Celebrating his narrow election as new leader of Scotland’s governing Scottish National party on Monday, a beaming Humza Yousaf told assembled SNP members he felt like the “luckiest man in the world”.
The feeling may not last. Yousaf, 37, will certainly make history this week when he becomes the first member of an ethnic minority to be appointed Scotland’s first minister.
But the former health secretary faces the hardest of tasks in reviving a divided SNP’s stalled push for Scottish independence and rebuilding its battered reputation for governing competence.
Though backed by SNP heavyweights and all but a handful of the party’s elected representatives, Yousaf defeated finance secretary Kate Forbes by only 52 per cent to 48 per cent of the vote once third candidate and former community safety secretary Ash Regan was eliminated from the race.
The result showed SNP members split down the middle on whether they preferred the “left-of-centre, social democratic-type” continuity candidate Yousaf, or the “pro-business, more centrist and conservative with a small ‘c’” Forbes, said Mark Diffley, an expert on Scottish public opinion.
“This was not two shades of grey,” added Diffley. “This was a very stark choice and that makes the result quite problematic for the SNP.”
For most of the past two decades, the SNP has been one of the most disciplined and united political forces in the UK. But the testy leadership race to succeed Sturgeon laid bare growing tensions within the party over its independence strategy, reform of gender recognition and other issues. The narrowness of Yousaf’s victory showed the party’s divisions are broad as well as deep.
Forbes, who won 41 per cent of SNP members’ first-preference votes compared to Yousaf’s 48 per cent, had challenged the SNP’s record in office and the socially progressive agenda it has pursued under Sturgeon.
The finance secretary, who had been on maternity leave since last summer, said more of the same for the SNP would be “an acceptance of mediocrity” and trashed Yousaf’s record in the health, transport and justice portfolios. She also disavowed Sturgeon’s push to make it easier for trans people to gain official recognition of gender changes, which Yousaf strongly backed.
Regan — who had been even more critical, claiming the SNP had “lost its way” and raising doubts about the integrity of the leadership election — won 11 per cent of members’ first-preference votes.
In his victory speech, Yousaf acknowledged the leadership battle had been bruising.
“Where there are divisions to heal we must do so and do so quickly,” he said. “What unites is our shared goal of delivering independence for our nation.”
That constitutional cause has indeed been central to past SNP unity. But in recent years, independence strategy has also been an increasing source of dispute. Sturgeon failed to overcome the UK government’s veto on any rerun of the 2014 referendum, when Scots backed staying in the union with England by 55 per cent to 45 per cent.
Yousaf has dropped Sturgeon’s plan to treat the next UK general election as a de facto referendum, suggesting instead the key to progress will be achieving a sustained and clear majority among voters for independence.
In his speech, he sought to calm the more impatient SNP members, assuring them that this would be the “generation that delivers independence”, but also reminding them that victory could only be won by “making the case on the doorsteps”.
One early step for the new leader will be revamping the party apparatus. Yousaf has promised a break with what many colleagues thought was the too tightly controlled and opaque management of party affairs by Sturgeon and her husband Peter Murrell, the SNP’s long-serving chief executive.
Reform will be made easier by Murrell’s resignation last week after the SNP was forced to admit it had 30,000 fewer members than it claimed at the start of the leadership contest. But embracing greater party democracy and transparency could risk inflaming internal differences.
Much may depend on whether and how quickly Yousaf can be seen to improve the Scottish government’s handling of issues ranging from strains on the NHS to declining education performance and a troubled scheme for bottle recycling that small drink makers claim could be disastrous.
Some in business are hoping for a reset in relations after years in which they felt Sturgeon’s left-leaning, devolved government favoured the public sector over the private.
But while Yousaf said he would seek to support small business, the other policy priorities name-checked in his speech centred more on public services and issues such as extending childcare, improving rural housing and reforming the criminal justice system.
James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh university, said Yousaf’s task would be made more difficult by popularity ratings among the public that are far below those enjoyed by Sturgeon when she announced her resignation.
“He’s got to unite his party, get a grip on government and start answering the difficult questions on independence,” Mitchell told Sky News. “He’s got a massive mountain to climb.”
Many supporters of the union at Westminster are comforted by the departure of Sturgeon, one of the most effective politicians of her generation, and by the SNP’s inability to force a second independence referendum.
But Yousaf clearly hopes to keep the independence issue alive, in part by contrasting SNP values with those of the Conservative UK government — an approach likely to continue to appeal to many constitutionally moderate Scots.
In his speech, he stressed his desire as a “proud European” to lead Scotland back into the EU.
And in celebrating the decision of his Pakistani grandparents to make their lives in Scotland, he drew a strong — though implicit — contrast with the approach of a UK government that is making controlling immigration one of its top priorities.
“As Muhammad Yousaf worked in the Singer sewing machine factory in Clydebank, and as Rehmat Ali Bhutta stamped tickets on the Glasgow Corporation buses, they couldn’t have imagined, in their wildest dreams, that two generations later their grandson would one day be Scotland’s first minister,” said Yousaf.