Humza Yousaf’s win makes triple crown of leaders of Asian heritage in UK and Ireland

Three leaders with roots in West Asia are running the governments in London, Dublin and Edinburgh in a milestone for race and equality

Humza Yousaf reacts as the announcement of his election as new leader of the SNP is announced, at Murrayfield in Edinburgh, Scotland. Getty Images
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Humza Yousaf made history on Monday by becoming the new leader of the Scottish National Party. If, as expected, he is confirmed as Scotland’s First Minister on Tuesday, he will be the first from an immigrant background and the first national Muslim leader in the UK and Ireland.

"Today we have sent a clear message, that your colour of skin, your faith, is not a barrier to leading the country we all call home," he said at his acceptance speech.

And in a symbolic breakthrough for race and identity, Mr Yousaf became the third leader of Asian heritage in the British, Scottish and Irish parliaments.

In October, the UK’s ruling Conservative Party elected Rishi Sunak, a Hindu whose Indian parents came to the UK from East Africa, as Prime Minister. In December, Leo Varadkar, whose father is an Indian-born doctor, was appointed Taoiseach for the second time after leadership elections.

For many, these three appointments signal a success story for multiculturalism in Britain and Ireland. “They each tell a story about Britain that is intimately connected to empire and post-empires,” Nazar Meer, professor of sociology at the University of Edinburgh, told The National.

But questions about racial equality remain. The three leaders were elected by their parties, rather than through general elections. “We’ve yet to see whether they would withstand a popular vote,” added Mr Meer.

Political representation for the UK and Ireland’s minorities remains a talking point.

The first member of UK Parliament with Asian heritage, elected in 1841, was David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, whose great-grandmother was an Indian Muslim. By the 2019 general election, slightly more than 10 per cent of UK MPs were of an ethnic minority background.

But comments such as former senior Ulster Unionist Lord Kilclooney’s description of Mr Varadkar as a "typical Indian" in 2018, offer a glimpse of unchanging attitudes in some parts of the political establishment.

Humza Yousaf (C) on the SNP leadership campaign trail in Dundee.  Getty Images

The three leadership elections are viewed as an important step forward. “It’s a significant advance in terms of representation to have three premiers elected in a way that suggests that race and ethnicity isn’t an impediment,” said Mr Meer.

Yet some commentators have highlighted the leaders’ family backgrounds, which would suggest that class — if not ethnicity — remains one of the ceilings for entry into politics.

Perhaps the most obvious example is Mr Sunak, who attended an elite boarding school in the south of England, and whose wife is the daughter of an Indian billionaire. “He is obviously from a wealthy elite and is disconnected to a wider racialised community story,” said Mr Meer. "He doesn’t have a background of minority activism."

Likewise, Mr Varadkar’s parents were medical professionals and Mr Yousaf’s father was an accountant. All three leaders were privately educated.

“Class is now the most significant social marker in British and Irish politics,” said Parveen Akhtar, of Aston University in Birmingham. “People of immigrant background, like the majority population, are more likely to make it in politics if they come from families where parents have professional occupations and the capacity to invest in a private education.”

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attended an elite boarding school in southern England. Getty Images

Mr Yousaf’s election has come at a time when institutional discrimination in the UK is in the spotlight.

London's Metropolitan Police was accused of institutional homophobia, misogyny and racism this month in the Casey review. “It does not mean that ethnicity no longer matters in society, or that racism is no longer an issue,” said Thomas Sealy, lecturer in Ethnicity and Race at the University of Bristol.

For more than two decades, the UK has debated on how to engage with multiculturalism — a policy in which various ethnic groups live together without being forcibly assimilated. “It was once seen as a positive form of recognition of difference, of accommodation and inclusion of minorities, and an important corrective to ideas of assimilation,” said Mr Sealy.

Migrant communities in the UK can keep their religious and cultural identity, unlike in France, where laws on secularity have banned conspicuous religious symbols in schools, among other measures.

But a growing threat of home-grown terrorism led to questions about its policies concerning migration and integration. In a 2011 speech at the Munich Security Conference, David Cameron, UK prime minister at the time, declared that the "the doctrine of state multiculturalism" had “failed.”

Bhikhu Parekh, a Labour peer whose seminal report on multiculturalism helped shape race policy in the early 2000s, told The National that new approaches to state multiculturalism were needed.

“We need to reassure people that we are as concerned about unity as we are about diversity. We did not fully appreciate the role of religion,” Lord Parekh said of the report, “We did not fully explain how to hold a multicultural society together, what is the cohesion factor and what should be agreed on.”

Leo Varadkar high-fives children at an Irish Cancer Society event this month.

Yet Mr Yousaf’s appointment as leader of the SNP, a nationalist party with progressive politics that is campaigning for an independent Scotland, suggests that unity and diversity can work hand-in-hand.

The party leader, who has served as a cabinet minister since 2018, is from a young generation of Scottish Muslims who embraced Scottish nationalism. “The 2014 referendum made every person from every background [in Scotland] much more politically involved,” Junaid Ashraf, a young Scottish Muslim serving as an SNP councillor for Cumbernauld, told The National.

Commentators highlight how Mr Yousaf brings together Scottish nationalism with his own identity as an ethnic minority. “A lot of minoritised, mainstream politicians want to show the white electorate that they’re one of them,"said Mr Meer. "But Mr Yousaf has never shied away from being a minoritised MSP, he has been quite vocal about racism."

In February, Mr Yousaf and his wife Nadia El-Nakla dropped a legal action against a nursery in Dundee, who they accused of discriminating against their daughter because she had a Muslim-sounding name.

For Mr Meer, this is one of the signs that multiculturalism in Scotland has taken its own path. “There hasn’t been an impediment to minorities identifying as Scottish. Whereas in other parts of the UK, Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) people tend to identify as British and not English,” he said.

Despite these caveats, the election of three leaders of Asian heritage will not be lost on those wishing to see more diversity in politics.

Mr Ashraf hopes Mr Yousaf’s victory will encourage other members of his community to become more politically active. “There’s a weariness for some people with religious backgrounds to get involved in elective politics,“ he said. “Humza’s election will inspire young Muslims.”

Yet the road to achieving the ideal diverse society is still long.

“If we lived in a truly multicultural society, then nobody would be interested in who gets what,” said Lord Parekh. “As long as we are thinking about a person’s colour, class or culture then we are not truly multicultural.”

Updated: March 28, 2023, 1:26 PM