Why Humza Yousaf will struggle to replicate Nicola Sturgeon's star appeal

Scotland's outgoing First Minister drew supporters to her cause in droves. Now the nation's new leader has big boots to fill

Humza Yousaf speaks to the media after being voted the new First Minister at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. PA
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When Nicola Sturgeon perched on a desk in my classroom and told me there was only one way to make Scotland a better nation — a global nation — it was hard not to be taken in.

Of course, the 31-year-old junior Member of Parliament as she was at the time didn’t hold back when she proclaimed that only the Scottish National Party could deliver this, but the memory resonates to this day.

That was 2002 in my Glasgow school, five years before her party swept to power, and kept it, for 16 years and counting.

That Sturgeon has been a constant in political and public life in Scotland is undeniable.

Humza Yousaf is not inheriting the once sleek political machine that Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon led for two decades

What happens next is much less certain.

In a minor quirk of fate, a young Humza Yousaf, one year above me at Hutchesons’ Grammar School, would have been a couple of classrooms away.

He and many other Scots were swayed to vote for the Nationalists in the years between then and now.

And on Monday, he was chosen by SNP members to lead their party. On Tuesday, he became First Minister of Scotland, its youngest modern leader yet and the first from a minority background.

Yousaf, a married father of two, is regarded as courteous, pleasant and easy-going — with a knack for a soundbite on TV news.

But he is not inheriting the sleek political machine that Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon led as a double act for two decades.

Even diehard SNP loyalists are wondering why progress as slowed to a crawl in the near-decade since Scotland voted “no” to independence in a relatively close 55 per cent/45 per cent referendum in 2014.

Leadership rival Kate Forbes, centre, was reportedly offered a junior ministerial position but decided not to serve in Hamza Yousaf's government. Getty

In late November, the UK Supreme Court said the Scottish Parliament could not hold a second independence referendum without the approval of Westminster.

Sturgeon was defiant, telling supporters that “Scottish democracy will not be denied”.

But three months later she quit, soon followed by her husband, the party chief executive Peter Murrell, and several key ministers.

Yousaf’s in-tray is not an enviable one. Even if Scotland’s Labour and Conservative parties have failed to make a dent in Nationalist support in recent elections, voters are making their displeasure known in cacophonous protests on social media.

Sturgeon won international recognition for her firm handling of the coronavirus pandemic, plain speaking and down-to-Earth manner.

But Scotland’s devolved National Health Service, like that across the UK, is backed up with at least tens of thousands of delayed appointments, cancer patients on endless waiting lists and crowded accident and emergency rooms that many fear turning up to.

The new leader used his first speech to commit to rejoining the European Union — which the UK left three years ago — but there is no clear path to get there.

And for the party’s most hardcore loyalists, nothing but a radical alternative to another referendum will do.

There is also a great risk he will become bogged down in the politics of the recent past, and combative sessions in Holyrood’s sniping debating chamber.

Yousaf has already committed to appeal Sturgeon’s law on transgender rights, which starkly divided the party and nation and was flatly vetoed by Westminster.

What he does have going for him is youth, optimism and the chance to re-energise the electorate.

He is likely to want to overhaul a cabinet that has barely seen a fresh face in a decade.

Given that party members voted 52 per cent to 48 per cent for him against key challenger Kate Forbes, a senior position for the latter was widely expected.

A fiscal and social conservative, Ms Forbes was Scotland's finance minister in the previous government – and was more popular with non-SNP voters than Mr Yousaf, a poll last week showed.

But she quit government on Tuesday after reportedly being offered one of the most junior ministerial positions in rural affairs.

Ms Forbes made personal attacks against Mr Yousaf during the leadership campaign, but his handling of the matter, seen as an early test of his leadership, may still come back to haunt him.

For the first time in two decades, the SNP will be led by someone other than Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. Getty

Next, he will need to convince the whole electorate – not just the party faithful – that the new leadership is worth another chance.

An Ipsos poll this month found a quarter of the Scottish electorate wanted “none of them” when asked about three SNP candidates: Yousaf, Forbes and outsider Ash Regan.

For now, Yousaf’s main focus must surely be showing Scotland’s electorate – and not just his supporters – that he can run an effective government if it is to stay in power, and perform at the UK parliamentary elections next year.

He’s likely to enjoy a brief honeymoon period when international newspapers are interested in who he is and what he stands for – and when, officially, there is not the legal need for an election until 2026.

Yet, the main focus for Yousaf may be to get out into Scotland’s many communities and cities, and tell them who he is – and why he’s worthy of their votes after a decade and half.

He may also, sadly, need to counter racist and religious abuse from a minority.

I interviewed him after an unpleasant incident in Glasgow almost a decade ago in which he was subject to racist abuse, on camera, while selling a magazine that supports homeless people in Scotland.

“There are many more good people than bad,” he said at the time, brushing off the episode – unfortunately one of many – for the Scot of Kenyan and Pakistani Muslim heritage.

Updated: April 12, 2023, 10:13 AM

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