Humza Yousaf: Scotland’s first Muslim leader
Humza Yousaf, the first Muslim leader of a major political party in the United Kingdom, faces an uphill battle to revive Scotland’s drive for independence after long-serving close friend Nicola Sturgeon.
The new and youngest leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), 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.
Glasgow-born Yousaf took his oath in English and Urdu when he was first elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2011, before going on to become the first Muslim to serve in the devolved cabinet.
His supporters have praised him as a polished communicator who can unite the party as support stands for the SNP’s central policy – independence for Scotland.
Despite the UK government’s opposition to a new referendum, and a backlash in the Supreme Court, Yousaf promised in his victory speech on Monday to bring independence to this generation.
And, as his wife and mother wiped away tears, he paid tribute to his grandparents who came to Scotland from Pakistan in the 1960s barely speaking English.
They would not have imagined “in their wildest dreams” that their future grandson would be the leader of their adopted homeland.
“We should all be proud of the fact that we have sent a clear message today: that your skin color or indeed your religion is not an obstacle to lead the country we all call home,” Yousaf said.
He also promised that he would be his own man as Scotland’s first minister. But far from shying away from Sturgeon’s controversial record, he also says he will keep his experienced predecessor on “speed dial” for advice.
That added to critics’ portrayal of Yousaf as a political lightweight who will remain under the control of the Sturgeon camp.
At the same time, he promises a more collegial style of leadership. “I want to have a smaller inner circle and a bigger tent,” he told LBC radio.
– Racial abuse –
With the push for independence now in jeopardy, after more than eight years of Sturgeon as prime minister, Yousaf is facing health care and education crises under the SNP’s own watch in Scotland.
His record as Sturgeon’s justice and health care minister was savaged on the campaign trail by his main rival, Kate Forbes, and Yousaf must also heal a fractured party after his brutal leadership election.
Yousaf says it was tougher after facing racial abuse growing up in Glasgow, especially after the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
“I definitely had a tough time,” he said, reflecting on his time in politics.
“I thought to myself, ‘goodness, is there more that I can take personally’ because I come under a huge amount of abuse online and, unfortunately, sometimes face to face.”
Yousaf’s father, who was born in Pakistan, built a successful career in Glasgow as an accountant. The new SNP leader’s mother was born into a South Asian family in Kenya.
Yousaf attended an exclusive private school in Glasgow, two years behind Scottish Labor leader Anas Sarwar.
He studied politics at Glasgow University, and worked in a call center before becoming an assistant to Sturgeon’s predecessor as SNP leader and first minister, Alex Salmond.
Yousaf joined the Scottish cabinet in 2012, serving in various roles including justice, transport and most recently health.
– Republican –
He married former SNP worker Gail Lythgoe in 2010, but they divorced seven years later.
In 2021 he and his second wife Nadia El-Nakla launched a legal complaint against a kindergarten, alleging racial discrimination after it refused admission to their daughter.
Education inspectors upheld the complaint but the couple have now let it go, and the nursery has denied the allegations.
He was accused of deliberately skipping a Scottish vote to legalize gay marriage in 2014, due to pressure from Muslim leaders.
Yousaf insisted he had a previous relationship, and contrasts his own record with Forbes’ conservative religious views as a member of the Scottish evangelical church.
He says he will “always fight for the equal rights of others” and will not legislate based on his own beliefs.
But the constitutional position of one person in Scotland under Yousaf will not be defended – that of King Charles III.
“I’ve been very clear, I’m a republican,” he told Scottish newspaper The National, calling for a debate on whether Scotland should move to an elected head of state.