What a Humza Yousaf victory means, in Scotland and beyond

Published March 3, 2023
Humza Yousaf poses for a photograph with his mother, Shaaista and father, Muzaffar at a campaign event in Glasgow.—AFP/file
Humza Yousaf poses for a photograph with his mother, Shaaista and father, Muzaffar at a campaign event in Glasgow.—AFP/file

LONDON: The United Kingdom is within inches of a reality where the leaders of England, Scotland and Ireland could all be people of South Asian descent — a surreal moment which will take shape if Scottish-Pakistani candidate Humza Yousaf is victorious in the race to replace Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the Scottish National Party, and consequently become the country’s First Minister.

“This would be important symbolically,” Professor of Public Policy, Edinburgh University, James Mitchell, told Dawn. If Humza Yousaf becomes SNP leader and First Minister, it would mean that the leaders of Scotland’s two largest parties would be led by Scots of Pakistani descent — Anas Sarwar being the Scottish Labour leader — and “proving to be popular and very effective”, he said.

With Rishi Sunak serving as UK prime minister and Leo Varadkar as Ireland’s taoiseach, Mr Yousaf’s emergence as the front-runner in the SNP leadership contest has once again given rise to a sense of accomplishment and recognition in his country of origin and amongst Muslims. But in the United Kingdom, the debate surrounding Mr Yousaf is hardly about his race or religion.

Prof Mitchell says, “Mains­tream opinion is either unaffected by the candidate’s ethnic or religious background other than how this informs opinion on current politics. I do detect a sense of pride in Scotland that the Labour Party is led by Anas Sarwar and that Humza Yousaf may lead the SNP, but doubt whether Yousaf’s religion or ethnicity either helps or hinders his bid to lead the SNP.”

Who is Humza Yousaf

Currently serving as the Scottish Health Secretary, 37-year-old Humza Yousaf rose through the ranks of the SNP to become the Scottish government’s first non-white and first Muslim cabinet minister in 2018.

Mr Yousaf’s father, who was born in Mian Chunnu, emigrated to Glasgow with his family in 1964. His mother, born in Kenya to a family of South Asian descent, also moved to Scotland in 1968.

Mr Yousaf was privately educated, and went on to pursue politics at University of Glasgow where he was active in student politics and became head of the Muslim students’ association. In 2011, at the age of 26, Mr Yousaf became the youngest member of Scottish Parliament, when he won from Glasgow. In a nod to his Scottish-Pakistani identity, he took his oath in both Urdu and English, and wore a black embroidered sherwani with a Partick Thistle Football Club tartan shawl draped over his shoulder.

In 2016, when he took his oath in Urdu for the second time, he said, “Urdu is not my first, nor my second language. However, I wanted to pay tribute to my parents, grandparents and my heritage as a proud Scottish-Pakistani, and I thought the best way to do this would be to take the oath in both English and Urdu - whilst wearing both a kilt and a sherwani jacket!”

Who is he up against?

Political analyst Anthony Salamone puts Mr Yousaf’s rise into perspective. “In Scotland, the number of political representatives at national level from ethnic minorities has historically been low. As a Scottish Pakistani and as a Muslim serving in the Scottish parliament and the Scottish government, Humza Yousaf has been one of the pioneers of greater diversity in Scottish politics.

Mr Yousaf is up against SNP’s Kate Forbes, a devout Christian and the country’s current Finance Secretary, as well as Ash Regan, a former junior minister who quit the government to protest against the party’s plans to scrap gender recognition certificates. Though many see him as Sturgeon’s pick and the continuity candidate, his time as health minister on the heels of the pandemic and an NHS crisis have made his path to victory less clear. Though Ms Forbes’ anti-gay marriage views have come as a blow to her popularity, polls up until now show her as the preferred candidate in the party, with an 8% lead over Mr Yousaf.

Interestingly, it is the devout Christian candidate and not the Muslim candidate that has faced immense backlash over her religious beliefs and views on gay rights. Ms Forbes revealed last week that she would have voted against gay marriage in 2014 had she had the chance, but later apologised when she lost support from within her party. Mr Yousaf seized the opportunity to cement his position.

The Scottish health secretary said his faith doesn’t mean he isn’t able to make his own mind up about legislation: “I’m a supporter of equal marriage. Let me get to the crux of the issue that you’re asking me. I’m a Muslim. I’m somebody who’s proud of my faith. I’ll be fasting during Ramazan in a few weeks’ time. But what I don’t do is use my faith as a basis of legislation. What I do as a representative, as a leader, as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, is to bring forward policy and pursue it in the best interests of the country.”

The comments have triggered a debate about the connection between a candidate’s religious views and their policies — a debate that would be impossible to have in most parts of South Asia, but one addressed head-on here.

Do race and religion matter?

“Scotland like the rest of the UK is a multi-ethnic multi-cultural society; people care about Mr Yousaf’s suitability as SNP leader based upon his performance in office than his ethnic heritage,” Dr M. Rodwan Abouharb, Associate Professor in International Relations at University College London, tells Dawn.

“There are a number of well-known politicians who hold religious beliefs. In Scotland, Kate Forbes who is also running to be SNP leader is a practicing member of the Free Church of Scotland, and former PM Tony Blair is a practicing Catholic. Politi­cians have to govern in the interests of all citizens and respect the existing equality and human rights act in any of their policy proposals. I don’t think it has much bearing on his popularity. We have a Hindu PM so why not a Muslim First Minister?”

Sunder Katwala, director of think-tank British Future, said a Humza Yousaf victory would mean that “ethnic diversity has become the new normal in British politics”.

He says race and ethnicity are incidental. In the run up to the vote, Mr Yousaf’s challenges have little to do with his ethnic background. “People haven’t heard of these candidates. Yousaf’s reputation is mixed, he is well known and popular in the party but not outside. He’s health minister at a time when the health sector isn’t in a good place.”

Published in Dawn, March 3rd, 2023

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