Humza Yousaf confirmed as Scotland’s new First Minister to become the 1st Muslim to lead a major UK party

Mick the Ram

Mar 30, 2023

Following the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish National Party (SNP) have elected Humza Yousaf as their new leader. In becoming the first minister, Mr Yousaf is the first Muslim to lead a major UK party.

He was backed by not only his own MP’s, but also by the Scottish Green Party, and as such guaranteed himself a majority in the house. He becomes the sixth person to hold the top seat and is the youngest ever at just 37-years-old. As a close ally of  Ms Sturgeon, he will be seen as the “continuity candidate” ready to continue along the same line as the out-going first minister.

He was sworn in at a brief ceremony at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, and immediately began the process of appointing the rest of his cabinet, starting with the announcement that Shona Robison, who had been serving as the social justice secretary, would be his deputy moving forward. He also stated that there would be a “minister for independence” in his government. 

Official resignation ends eight years rule 

Ms Sturgeon formally tendered her resignation to King Charles III on Tuesday 28 March, after acting as first minister for a period of more than eight years. She had announced in February that she intended to step aside and that became official once the King accepted her decision, handed to him by letter. She had been Scotland’s longest-serving first minister, having spent 3,051 days in the role.

As she left she was seen embracing the household staff who work at the Bute House residence in Edinburgh, that had been her home. Her successor, Mr Yousaf was then confirmed as the replacement having narrowly defeated Kate Forbes by 26,032 votes to 23,890, in a contest that exposed deep divisions within the party.

Gracious in defeat

He had been serving as health secretary and it was known that he was the preferred candidate of Ms Sturgeon. Despite losing a fierce battle in which she was extremely critical of her rival, Ms Forbes was still gracious enough in defeat to congratulate Mr Yousaf stating: “Whatever the robust disagreements, or frank exchanges of the last few weeks, I am confident we will unite behind Humza as our new party leader in the shared and common objective of independence.”

Wasting no time in bringing out the independence argument

The new leader immediately confirmed that he would be asking the UK government to grant formal consent to hold another referendum, irrespective of the fact that during his leadership campaign he repeatedly said that the party must “make sure that we are not obsessing about Section 30s and de facto referendums, because people just do not get inspired by that.”

Unsurprisingly Downing Street said it will not be changing its stance in opposing a referendum, with the prime minister’s spokesman saying he would instead be focused on the “issues that matter” to people, such as reducing inflation and tackling the cost of living crisis. An immediate knock back before Mr Yousaf has had chance to even take his shoes off. 

First minister for all of Scotland is the promise 

In his acceptance speech Mr Yousaf spoke about delivering independence, which he said was the shared goal that unites the SNP. However, he distanced himself from the idea of using the next election as a substitute referendum. Instead he made the promise that he would renew calls for the UK government to give Holyrood the power to hold a vote; but that is an easy statement to make in the knowledge that Rishi Sunak’s will almost certainly continue to block any such requests.

He has vowed to be the first minister for all the people of Scotland and with that earn the trust and respect of those who are not persuaded on independence. Therefore, continuing to trip out the same lines are not going to do him any favours. Mr Sunak typically said the right things and insisted he was looking forward to meeting and working together with Mr Yousaf.

Heavy criticism even before he starts

Opposition to Mr Yousaf is strong and very harsh, with Labour’s Jackie Baillie describing him as “the worst health secretary on record” who “now aspires to be the worst first minister on record.”

His SNP leadership rival Ms Forbes may have congratulated him following his victory, but those words must have been uttered through gritted teeth and very much tongue in cheek, especially when considering the withering assessment of his capabilities she threw at him in the lead up to the vote.

Live on TV she insisted that the trains were never on time during his time as transport minister, the police force were stretched to breaking point when he was justice secretary, and in his previous role as health minister he was overseeing record high waiting times.

It came as no surprise when Ms Forbes turned down the token job offer in rural affairs from Mr Yousaf, which would have been a significant demotion. Instead she has chosen to quit entirely.

Do things differently

As the first Muslim leader of a major UK party, Mr Yousaf was naturally very proud. He paid tribute to Ms Sturgeon, praising the work she had done and stating his admiration for her; but was very clear that his way of doing things would be much different, summing it up by saying: “She had a certain leadership approach, but mine would be less inner circle and more big tent.”

Faced racism as a child

He has often spoken out against the racist abuse that he received when growing up. His father is originally from Pakistan, moving to Scotland during the sixties, while his mother was born into a South Asian family in Kenya.

He became the first ethnic minority candidate to win a constituency seat in the Scottish Parliament, when he became transport minister in 2016. He faced huge embarrassment when just six months after his appointment he was fined £300 and had six penalty points added to his driving licence, after being stopped by the police while driving his friend’s car, without the correct insurance.

Severe problems in each of his previous roles

Ms Sturgeon continued to show faith in him though and two years later he was handed the position of justice secretary during a reshuffle of her cabinet team. He proposed a hate crime bill, but it was slammed from the off for its contradictory messaging and potential for creating chaos.

Indeed, the bill which never made it through legislation was described by former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars as being “one of the most pernicious and dangerous pieces of legislation ever produced by any government in modern times in any part of the United Kingdom.”

His time as health secretary has never been a smooth ride either, with soaring hospital waiting times, although to be fair that is an issue that Scotland is certainly not alone in.

New cabinet quickly installed

Mr Yousaf wasted no time in putting together his cabinet which along with handing Shona Robison the deputy first minister slot, he also announced that she would also take over as finance secretary. Stepping into his own vacant position as health secretary will be Michael Matheson; while Jenny Gilruth becomes education secretary. New to the cabinet is Mairi McAllan, who will be the net zero and just transition secretary; and Neil Gray has been asked to take over the responsibility for the well-being economy, fair work and energy briefs.

Angela Constance, justice secretary; Mairi Gougeon, rural affairs secretary; Angus Robertson, secretary for the constitution; and Shirley-Anne Somerville, cabinet secretary for social justice, complete his new team.

Upon announcing his new line up Mr Yousaf said it reflected the priorities that the government will pursue, including tackling child poverty, improving public services and building a fairer, greener economy. He added: “I have committed myself to a radical, ambitious and progressive policy agenda for Scotland and I know that this team is the right one to deliver it.”

Some appointments will have raised a few eyebrows, and with many of them under the age of forty there will be some questioning the experience; although the counter argument will always be fresh eyes can make all the difference.

Welcome to life at the very top

What is certain is that there will be no honeymoon period for him; his new government must somehow find a way through economic upheaval, a deepening cost of living crisis, as well as a health service on the brink.

All this whilst continuing to try and convince the country that independence is what Scotland needs and at the same time reunite his party. It promises to be quite a stormy welcome for the new first minister.


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