Thu, 28 Sep 2023

After a short but bitter leadership contest, Humza Yousaf was elected the new leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) on Monday and will soon take over from the formidable Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland's first minister. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at how Yousaf successfully won over party members to clinch the top job in Scottish politics and usher in the post-Sturgeon era, which promises to be a challenging one.

Following Sturgeon's shock resignation on February 15, SNP members had a choice of three candidates to succeed her. With 52.1 percent of the final vote of party members, Yousaf - the outgoing health secretary - narrowly defeated his closest rival and former colleague Kate Forbes, the outgoing finance secretary, who took 47.9 percent.

The 37-year-old Yousaf has made history by becoming the youngest Scottish first minister and the first from an ethnic minority background. He's also only the second Muslim to lead a political party in the UK (after Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar). It's the culmination of an almost meteoric rise for the waistcoat-clad politician, who was born in Glasgow to South Asian parents. Yousaf, whose father and grandfather emigrated from Pakistan in the 1960s, is a practicing Muslim who has spoken openly about having to face racist abuse throughout his career. He was first elected as an SNP member of the Scottish parliament (MSP) in 2011, and at 26 was the youngest-ever parliamentarian at the time. The following year, he became the first Muslim and first South Asian to be appointed to the Scottish cabinet.

Yousaf has since held some of the most high-profile and challenging posts in government - notably as justice secretary and, most recently, as health secretary - but has faced criticism over his record.

"I feel like the luckiest man in the world to be standing here, as the leader of the SNP, a party I joined almost 20 years ago and that I love so dearly," he declared in an emotional acceptance speech. He added: "To serve my country as first minister will be the greatest privilege and honour of my life." Perhaps in a nod to the fact that he was only elected by some 51,000 party members, he vowed to be "a first minister for all of Scotland".

Yousaf was the party establishment's favourite, racking up the most endorsements by far from SNP MSPs and MPs and vowing to continue the "progressive agenda" the party has espoused under Sturgeon's leadership. Although the outgoing first minister did not endorse any of the candidates, she stressed the importance of "not throwing the baby out with the bathwater": a clear indication of support for Yousaf. His success can, therefore, partly be explained by his status as the "continuity candidate" following Sturgeon's resignation, although he has said he will be his "own man".

Opposing views on gay marriage

Yousaf also benefited from the missteps of Forbes, his main rival during the leadership race. Her campaign got off to a disastrous start when she publicly expressed her views on gay marriage. The married 32-year-old Highlander, who had a baby last year, is a member of the socially conservative Free Church of Scotland. Forbes admitted that, had she been an MSP at the time in 2014, she would not have voted to legalise same-sex marriage in line with her faith. This revelation cost her several endorsements among SNP lawmakers and led to a considerable amount of bad press. Forbes also said that she personally opposes abortion and having children out of wedlock, views that put her at odds with the majority of Scottish public opinion. Her later claim that she would "defend to the hilt everybody's right in a pluralistic and tolerant society to live and to love free of harassment and fear" appears to have been insufficient to repair the damage done to her leadership bid.

Mark McGeoghegan, a pollster and PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow in the strategy and tactics of secessionist movements, said that Forbes's conservative Christian views probably doomed her chances of taking the top job. Yet he stressed that she still won a lot of support. "There clearly is a very sizeable chunk of the SNP membership who would like a bigger change from the party than they think they're going to get with Humza Yousaf. If she (Forbes) had been, perhaps, less divisive, to put it that way, she might have done even better," he said. Conversely, Yousaf has called his support for equal marriage "unequivocal" (although he missed the final vote in parliament back in 2014) and has insisted he will not legislate on the basis of his Muslim faith.

Their differences on social issues did not end there. Yousaf, a married father of two, supports the controversial Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) bill, which would make it easier for people as young as 16 to change their legal gender. He has also vowed to take the UK government to court over its January decision to block the bill from becoming law. Both Forbes and third-place candidate Ash Regan oppose the bill in its current form (Regan resigned as a junior minister in protest over it) and have said they will not challenge the UK veto in the courts.

For McGeoghegan, Yousaf's stance on the GRR bill proved decisive. "Throughout the debates, Humza Yousaf used that dividing line quite effectively - to out-nationalist Kate Forbes, in a sense. Her explicitly saying she wouldn't contest [the UK government's veto] allows Humza Yousaf to then argue, 'Look, I'm the one who is going to stand up for Scotland's parliament, I'm the one who's going to stand up for Scotland's interests'."

At an impasse on independence

Yousaf's triumph comes as polls show support for independence stagnating and the SNP finds itself at an impasse on the constitutional question, following the UK Supreme Court's ruling last year that the Scottish parliament cannot hold a new independence referendum without Westminster's consent. Asked about Yousaf's stance on independence, on which he is seen as more cautious than either Forbes or Regan, McGeoghegan said: "He needs to take forward a clear prospectus to move the independence project forward in some form and convince the party membership to endorse it."

McGeoghegan added: "The difficulties that the SNP have right now are not to do with personality and they aren't to do with the party itself. They're to do with the structures they're trying to break Scotland free from. The reality is that the power to hold a referendum doesn't sit with Holyrood (the Scottish parliament), the power to declare Scottish independence doesn't sit with Holyrood: All powers over the constitution sit at Westminster. And so there's a limited set of things you can actually do to try to become an independent country within that structure. And a large part of it is, ultimately, political pressure: building political pressure over time on the centre to make concessions like a referendum."

'Massive policy challenges' ahead

Despite his historic victory, Yousaf inherits a tough brief as first minister amid the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, with lingering questions about his competency. He has faced criticism for his record in office, particularly as health secretary, since hospital A&E (accident and emergency) waiting times have reached record highs on his watch. Scottish Labour health spokesperson Jackie Baillie has called him "disastrously out of his depth" and the "worst health secretary since devolution". Even Forbes, his former colleague, tore into him during a televised debate on the campaign trail, saying, "When you were transport minister, the trains were never on time. When you were justice minister, the police were strained to breaking point. And now as health minister we've got record high waiting times."

But McGeoghegan noted that there is enough criticism to go around.

"While Nicola Sturgeon was still the most popular politician in Scotland when she was leaving office, the Scottish public did not think that her government had performed well on education, on the economy or on the NHS. There are massive, massive policy challenges that he's going to have to get to grips with in the next couple of months," McGeoghegan said of Yousaf.

"He is definitely politically very vulnerable on these issues, because there is a perception that he, himself, personally has been responsible for some of this under-performance, particularly in the NHS," he added. A recent Ipsos-Mori poll showed that 42 percent of people in Scotland have an unfavourable opinion of Yousaf and only 22 percent a favourable one.

James Mitchell, a professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, agreed that "the SNP's frankly poor record in government is going to have to be addressed". "He (Yousaf) starts in a very difficult position. The public don't trust him. The public do not have a high regard for his competence," Mitchell said. "I do think the SNP is now very much on the defensive and with a pretty weak leader, frankly, with someone who has not enjoyed great success as a minister."

"The opposition parties are delighted; this is the result they wanted," he added.

"I think Sturgeon is the best and most skilled communicator in British politics - not just Scottish politics - and she's a brilliant debater and amazing campaigner. But she was not great in government. In many ways, Humza Yousaf is a bit like her, but without the campaigning and communication skills, which must be a worry for the SNP," Mitchell concluded.

In his acceptance speech, Yousaf certainly seemed aware of the challenges ahead. "There will be no empty promises or easy soundbites when the issues in front of us are difficult and complex," he said. "Because government is not easy and I won't pretend that it is."

Originally published on France24

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