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Scotland: Who is new first minister Humza Yousaf?

March 28, 2023

Humza Yousaf is the first person of color and the first Muslim to head up Scotland’s devolved government. He's vowed to kick the Scottish independence movement into fifth gear, but faces a divided party and society.

Humza Yousaf in Edinburgh
Humza Yousaf is Scotland's new first ministerImage: Jane Barlow/REUTERS

Humza Yousaf has broken Scotland's biggest glass ceiling. As the new first minister of the devolved government, the 37-year-old becomes the first person of color and the first Muslim to fill the top job.

"My grandparents made the trip from Punjab to Scotland over 60 years ago. As immigrants to this country who knew barely a word of English, they could not have imagined in their wildest dreams that their grandson would one day be on the cusp of being the next first minister," Yousaf said in an acceptance speech on Monday after securing a majority of votes to replace Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP).

Zara Mohammed has broken some barriers of her own, as the first Scot, the first woman and the youngest person ever to head up the Muslim Council of Britain. Mohammed says Yousaf's election is a "momentous occasion, not just for Scots, but for Muslims across the UK."

Zara Mohammed
Zara Mohammed is Secretary General of the Muslim Council of BritainImage: Privat

Yousaf's win sends 'bold message'

"It sends such a bold message about our politics, of who can be first minister and who can lead a nation," Mohammed told DW. "We're so used to those negative stereotypes and headlines, particularly around Muslims."

In 2016, Yousaf caught global attention when he delivered a parliamentary oath in Urdu while wearing a kilt, Scottish traditional dress.

Yousaf's election means governments in Scotland, the United Kingdom as a whole and neighboring Ireland are now all led by men of Asian descent. Rishi Sunak is British prime minister, while Leo Varadkar is the Irish taoiseach (prime minister).

Zara Mohammed says in the British context, those who migrated decades ago and navigated rampant racism and discrimination should be thanked. "It's testament to their hard work and perseverance to not give up," she said.

"It took a couple of generations to get here and a lot of determination to do it."

Yousaf faced criticism over his time as health secretary

Yousaf has been a member of the Scottish Parliament since 2011 and has faced criticism in the past. Until recently he was Scotland's health secretary, at a time when the National Health Service was seen to be in crisis. Scotland has long had Europe's highest drug death rate and the lowest life expectancy in western Europe.

Yousaf is accused by some of simply being gaff-prone. During his leadership campaign, he asked a group of Ukrainian refugee women separated from their husbands by war: "Where are all the men?"

Politics lecturer Paul Anderson says Humza Yousaf has a tough road ahead after a bruising leadership battle. "He'll have to try and unite his party behind him, which seems to have been divided a bit and ripped apart over this campaign," he said.

Anderson also thinks the new leader has big political shoes to fill.

Nicola Sturgeon served as Scottish first minister for eight years before her shock resignation announcement last month. "Whatever you think of her, she's a great orator," Anderson told DW. "She's a very good public speaker, popular even in other parts of the United Kingdom. So that leadership style I think is very important and is something that there will be a loss of in Scottish politics and in the SNP."

Former Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in Scottish Parliament
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation last month after eight years in powerImage: Jeff Mitchell/Getty Images

What does Yousaf's win mean for Scottish independence?

Some think Sturgeon's departure could set the independence movement back. Since the 1990s, the devolved administration in Edinburgh has had decision-making powers over policy areas including education and health. The debate on whether to pursue a political divorce from England, Wales and Northern Ireland reached fever-pitch in 2014, when Scots were offered a chance to vote on independence. Fifty-five percent voted to remain in the UK. 

Yousaf has vowed to now kick activity around the drive for independence into "fifth gear."

Lucy Beattie runs a farm in the north of Scotland. She wants to see independence in her lifetime and says Yousaf's election hasn't dashed her hopes. Beattie thinks the UK's 2016 decision to leave the European Union has meant such a material change for Scots — the majority of whom voted to stay within the EU — that another vote should be held. "I think that people's passion for this will never die," she told DW.

But there is no clear legal pathway to Scottish independence and around half of Scotland's population want to stay within the UK.  Britain's Supreme Court recently ruled Scotland can't hold a fresh referendum without the consent of the government in London.

To leave or not to leave? - The Scottish question

Yousaf's opponents urge him to change the record

With that in mind, Yousaf's political opponents accuse him of wasting precious political time and capital on a question that was settled years ago.

"Instead of setting a platform to focus on Scotland's real priorities, Humza Yousaf has confirmed that he wants to continue the constitutional conflict with UK government," Douglas Ross, leader of the opposition Scottish Conservatives party told lawmakers in Edinburgh on Tuesday. "The record player has changed but the tune remains the same."

Lecturer Paul Anderson doubts there will be a new referendum any time soon. "The case for independence, particularly the economic case for independence, is still something that has to be won by the new leader," he said. Anderson says it looks like Yousaf's strategy will be to continue pressuring the UK government while trying to build support at home.

Finlay Duncan contributed to this article.

Edited by: Andreas Illmer