A Muslim Scots push

Ahmed Mustafa, Tuesday 4 Apr 2023

Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf has a daunting task resolving divisions within his party and issues with the central government in London, reports Ahmed Mustafa

A Muslim Scots push
Yousaf sworn in at the Court of Session in Edinburgh (photos: AFP)


The election of Humza Yousaf as leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) last week started a debate not only in Scotland, but across the UK. A third-generation Pakistani immigrant and Muslim, Yousaf became Scotland’s first minister, replacing resigned Nicola Sturgeon.

Aside from becoming first minister, Yousaf’s election by SNP members led to many “firsts”. He is the first leader from an ethnic background to lead the regional government. His father is of Pakistani and his mother of Kenyan origin. He is also the first Muslim to secure the top job. When he was first elected a member of the Scottish parliament (MSP) in 2011, he was only 26 – the youngest ever MSP.

Yet, the problems the new Scottish first minister will have to face have nothing with any of this. Yousaf has inherited economic hardships and political controversies that many doubt he can handle. He was favoured by his predecessor Sturgeon, and so he must take on the liabilities that she left behind when she resigned.

Yousaf might be described as intelligent, eloquent, and youthful at only 37. He showed early promise in becoming an MSP while still studying. Though from modest background themselves, his parents were well enough off to send him to a private grammar school. He was interested in politics at a young age, and studied it at Glasgow University where he was active in the Student Union. It was good training for him before he graduated and worked as an assistant for MSPs, including Nicola Sturgeon.

No doubt his election to the top job in Scotland just months after the rise of Rishi Sunak to lead the Conservative Party and the UK government has raised some eyebrows about “Asians dominating British politics.” But it is having a Muslim as head of a regional government that feels truly unprecedented.

Asian and Muslim communities in Scotland might have cheered Yousaf’s election initially, but they are likely to be disappointed later down the line. Politicians from ethnic backgrounds often tend to be “more Catholic than the Pope” in fear of being accused of favouring their communities. The UK prime minister, who is a Hindu of Indian background, is championing the drive to stop immigration to the UK in an effort to appease the anti-immigrant factions within his party. In fact, former home secretary Priti Patel, who is also of Indian origin, was a strong proponent of anti-immigration measures and tried to push laws that would curb the rights of asylum seekers and ethnic communities in the UK. Even the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who is a Muslim of Asian origin, didn’t do much to fight Islamophobia in his city.

In his first public messages Yousaf vowed to continue his predecessor’s effort to hold a new referendum for Scottish independence. He told his SNP members: “We will be the generation that delivers independence for Scotland.” It is not guaranteed that he can have London’s approval - which is legally necessary - to hold a second referendum. The first referendum in 2014 resulted in 55 per cent of Scots voting to stay within the UK.

Another complicated issue with London is the Gender Recognition Reform that Sturgeon tried to push back against, to the displeasure of the capital. Yousaf intends to challenge a UK government block on the Scottish law, but critics sense vulnerability. Yousaf sees no contradiction between his religion and adopting the socially progressive agenda championed by Sturgeon, including legislation intended to make it easier for transgender people to gain official recognition. This would probably intimidate not only Scottish Muslims but British Muslims and even conservative Christians as well.

In addition to such politically thorny issues complicating the relationship with the central government in London, there are problems facing Scottish people that must be dealt with urgently. The most pressing among these is the cost-of-living crisis. Scots have had to pay more for food and general bills and it is expected that their regional government will step up to alleviate the crisis.

Scotland’s National Health Service (NHS) is in a shambles and needs to be overhauled. Ironically, the last ministerial post Humza Yousaf held in Sturgeon’s government before becoming first minister was health secretary. He is accused by critics of long waiting times and a service overwhelmed on his watch.

In fact, his track record as MSP and minister in the devolved government of Scotland is coming under severe scrutiny. When he was transport minister five years ago, Yousaf was caught and fined by Scotland police for driving a friend’s car without insurance.

Yousaf faces numerous challenges, and they include not only alleviating economic hardship and improving public services for Scottish people, but also managing anticipated clashes with the central government in London over independence and gender reform. He must also be wary of divisions within his own party. Veteran journalist and political commentator Adam Boulton noted in a lengthy analysis that Humza Yousaf is behaving like Boris Johnson in dividing his own party, rather than reaching out to his opponents to form an inclusive government.

Yousaf won the contest for SNP leadership by a narrow margin, but did not include any of the defeated candidates or their supporting MSPs in his cabinet. His team is formed of his supporters. That is exactly what Johnson did in 2019, alienating large groups of the Conservative Party. The result was a “Civil War” within the party that cost Johnson his position and might cost the party the 2024 election.

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