Scotland’s new Muslim leader reflects UK’s booming political diversity
LONDON, United Kingdom (AFP) – Humza Yousaf was sworn in as Scotland’s first minister on Wednesday, becoming the first Muslim leader of a government in western Europe but already in turmoil in his party.
The milestone comes five months after the UK got its first Hindu leader in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The British capital is headed by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, the son of Pakistani immigrants.
All three politicians represent the accelerating diversification of politics in Britain, a country whose imperial past has created a multi-ethnic gift – precariously and sometimes painfully.
“There is now an expectation, or an awareness of diversity in British politics, that we don’t see in other European countries,” said Sunder Katwala of British Future, a think tank that studies identity and race.
Lawmakers in the Edinburgh-based Scottish parliament voted on Tuesday to confirm 37-year-old Yousaf as prime minister, a day after he was elected leader of the ruling Scottish National Party. Scotland, a country of 5.5 million people, is part of the United Kingdom, but has a semi-autonomous government with broad powers in areas including health and education.
In an acceptance speech on Monday, Yousaf said he was “forever grateful that my grandparents made the journey from Punjab to Scotland over 60 years ago.”
“As immigrants to this country, who only knew a word of English, they could not have imagined that one day their grandson would be the next minister of Scotland,” he said. “From Punjab to our parliament, this is a journey across generations that reminds us that we should celebrate migrants who contribute so much to our country.”
The UK has not always heeded that memory: racism and hostility between migrants has often been subtle and hidden. That hostility remains government policy towards people who arrived by unauthorized means: Sunak’s government plans to detain and deport anyone crossing the English Channel in small boats and wants to send some asylum seekers on a one-way trip to Rwanda .
But British society and politics have grown much more diverse. About 18% of the population is non-white, and many people have roots in countries that were once ruled by the British Empire, including India, Pakistan, and Caribbean nations such as Jamaica.
Yousaf was born in Glasgow in 1985. His father’s family came from Pakistan, and his mother’s from East Africa, part of an exodus of families in South Asia who faced post-independence discrimination. One grandfather worked in the Singer sewing machine factory, and one grandmother was a bus conductor in Glasgow.
At primary school, Yousaf later recalled, “it was just me and one other brown face.” He attended a private high school, then studied politics at Glasgow University — after breaking with his parents, who expected him to become a lawyer.
Yousaf joined the pro-independence SNP in 2005, motivated in part by opposition to its then leader, Alex Salmond, against the US-led invasion of Iraq, which was led by the UK Prime Minister -Minister Tony Blair involved. Yousaf said he felt independence from the UK was the only way to ensure Scotland would not be plunged into another illegal war.
He was elected to the Scottish parliament in 2011, and has served in a number of government roles, most recently in health. Opposition politicians are alarmed by his political record, citing Scotland’s long waiting times for healthcare and serious drug addiction problems.
Still, Scottish Labor Party leader Anas Sarwar — also a Muslim Glaswegian — said “whatever your politics, this is a momentous moment for Scotland.”
Yousaf spoke of the strength he draws from religion, but his Muslim faith drew little comment during the SNP contest. Instead, it was the faith of his opponent Kate Forbes, an evangelical Christian, that attracted attention. She was criticized after she revealed her opposition to same-sex marriage, which is legal in Scotland — and which Yousaf supports.
Britain is not the only European country whose politics are growing more diverse. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has an Indian father, and Portuguese leader Antonio Costa has South Asian roots.
But Britain has seen rapid political change. Forty years ago, there were no ethnic minority legislators in the British Parliament. Now there are 65 – 10% of the total. The foreign secretary, the home secretary, and the trade secretary in Sunak’s government are handsome people.
Katwala said a significant aspect of the diversification was that “it’s happening in all parties” — Yousaf is a Scottish nationalist, Sunak a Conservative, Khan a member of the Labor Party.
“If you can have an Indian Hindu prime minister or an Asian Muslim Scottish leader, that has to say that those groups are part of ‘us’ and they are not facing the issue now, ‘Will they lead their own group. or will they rule over all?” he said.
“There is trust — among Britain’s ethnic minorities, but [also] more or less reciprocal – that politicians who are Black, Asian or white can represent everyone, not just their own group.”
AFP contributed to this report.