year olds had been allowed to vote in recent polls, and are able to “pay taxes, hold down jobs, have families”.
Black ended each hour with an effusive tribute to Brett’s abilities, describing her as “political gold” and an intellectually sharp candidate who offers something “incredibly rare” in politics; “If there’s one thing that shines through with Miriam, when she answers something, I believe her.”
Judging from the ovation, there was little doubt that most in the room shared her conviction. Brett’s challenge in the next three weeks is to persuade people across Shetland and Orkney that they ought to share it too.