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Newly appointed leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Humza Yousaf speaks following the SNP Leadership election result announcement at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh on March 27, 2023. – Humza Yousaf, the first Muslim leader of a major UK political party, faces an uphill battle to revive Scotland’s drive for independence following the long tenure of his close ally Nicola Sturgeon. The new Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, 37, says his own experience as an ethnic minority means he will fight to protect the rights of all minorities — including gay and transgender people. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP) (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Scotland’s new first minister

Scotland’s new first minister


Who is Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s new first minister, and what does his election mean for the country?

On Monday Humza Yousaf was elected to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as the leader of the Scottish National Party and first minister of Scotland. 

“Humza Yousaf, 26,032, this represents 52.1 per cent of the final vote. I therefore declare Humza Yousaf duly elected as the Scottish National Party leader…”

At 37, Humza Yousaf is Scotland’s youngest first minister.  He was born and brought up in Glasgow and is the son of first generation immigrants. His mother is originally from Kenya and his father from Pakistan. They both moved to Scotland as children – something Humza Yousaf spoke about in his victory speech.

“As Muhammad Yousaf worked in the Singer Sewing Machine Factory in Clydebank, as Rehmat Ali Bhutta stamped tickets on the Glasgow Corporation Buses, they could not have imagined, in their wildest dreams, that two generations later their grandson would one day be on the cusp of being Scotland’s first minister. We should all take pride in the fact that today we have sent a clear message, that your colour of skin, your faith, is not a barrier to leading the country that we all call home.”

Humza Yousaf, upon being elected SNP leader, 27 March 2023

Humza Yousaf’s whole career has been steeped in politics. He joined the SNP in 2005 while at university, attracted by its opposition to the Iraq war. In 2007 he became a parliamentary assistant to senior SNP politicians, including Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. He then worked in the party’s headquarters before winning a seat in the Scottish parliament in 2011.

He was seen by many as the continuity candidate. While former first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, didn’t endorse any candidate, Humza Yousaf was widely seen as her preferred successor.  

Before becoming leader, Humza Yousaf served as health, justice and transport secretary in the Scottish parliament. But he’s faced criticism for his track record in those roles, especially from Scottish Labour, who accuse him of “failing upwards”.

Here’s Jackie Bailie, Deputy Leader of Scottish Labour…

“Having been the worst health secretary on record, his condition has deteriorated further… he now aspires to be the worst first minister on record!”

Jackie Bailie, Deputy Leader, Scottish Labour

And it’s not just opposition politicians who’ve trashed Humza Yousaf’s record in government. Kate Forbes, his closest rival in the SNP leadership race, launched a scathing attack on him…

“When you were transport minister and the trains were never on time, when you were justice secretary the police were stretched to breaking point, and now as health minister we’ve got record high waiting times. What makes you think you can do a better job as first minister?”

Kate Forbes during an SNP leadership debate

These party divisions spilling out into the open could be a problem for the SNP. 

One of the main criticisms of the party in recent years has been that it hasn’t governed competently. Scotland has the highest drug death toll in Europe, long waiting times for the NHS, and education outcomes are poor when compared to the rest of the United Kingdom. Because Humza Yousaf’s positioned himself as the continuity candidate in the leadership race, he may take a “business-as-usual” approach.

As well as its management of Scotland, there are also questions around how the SNP manages its own affairs. 

Party membership fell from 100,000 to 70,000 in 2021, with the party not reporting the drop until pressed to do so before the leadership election. 

Beth Rigby: Just before I go on, there’s also an ongoing police investigation into use of funds – we wouldn’t expect you to comment on that – but there’s a suggestion you and your husband will be interviewed. Have you heard anything on that?

Nicola Sturgeon: No, but I am not going to comment on… I wouldn’t comment on any ongoing police investigation and I’m not going to comment on this one…

More worryingly, there’s an active police investigation into the alleged misuse of £600,000 of party funds ring-fenced for referendums.

And amid all that, Humza Yousaff will have to find a way to achieve the SNP’s key objective: Scottish independence.  The Westminster government is currently refusing to grant a second referendum on Scottish independence. Nicola Sturgeon had previously planned to use the next general election as a de facto referendum. But this plan has proved unpopular in some quarters and Humza Yousaf has distanced himself from it.

“Look it’s not an idea that I’m wedded to, the first minister describes it as her preferred option, I wouldn’t describe it as mine…”

Humza Yousaf during an interview with BBC News

So far, Humza Yousaf has not come up with a concrete plan for independence. He’s said that the SNP will need to build a “consistent majority” in favour of it, and that the current level of support doesn’t justify another referendum. 

If Humza Yousaf were to secure a vote on independence, there are still big unanswered questions over things like Scotland’s currency, its accession to the EU and its border with England.

So will Humza Yousaf’s leadership mean the SNP lose its grip over Scottish politics?

Here’s the view of Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde:

“The SNP are now only around ten points ahead of Labour on average… at that point Labour would undoubtedly pick off some seats but probably not an enormous number. But if that lead were to narrow further, then the Labour party could begin to pick up seats on the kind of scale that will improve its chances of getting an overall majority across the UK as a whole…”

Sir John Curtice

After thirteen years of Conservative-led governments in Westminster, Labour is now enjoying a resurgence in the polls. But if the party is going to make significant inroads into the SNP vote in Scotland, it’ll need to convince a good portion of pro-independence voters that breaking up the United Kingdom isn’t such a good idea. 

All of which leaves a lot in Humza Yousaf’s in-tray. 

Last week, a former unnamed SNP adviser told Politico, “Nobody – including his backers – looks at Humza and says ‘there’s our leader for the next 10 years… Even  the [SNP] establishment probably see him as a placeholder for someone better.”

Thanks for listening to the Sensemaker from Tortoise.

This episode was written by James Wilson and mixed by Imy Harper.

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