With the election of Humza Yousaf (37) as the new head of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the next First Minister of the country, social media was agog with jokes about how, between him and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, two sons of Pakistan and India, respectively, would negotiate the partition of the U.K. and independence of Scotland generations after a similar drama played out in the Indian subcontinent. The irony of the colonial project coming full circle in a small corner of Western Europe is undeniable. Yet, it is a fact that Mr. Yousaf, the son of Pakistani immigrants, the first ever Muslim and person of Asian descent to take up the top executive role in the Scottish government, and also the youngest leader in that capacity, has a long and potentially bumpy road ahead to make good on his campaign promises, including delivering the independence Scotland.
A life in politics
Born in Glasgow in 1985, Mr. Yousaf is the grandson of immigrants who travelled from Punjab to Scotland in the 1960s. While his father’s family is originally from Pakistan, his mother’s family were based in Kenya. Growing up in Glasgow, Mr. Yousaf was privately educated at Hutchesons’ Grammar School and became interested from a young age in in politics, a subject that he went on to study later at the University of Glasgow, graduating with an MA in 2007. It was during his university years that he joined the SNP, and also became the president of the Muslim Students Association, in addition to being involved in the Students’ Representative Council.
Mr. Yousaf kicked off his political journey as an office manager for the SNP’s Bashir Ahmad, the first Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) of Muslim-Asian heritage. In the wake of Ahmad’s passing in 2009, Mr. Yousaf went on to work for other MSPs, including Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, both First Ministers of Scotland.
In 2011, he was elected as an MSP from the Glasgow region, and he made waves for taking his oath to the Queen in English and in Urdu, and then repeated this after his 2016 re-election when he wore both a kilt and sherwani to reflect his joint Scottish and Pakistani heritage.
Mr. Yousaf’s career with the SNP government was a long a fruitful one, which saw him serve in multiple capacities over the years, including as Transport Minister, Justice Secretary and Health Secretary.
However, he has often faced brickbats for leading sectors of government that underperformed in terms of service delivery to the people. For example, his record running Scotland’s National Health Service came under fire for long waiting times and he was criticised for urging the public to “think twice” before calling 999 in late 2021.
Similarly, when he was Scotland’s Transport Minister in 2016, Mr. Yousaf was caught by police, fined £300 and had six penalty points added to his licence, for driving a friend’s car without insurance, an act that he claimed was an “honest mistake”.
Yet, more than any of these expected comments from his detractors in Scottish politics, the greatest challenge that Mr. Yousaf faces is the factionalised state of the SNP itself. Mr. Yousaf has pitched himself as the “continuity candidate” who will step into the shoes of his predecessor and former SNP heavyweight Nicola Sturgeon and take her agenda forward on the Scottish independence campaign. However, through a bruising leadership contest in the wake of Ms. Sturgeon’s surprise resignation as First Minister, Mr. Yousaf appears to have lost the support of his rival, Kate Forbes, a devout Christian and pro-business candidate, who rejected his subsequent offer to become Rural Affairs Secretary, likely as it was considered a demotion from her prior role as Finance Secretary.
London is also in no mood for compromise, it appears: while Westminster might have hemmed and hawed over Ms. Sturgeon’s forays into referendum territory, it appears to perceive the relative lack of internal strength within the SNP at this time, and might be content to string Mr. Yousaf along as he struggles to build momentum for his campaign. Support for independence has dropped among Scots, to 39%, less than the 44.7% who backed the campaign in the 2014 referendum, and considerably lower than the 58% that the proposal got in 2020.
If he wishes to leave behind a legacy for Scotland, Mr. Yousaf will not only have to unite the SNP and rebuild support for its independence campaign, but he will have to do so while facing the economic headwinds of rising inflation and energy costs, and tackling the difficult question of long-overdue NHS reforms.