After the United Kingdom got a prime minister of Indian origin five months ago, the residents of the Scottish part of the country now get a prime minister with roots in the Punjab. Humza Haroon Yousaf was born in Glasgow, the curry capital of Scotland, where one of his grandfathers, a fresh immigrant, went to work as a bus driver in the 1960s and the other worked in a sewing workshop to earn his first pounds. His father Muzaffar set up his own accounting firm and earned enough money to send Humza to a private school. He was one of the few non-white students there.
The family history of the 37-year-old politician is the classic story of successful immigrants in the British Isles. Now the Scottish nationalist sees it as his historic task to separate Scotland from the United Kingdom. And in a radical way too. During the campaign for leadership, in which he beat Kate Forbes and Ash Regan on Monday, Yousaf announced his aim to make Scotland a republic five years after declaring independence. Free to a passage out The Flower of Scotlandthe Scottish national anthem: ‘Sent Charles homeward / Tae think again.’
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Patrick van IJzendoorn is UK and Ireland correspondent for de Volkskrant. He has lived in London since 2003 and has written several books, including about Brexit.
Yousaf was not only the most progressive candidate of the three, but also the apple of the eye of the party leadership. The Glaswegian’s main quality, besides his pursuit of equality, has always been loyalty. Since being elected as the youngest member of the Scottish Parliament in 2011 at the age of 26, the former youth worker has always been loyal to the Prime Minister; first Alex Salmond and after the 2014 referendum Nicola Sturgeon. Unlike his rivals, he promised to continue Sturgeon’s policies, including the controversial transgender legislation that heralded its fall at the beginning of this year.
In fact, Yousaf is determined to challenge the British government’s decision not to pass the law. In the latest debate, Yousaf, who describes himself as the ‘First Activist’, went on a rampage against the Conservative government in London. “After independence, there will be no foreign administration to interfere with us, for example to veto our legislation.” His critics say this tone does not please the estimated half a million people from other parts of the UK who have made Scotland their homeland. Are they foreigners?
The question is whether it will achieve independence in the foreseeable future. Sturgeon’s departure has exposed the divisions within the Nationalist camp. Yousaf will go down well with the young, urban nationalists, but beyond that the Christian-conservative Forbes enjoyed more support. Forbes is also more popular than Yousaf among the general population, which does not bode well for the next election. The membership of the SNP has fallen in the past four years from 125 to 72 thousand. Party director Peter Murrell, Sturgeon’s husband, has resigned over these alarming figures.
Humza Yousaf’s political involvement goes back to the September day in 2001 when two hijacked planes collapsed the WTC towers in New York. In an interview with a parliamentary magazine, he said that on September 11, attitudes towards him as a Muslim seemed to have changed. He was asked by fellow students, ‘why Muslims hate America’. He went on to study political science at Glasgow University. Angered at Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq, he decided to join the SNP independence party. He wanted to avoid Scotland being dragged into such decisions in the future. After his studies, he volunteered for youth organizations, a local radio station and an Islamic charity organization.
Yousaf did not have an easy campaign to become party leader. Comrade Forbes, who is seen by politicians of rival parties as a more competent minister, harshly attacked his political achievements. “When you were transport minister, the trains never ran on time,” she summed up. ‘When you were minister of justice, the police were at breaking point, and now with you as minister of care we have record waiting times.’ At a campaign rally with refugee women from Ukraine, he asked where all the men were; a funny comment that didn’t go down well.
A headache file is and remains the expansion of rights for trans people. After Sturgeon gave her last speech as prime minister last Monday, Yousaf posed with a large pink heart at the official residence. “As leader of the SNP and prime minister, I will improve women’s rights,” he promised. Critics of the law fear that expanding rights, such as facilitating passport changes, will be at the expense of women’s rights. His empathy with trans people stems from his own past as an ‘outsider’, as ‘the other’.
He was scorned by JK Rowling, the Harry Potterwriter who had emerged as Sturgeon’s main opponent in the trans discussion. “What a sweet pink heart,” she sneered, “now tell us why you’re voting against an amendment designed to prevent rapists from being housed in women’s prisons.” Yousaf has claimed during one of the televised debates that convicted rapist Isla Bryson, the trans woman who ended up in a women’s prison, “is not a real trans woman.” According to the transgender law, that judgment is up to the person himself.
The trans debate has exposed the party’s internal divisions. Yousaf’s first assignment will be to heal those wounds. A tough task.
3 x Humza Yousaf
Yousaf attended the same school, the 382-year-old Hutchesons’ Grammar, as Anas Sarwar, the leader of the Labor opposition. Other well-known alumni included the writer John Buchan and the stadium architect Archibald Leitch.
During the corona pandemic, Yousaf, as Minister of Health, caused panic among parents by announcing that ten children up to the age of 9 had been hospitalized with Covid-19. It soon became apparent that these young patients had been admitted for completely different reasons.
Yousaf had to run the leadership race largely on an empty stomach, as it unfortunately coincided with Ramadan. He is a practicing Muslim, but has assured that his faith does not play a role in legislation.