Kirsty Blackman: “I wouldn’t describe myself as a rising star”
Down to earth, unassuming and smart, the SNP's Kirsty Blackman is one to watch. The party’s deputy leader at Westminster talks to James Millar about the Programme for Government, election fatigue and her delight at her new job
She may be one of the SNP’s smaller stars but she is shining increasingly brightly. Kirsty Blackman really only hit the headlines in the two years prior to the 2017 election when she brought her two small children along to a meeting of the Scottish Affairs Committee on which she sat, and during which they sat on her lap.
And the Scottish media lapped up some odd comments she made about oversize seagulls in her Aberdeen constituency.
To the casual observer that’s a flimsy CV. But within Westminster she was building a reputation as a hard-working MP and competent parliamentarian who earned respect for her sensible contributions.
After the general election, she emerged as the SNP’s deputy Westminster leader.
Sitting in the swanky and historic office that comes with that role she’s still getting used to her elevation. “I don’t know that I’d describe myself as a rising star,” she laughs. “I do think I’m doing a competent job.
“I was really delighted and honoured to get the support of my colleagues to become deputy leader of the SNP group here. I suppose also slightly surprised. I don’t know if that’s about being female, I don’t know if there was a man in this position and you asked him the same question whether you’d get completely different answers.
“I’m still pleasantly surprised when I think back and when I come into work in the morning and think ‘I’m the deputy leader.’ It’s still very nice to think that.”
She has that winning combination for a politician of being down to earth but smart. Leading some in the party to wonder if they picked their leadership team in the wrong order with Ian Blackford taking over from Angus Robertson as Westminster leader and Blackman the number two.
“Me and Ian are very much a team,” she insists “I kind of see my role as the inward facing part of the two of us, towards the party and making sure we’re running as effectively as possible whereas I’d expect Ian to be more out there making speeches and the like.”
With the party losing so many big beasts in June such as Angus Robertson, Alex Salmond and Eilidh Whiteford the new leadership team benefits from starting with a clean slate.
That election result, at which the SNP lost 21 seats across Scotland, is still being chewed over.
Blackman offers her analysis. “The last time we got 56 out of 59 seats, that’s pretty incredible.
“I feel like there was a certain amount of rebalancing that took place at this election.
“Some of our support didn’t turn out on the day, some people stayed at home. When you’ve had as many elections as we’ve had over the last wee while in Scotland it does begin to feel like there’s an election all the time.”
One result in particular hit Blackman hard. Callum McCaig was being touted as a future Westminster leader before he came a cropper at the hands of the Tory revival in Scotland. Blackman and McCaig had served on Aberdeen council together before scooping the city’s two Westminster seats in 2015.
“Me and Callum worked together for a decade. We worked incredibly closely together and did a lot of good for the people of Aberdeen, I think, as a team. Obviously, I wasn’t very happy that he didn’t get elected. For a while I didn’t feel like I’d won because I was so upset.”
That election reverse in June, the biggest backward step for the SNP in 10 years, will surely have an impact on the atmosphere at this years’ party conference.
“Yeah, this conference will be a little bit different but hey we’ve got 35 out of 59 seats, that’s pretty significant, that’s way more than half, we managed to get a majority in Scotland.
“I’m positive about going forward, I’m positive about where we are.
“We do need to learn lessons, Nicola said post-election that we’d reflect on the result and look at how do we go forward but as an MP I think I should constantly be learning lessons anyway I should be constantly listening to people’s views and trying to decide if we should re-evaluate our position on things.”
And positions are changing within in the SNP. For a start there’s the party’s core policy – independence.
Conventional wisdom has it that at least part of the reason for the general election setback was that Nicola Sturgeon was too keen to call for a second independence referendum back in March, a rare bungle by the First Minister.
Blackman doesn’t see it that way. “I think when Nicola stood up there she said what an awful lot of people were thinking is the right thing to say.
“Obviously we didn’t expect the general election, nobody did, not even the Tories expected the general election.”
The PM batted away Sturgeon’s referendum demand by simply saying “Now is not the time” setting up what Blackman calls a “kind of strange face-off between the two.” So who won the duel? “Theresa May called an election and shot herself in the foot.”
The SNP’s deputy Westminster leader is in agreement with her leader on where the independence issue is now – up in the air.
Sturgeon recently revealed she doesn’t know when she’s likely to revive her call for a second referendum. Blackman can only answer: “It’ll happen at some point.”
She adds: “The SNP want to win an independence referendum, we don’t want to have an independence referendum, we want to win one.
“Independence is not dead. I’ve said before and I’ll say again I expect my children to be growing up in an independent Scotland.
“For me it feels further away than it did in March when Nicola stood up and laid out some sort of indicative timescale. I think because of the result of the election it’s a sort of re-evaluated moment. But the thing is in politics you have to listen to the electorate.”
So with independence on the backburner other topics may come to dominate this party conference.
Brexit is bound to get a look in. That’s looming in Blackman’s universe as she’s taken over the reins as the party’s finance spokesperson.
“I lie in bed at night worrying about how Brexit is going to turn out, I worry about single market access and customs union access. I know those are probably not the things that people worry about but the single market and the customs union are things that people should be bothered about because the price of your weekly shop is going to go up, the price of energy is going to go up, people’s real disposable income is going to go down. And given the percentage of people that are saving is relatively small, given the increase in consumer credit that we’ve seen there’s an awful lot of families that are close to that break even line and if we see an increase in inflation as a result of Brexit it’s a problem.”
And the Scottish government have turned to domestic policies to fire up the faithful.
Nicola Sturgeon unveiled her Programme for Government last month which included eye-catching measures such as phasing out petrol cars, undoing the public sector pay cap and even looking into a universal basic income handed out to all Scots.
Blackman insists it wasn’t drawn up to distract nationalists from the fact that the independence timescale is slipping.
“I can’t remember a time when you’ve had a government that’s been in for a decade that’s been able to come up with this many new and exciting policies. It’s definitely not just SNP supporters who are excited and interested to see what comes out of this.”
And she denies that it’s an attempt to steal Jeremy Corbyn’s clothes. “I don’t think it is. There’s not the feeling in Scotland that there is in England about Jeremy Corbyn. There’s not that massive swell of pro-Corbyn support. I don’t think he could pitch up to a concert or a festival in Scotland and get the sort of reaction he got [at Glastonbury].”
The only politician who can do that north of the border is Nicola Sturgeon, the bright star at the centre of the SNP universe.
But while attention has been focussed on other stars in the SNP universe – like Mhairi Black, who burned brightly but seems to have fizzled out, or the fading gas giant Alex Salmond – Kirsty Blackman continues her stellar rise.
She may yet come to eclipse those bigger names in the SNP.