Humza Yousaf launched his bid to be leader of Scotland’s governing Scottish National party in the town of Clydebank, where his Pakistani late grandfather settled in the early 1960s with hopes of a better life but “barely a word of English”.
“I don’t think he could have imagined, in his wildest dreams, that his grandson would one day be in the running to be the first minister,” said Yousaf, 37, who was Scotland’s first cabinet member from an ethnic minority and now aims to be the first to take on the nation’s top job.
It is a goal that looks increasingly attainable for the privately educated accountant’s son, who won election to the Scottish parliament in 2011 aged just 25, became minister of external affairs in the devolved government a year later, and since 2021 has held the high-profile role of Scotland’s health secretary.
Kate Forbes, Scotland’s finance secretary and Yousaf’s main rival in the race to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the pro-independence SNP and the bookmakers’ early favourite, has seen her campaign falter over her conservative social views such as opposition to gay marriage.
But while Yousaf is now odds-on to win a contest set to conclude on March 27, analysts said that revitalising a nearly 16-year-old SNP government and pushing forward its cause of ending Scotland’s three century-old union with England would be much tougher challenges.
Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde university, said Yousaf was a capable but unexciting public speaker, who showed no sign of the “unusual persuasive powers” that Sturgeon commands and which would likely be needed to build support for independence.
“He’s appointable, but I’m not sure he’s the ideal candidate,” Curtice said.
Yousaf’s record as health secretary may be a more pressing problem. Polls suggest it has helped make him better known among the wider public than Forbes, but has also left him markedly less popular amid a winter crisis in the NHS that has seen waiting times soar.
Yousaf is also being blamed for failing to address longer-term strains on the health system. In an annual report, Audit Scotland, the public spending watchdog, said on Thursday that NHS job targets, particularly for general practitioner recruitment, were unlikely to be met and financial pressures on the service were growing.
Gerry Hassan, professor of social change at Glasgow Caledonian University, said Yousaf’s likely election as SNP leader was a sign of the paucity of talent and experience among the candidates. “Humza Yousaf is an exhausted and shattered health secretary, for reasons that are fairly obvious to understand,” he said.
But while Curtice said the health portfolio had become a “millstone” around Yousaf’s neck, the secretary himself insisted it had demonstrated his fitness for the first ministership.
Blaming NHS strains on the coronavirus pandemic, he claimed credit for averting health sector strikes of the sort suffered in England. Critics noted that the 7.5 per cent pay increase Yousaf agreed with health unions was made easier by the relatively generous public spending enabled by Westminster’s block grant to the devolved Scottish government.
In an interview with the Financial Times in December, Yousaf dismissed opposition carping, noting the SNP’s repeated election victories and consistent opinion poll leads over Labour and the Conservatives. “If they could do any better, then the public would have voted them in,” he said.
Before standing for election, Yousaf, who followed his father into the SNP and studied politics at Glasgow university, worked as office manager for Bashir Ahmad, Scotland’s first ethnic minority MSP, and was on the staff of other party parliamentarians including Sturgeon.
His campaign has so far also stressed continuity, with fulsome praise for Sturgeon’s record and policies, including her controversial push to make it easier for trans people to gain official recognition to change gender.
Such fealty may be good politics, given Sturgeon’s high approval ratings and the admiration in which she is held by many of the SNP’s 100,000-plus members who will elect her successor as party leader.
But Yousaf has suggested he might drop Sturgeon’s plans to overcome Westminster’s refusal to allow a rerun of Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum by using the next UK general election as a “de facto” vote on the issue.
After his campaign launch in Clydebank, on the outskirts of Glasgow, on Monday, Yousaf told journalists he had “some concerns” about the strategy. “I’m not as wedded to it as the first minister,” he said, stressing instead the need for the SNP to build popular backing for independence.
In seeking to build that support, Yousaf can point to his own background and views as examples of the inclusive, socially liberal and multi-ethnic Scotland that the SNP has promoted as central to its vision for independence in recent decades.
A practising Muslim who will fast during Ramadan, which begins on March 22, he appears much more relaxed than his main rival in balancing his religious beliefs with the SNP’s socially progressive agenda.
While Forbes sparked controversy by saying she would have voted against legalising same-sex marriage if she had been an MSP in 2014, Yousaf vocally supported the policy then and since. “I don’t use my faith as a basis of legislation,” he said this week.
Yousaf has also made a sartorial success of his Pakistani and Scots heritage, taking his parliamentary oath — in both English and Urdu — while wearing a Scottish kilt and south Asian jacket.
He has been vocal in condemning racism and in 2021 publicly accused a nursery of discriminating against his daughter’s application after comparing her treatment with those of children with non-Muslim names.
The nursery denied discrimination, but acknowledged a report by the Care Inspectorate that required it to ensure it handled admissions in a “transparent and equitable manner”.
“I have lived my entire life in Scotland as a minority, often having to fight for my rights,” Yousaf said in his Clydebank speech. “Equality and the protection of rights are at the core of my being.”