Humza Yousaf: the ‘Irn-Bru-swigging’ new SNP leader

‘Continuity candidate’ narrowly defeats Kate Forbes in vote to succeed Nicola Sturgeon

Humza Yousaf
In a break with Nicola Sturgeon, Yousaf has said he did does not believe in a de-facto referendum via a snap Holyrood election
(Image credit: Ken Jack/Getty Images)

Humza Yousaf is the first Scottish politician from an ethnic minority to become first minister after winning the race to replace Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader.

Following a “bitter contest”, said The Times, a majority of “senior figures in the SNP supported Yousaf, over Kate Forbes, the finance secretary, who finished second”. But it was a close-run thing, with Yousaf winning 48.2% of the vote in the first round and then 52.1% in the second, after outsider Ash Regan was eliminated.

Yousaf “couldn’t be anymore the SNP establishment choice if he tattooed ‘Nicola Sturgeon 4eva’ on his forehead”, said the Financial Times’s Stephen Bush. So the new leader should have a “relatively easy time putting together a cabinet and bringing the party back together in parliament”, said BBC Scotland political correspondent Philip Sim.

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But “it is inescapable that Yousaf’s margin of victory was razor-thin” and “a big, big chunk of the SNP voted for candidates promising change”, Sim added.

Who is Humza Yousaf?

Born in 1985 in Glasgow, Yousaf, whose grandfather emigrated from Pakistan in the 1960s, was privately educated at Hutchesons’ Grammar School before attending Glasgow University, where he studied politics and was elected president of the Glasgow University Muslim Students Association.

On his own website, Yousaf claims he never dreamed of becoming a politician. “Although I studied Politics at Glasgow University, I always thought I would do political research or some other work that involved being in the background – where I was always most comfortable,” he wrote. But in an interview with The Times last year, Yousaf said: “As an angry 16-year-old Muslim growing up in the West in the aftermath of 9/11, with all of the Islamophobia that ensued after that, I wanted to change the world, and change attitudes. Politics has given me a platform and a voice to do that.”

Involved in nationalist politics from a young age, after leaving university he worked as parliamentary assistant for several prominent MSPs, including then first minister Alex Salmond and then deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon.

In 2011 he was elected to the Scottish Parliament for the Glasgow region, taking his oath in both English and Urdu. Appointed minister for External Affairs and International Development just a year later, he was elevated to justice secretary in 2018, the first non-white cabinet minister in the Scottish government, and finally becoming health secretary in 2021.

What kind of politician is he?

At just 37 years old he may be from a younger generation than Sturgeon, but politically Yousaf “is evidently the SNP establishment’s candidate”, said Alex Massie in The Times.

Announcing his candidacy in Clydebank, where his grandfather worked in a sewing machine factory, he spoke about the importance of family and promised to “reach across the divides” and ‘heal divisions” within the SNP and the country.

He took swipes at Brexit and the UK’s immigration policy and vowed to maintain the SNP’s coalition with the Scottish Greens. On the contentious issue of gender recognition reform, which has seen rare divisions emerge in the SNP, “there is no indication he would take a different tack”, said the Independent.

He is very much “within the SNP’s ideological mainstream (socially progressive and gradualist on the constitution)”, said The Spectator, and while he may have spent his entire career at Holyrood, the father of two “has a carefully crafted public image as an Irn-Bru-swigging, Celtic-supporting, Urdu-speaking Glaswegian”.

He has also faced hostility from sections of the public, and “continues to engender a considerable amount of antipathy on social media, where much of [the] criticism for his stewardship of the NHS feels personal”, said political magazine Holyrood.

Following the furore over Forbes’ revelation that she wouldn’t have supported the legalisation of same-sex marriage, he made clear his own stance on the issue on LBC’s Tonight with Andrew Marr.

“I’m a supporter of equal marriage … I’m a Muslim. I’m somebody who’s proud of my faith … But what I don’t do is, I don’t use my faith as a basis of legislation”, he said, although The National noted he actually missed the landmark vote back in 2014.

On the most important issue for the SNP – Scottish sovereignty – he has said he has a full plan for achieving another independence referendum but, in a break from Sturgeon, said he did not believe ade-facto referendum via a snap Holyrood election was the solution.

In an interview with the Daily Record, he said he wants to “grow support” for independence before deciding on the exact mechanism for another constitutional vote.

How will he go down with voters in Scotland?

“One of the SNP’s most senior and high-profile ministers”, according to the Independent, “he will hope to tap into the same base of activist support as the First Minister, particularly in Glasgow – which they both represent at Holyrood”.

But “the question now will be the extent to which the ‘continuity candidate’ seeks to differentiate himself from his predecessor’s agenda”, said BBC Scotland’s Sim.

Yousaf “needs to turn around his broader appeal if he is to drive the SNP’s election-winning machine forward”, said Sky News. “If he fails to do this, he could be a lame duck first minister,” the broadcaster added.

In Sturgeon, the SNP had perhaps Britain’s best political operator and communicator. She leaves massive shoes to fill, but “being the continuity candidate feels like a mistake. How can Sturgeonism without Nicola be better than Sturgeonism with her? By definition, leadership elections are moments of change but Yousaf’s initial pitch to the party is timid, dull, and lacking strategic insight,” said Massie.

Furthermore, while he may have the support of the SNP hierarchy and Sturgeon herself, it is yet to be seen whether he will cut through with the Scottish public, as “Yousaf’s estimation of his own abilities is not always matched by other people’s appraisal”, Massie concluded.

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