Humza Yousaf: The man on a mission to inspire Scottish independence

Scotland could get its first Muslim and ethnic minority First Minister

Humza Yousaf on the campaign trail in Edinburgh. He has pledged free football club membership for children if he becomes Scotland's First Minister. PA
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In a tetchy Scottish leadership race in which religion is a minefield, a socially liberal Muslim is eyeing victory with a promise to “inspire” a march to independence.

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf, 37, could become leader of the Scottish National Party when a six-week contest ends on Monday.

It would make him the first Muslim and first ethnic minority First Minister of Scotland.

Some see Mr Yousaf as the frontrunner to succeed Nicola Sturgeon, although pundits caution the race is hard to predict.

A Glasgow-born son of immigrants from Pakistan and Kenya, Mr Yousaf told The National his victory would show minorities “the top job in the country is not out of their grasp”.

“If the result goes the way I want it to on Monday, I think people of colour and Muslims across Scotland will take something of an inspiration,” he said.

Religion came to the fore after rival Kate Forbes caused a stir with her Christian social conservatism.

It led to Mr Yousaf facing questions about his own faith.

He answers that he is a proud Muslim fasting in the campaign’s final days, but does not “use his faith as the basis of legislation”.

Mr Yousaf’s critics say he has left public health in a sorry state and is the choice of a discredited party machine.

A study published this week found Scotland had 17 of the 20 areas with the lowest life expectancy in the UK.

Meanwhile, Peter Murrell, who is married to Ms Sturgeon, resigned as SNP chief executive this month amid a row over an attempt to withhold party membership figures.

Scottish leadership race - in pictures

Despite calls for a change of tack, Mr Yousaf’s plan is to stick to Ms Sturgeon's left-wing course, rally SNP troops and show what a progressive independent Scotland could look like.

“We have to get back to inspiring people,” he said in the final debate on Tuesday with his rivals Ms Forbes and Ash Regan.

Hoping to form a pro-independence youth bloc, he promised to govern with the “bold, ambitious and radical values of Scotland’s young people”.

Campaigning in Edinburgh, Mr Yousaf took his youth appeal to a new level in a game of football with nursery children.

Under pressure over Scotland’s health problems, he used the visit to pledge free football club membership for children.

Football photo-ops bring a risk of ridicule — former SNP leader Alex Salmond looked particularly inept in an action shot in 2014 — but Mr Yousaf took the stunt in good humour.

After sportingly letting the children win, he said the leadership battle was “a game of two halves, and we’re still in the second half of this contest”.

Mr Yousaf is not a gaffe-free zone — on another stop, he asked a group of Ukrainian women “where are all the men?”, seen as a clumsy comment when they are stuck at war with Russia.

In hustings he has sparred with Ms Forbes, who lashed out in one debate by telling Mr Yousaf: “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.”

Tuesday’s debate put them at odds again. Mr Yousaf wants higher taxes on the rich. Ms Forbes is sceptical. He would fight London over its veto of a transgender rights bill. She is minded to back down.

“We are at our best when we are bold, when we are radical,” Mr Yousaf said.

Mr Yousaf is backed by senior party figures, although their image has been tarnished by the row over declining SNP membership.

One fellow minister, Neil Gray, said Mr Yousaf was the man to “inspire people across our nation to vote for independence”.

Ms Sturgeon’s long-serving number two, John Swinney, is backing Mr Yousaf after opting not to run himself.

Mr Yousaf has “had some very high-profile endorsements from people in the SNP”, said Chris Hopkins from polling company Savanta, which put Mr Yousaf ahead in its only survey of members.

But the mood of SNP elites “isn’t necessarily reflective of where members would go”, said Mr Hopkins.

Mr Yousaf, a father of two and motorcycle enthusiast, said he would deal with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak “respectfully, but fairly and robustly”.

When King Charles III is crowned on May 6, Mr Yousaf is the only candidate promising he would attend as First Minister.

After Queen Elizabeth II’s death last year he offered a condolence in Arabic — “to God we belong, and to him shall we return” — at a meeting with the new king.

But if he gets his way and Scotland becomes independent, Mr Yousaf wants the question of ditching the monarchy to be addressed within five years.

In a letter to floating voters he promised to be the separatist movement’s “First Activist”.

Support for independence has been stuck below 50 per cent since Scotland voted no in 2014.

The SNP argues times have changed but the UK government has signalled it will block another vote unless the public demand becomes overwhelming.

While unionists say the debate is a costly distraction, the SNP is determined to continue the battle for hearts and minds.

“How we reach out to No voters is actually pretty simple: we govern well. We do that, people trust us,” Mr Yousaf said after finishing his game with the toddlers.

“They trust us, they trust our message.”

Updated: March 23, 2023, 12:02 AM