Humza Yousaf's election as SNP leader should not prompt unionists to celebrate demise of Scottish independence movement – Scotsman comment

The Scotsman would like to congratulate Humza Yousaf on becoming SNP leader and likely First Minister of Scotland.

Putting party politics to one side, the fact Yousaf is set to be the first Muslim leader of Scotland and the first of Asian descent sends out a positive message that high political office is open to all, much like Rishi Sunak’s elevation to Prime Minister.

In a speech after the result of the SNP membership vote, Yousaf said that when his grandparents moved from the Punjab to Scotland more than 60 years ago “as immigrants to this country, who knew barely a word of English, they could not have imagined their grandson would one day be on the cusp of being the next First Minister of Scotland. We should all take pride in the fact that 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.” We couldn’t agree more.

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We also hope he defies expectations and turns out to be a good First Minister. He had a poor track record as a minister, but now has a chance to prove his many doubters wrong. He also has political breathing space to focus on competent government, with little over ten per cent of the SNP voters backing Ash Regan, whose campaign was based on a supposed fast-track to independence. The idea that the SNP leadership is under pressure from a sizeable group of hardcore supporters may not play as big a role as it once did in the party’s thinking.

However, Yousaf may find it difficult to reverse the impression that he lacks ability, not least because he will be dogged by comments made by Kate Forbes, his narrowly defeated leadership rival, during a televised debate: “Humza, you've had a number of jobs in government. 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. What makes you think you can do a better job as First Minister?”

He also finds himself in something of a bind as he seeks to deal with the many problems bequeathed to him by Nicola Sturgeon. He can pursue her agenda, focussing his energies on the likes of legal challenges to the UK Government’s decision to block the Gender Recognition Reform Bill and potentially also the deposit return scheme – essentially prioritising Scottish Green policies over the good of the country – or change course and give further impetus to calls for an election.

However, despite all this, any unionist politicians celebrating his election would be foolish to imagine the Union is now safe and secure. Yousaf is a personable figure and a centrist in SNP terms, and it would be unwise to under-estimate him or the SNP’s party machine. So opposition parties need to work hard to hold him to account and Westminster must remain aware of the level of support for independence, even if its slide in the polls continues.

In his victory speech, Yousaf demonstrated some political nous when he decided to quote the highly respected, late Labour leader John Smith, saying he “got it absolutely right when he said: ‘The opportunity to serve our country, is all we ask.’ To serve my country as First Minister will be the greatest privilege and honour of my life, should parliament decide to elect me as Scotland’s next First Minister.”

Humza Yousaf pictured after being elected as the new SNP party leader (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Humza Yousaf pictured after being elected as the new SNP party leader (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Humza Yousaf pictured after being elected as the new SNP party leader (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

It was a nice touch, a small moment but one likely to resonate with many of the ‘Middle Scotland’ voters crucial to deciding the independence issue. Expectations about Yousaf are low for good reason but, ironically, that could work in his favour if he turns out to be of greater substance than expected.



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