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How long can Humza Yousaf last?

The Scottish First Minister on the threats to his leadership, the SNP’s mistakes and what he learned from Malcolm X.

By Chris Deerin

I arrive at Bute House, the official residence of Scotland’s First Minister, to find the mood hushed and sombre. An aide takes me aside to explain that the parents of Humza Yousaf’s wife, Nadia, are in Gaza, where Israel has begun its military response to the murderous attacks by Hamas. The news is just about to come out.

I am left alone in the Saltire-draped cabinet room until Yousaf appears a few minutes later. He is obviously distressed and has dark lines under his eyes, the only blemish on an otherwise youthful 38-year-old face. Nadia and her relations are in the family flat upstairs, he tells me. It is Monday afternoon (9 October), and they have been glued to the television news since Hamas’s assault stunned the world on Saturday. Yousaf has been in touch with the Foreign Office to explore whether safe passage from Gaza might be possible. His in-laws, who live in Dundee, had been visiting Nadia’s 92-year-old paternal grandmother. The family group has enough food for two days. There is a four-month-old baby that needs access to formula milk.

Nadia passes the door, saying she is heading out. We move into the drawing room to start an interview that feels more than a little overshadowed by a horrific situation shared by all those with relatives in Israel and Gaza.

There is a job to be done, however, and, as First Minister, Yousaf must attend to it. A country still needs to be run, an SNP conference more important than most is looming, and a journalist is in his house bearing questions. He visibly pulls himself together, and we begin.

Yousaf has been in office for just over six months, though he has not been in Bute House for that long. The building, designed by Robert Adam in 1791, needed some work, so until recently the family had been staying in a flat elsewhere in Edinburgh. Now in situ, their presence is making itself felt: the ornate four-storey staircase is wrapped in mesh, after Yousaf and Nadia’s daughter Amal, 4, was found poking her head through railings that are too widely spaced for parental comfort. Later, Yousaf will show me round the flat, which is littered with the kind of toys and games a little girl would have.

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He is also stepfather to Nadia’s 14-year-old daughter, Maya, and is adapting to the shifts that come with teenagerhood. “Let’s just say there’s a few slammed doors in Bute House,” he says. “Do you know what caught me by surprise? I’ve been in Maya’s life since she was seven. She couldn’t do anything without us, and then almost overnight she was like, ‘Don’t come near me, you don’t need to say goodnight, I don’t need to be tucked in, don’t need a bedtime story, I’ll just go on my phone thanks very much.’ ” The father of a 14-year-old girl myself, I nod in recognition and solidarity.

The role of First Minister is inevitably full-on, but Yousaf insists on carving out family time where he can. “If I don’t see my family I get really grumpy. My team know that on a Monday, unless the world is about to collapse, keep that seven to half eight slot free because it’s the only night of the week I’ll get to give my four-year-old dinner and a bath.”

Though we’ve both been around Scottish politics for a while, this is the first time we’ve met. In the New Statesman, I’ve thrown some withering judgements at Yousaf and his fledgling administration, unconvinced he has the leadership qualities required to make a success of the top job, or to safely escort the SNP through what has been a particularly difficult period since Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation. I’m hardly alone in that view. On the Thursday before this interview Yousaf’s party was thrashed by Labour in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election. The defeat was expected, but its scale – a 20 per cent swing to Labour – took most by surprise. It feels, after 16 years of nationalist power, like the pendulum is finally beginning to swing. The by-election result, Yousaf muses optimistically, was “a good wake-up call”.

We’ll get to that. But first I want to dig a little into Yousaf the man, having found him something of a blank slate. I know the basics of his CV: born to Pakistani immigrant parents, he attended the private Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow (as did Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader), and studied politics at Glasgow University. He became an SNP staffer, before being elected as an MSP in 2011, at the age of 26. Made a minister under Alex Salmond in 2012, he has been in government ever since. I know that he is well-liked by his colleagues.

Sturgeon is an obsessive reader of novels, Salmond enjoyed a bet on the horses. How would Yousaf describe his own non-political hinterland? He pauses to think and to finish a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer (the biscuits in Bute House are all impeccably Scottish). “I like to cook,” he says. “I’ve got the Dishoom cookbook, which I’m making my way through.” Impatience meant he screwed up the black daal recipe, only boiling it for two hours rather than the necessary four. “I’ve done well with a black pepper lamb curry. My signature dish is chicken shawarma, which I make with chicken thighs.”

[See also: Liz Lloyd: Labour would make Scottish independence more likely]

What else? “I have a PlayStation, which my wife got for me four years ago. I’ve got Fifa and Mortal Kombat, but I’ve only used it twice, which I know is really rubbish. And this is going to sound really pretentious, I’m sorry, but I’ve always liked Arab and Sufi poetry. I like Rumi a lot, I like a lot of Kahlil Gibran, and Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. My wife will tell you I romanced her with some of that poetry.”

He is a sharp dresser, I tell him, even if I sometimes find his shoes a little too slick for a first minister. “You do have to think about the way you look,” he laughs, before adding that he has “virtually no fashion sense”. As they left the coronation of King Charles, Gordon Brown’s wife, Sarah, told Nadia that “you’re going to have to dress your husband’’. “I’ve got four white shirts and two blue shirts. I probably need to increase that. I know which tie goes with which shirt. I’ve got a grey suit and a blue suit and a black suit. Any credit is due to Nadia.”

Just before the low of the by-election came the high of an appearance on the cover of Time magazine, which labelled him a “trailblazer shaping the future”. This mattered for more reasons than personal pride, he tells me – it was a measure of the impact he has made in becoming a Muslim leader of a European country, and of what it might say about a more liberal, open-minded future. “When I spoke to Time, I asked why they wanted to come and speak to me, and they said, ‘Well, the first Muslim leader of a Western nation is no small thing.’ Although I’m conscious of my identity and very proud of who I am both as a person of colour and a Muslim, I hadn’t understood how much it had resonated around the world. I didn’t realise how much coverage it had got in parts of the Muslim world.”

“The identity thing is really important,” Yousaf adds. “This room is where I came after the swearing in [as First Minister]. It was the middle of Ramadan, and it was here that we broke our fast as a family.” Following the meal, a photograph was taken of Yousaf, his wife, parents and cousins praying. “That picture just blew up, went completely viral. I think it’s important for me to say that being a Muslim in Scotland is as normal as being Jewish, agnostic, atheist, Christian – it’s just as much a part of our culture. Normalising some of these practices, people seeing me celebrate my faith and my culture is really important.” He points to Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, and Sarwar, all in significant positions of political leadership. “It’s a pretty big moment – four people of colour, Muslim, Hindu, South Asian. I hope people can look up to that and say, ‘You know what, it’s pretty normal to be prime minister or first minister or mayor.’ ”

Watch: Where is Yousaf’s SNP headed? Chris Deerin joins the New Statesman podcast live from the party’s national conference, to discuss.

I ask him about who has inspired him over the years and am surprised by his first response. The SNP is a famously tribal party, formed to achieve Scottish independence and obsessed by that singular goal. It isn’t often you’ll hear a nationalist politician saying anything positive about a unionist opponent. However, Yousaf singles out Gordon Brown, and says he wishes he could consult the former prime minister and chancellor as he gets to grips with the levers and buttons that come with running a government. “We’ll disagree on things, but I suspect we agree on more things, and I’ve always thought that we should use the collective wisdom that we have to inform what I do.”

His main hero growing up, though, was a more disputed figure. “The one book I just could not put down was the autobiography of Malcolm X. And what I loved about his story when I was a teenager was not just ‘this guy’s cool and suave and he stands up to authority’ and all the rest of it, but that when he was confronted with reality he was able to change himself. He was a street hustler who saw his version of the truth in the Nation of Islam, and then he went to Mecca and he was confronted with [a different] truth. And he said, wait, all that stuff that I’ve been preaching about that’s got me fame and infamy, that’s got me a platform, all of that actually just isn’t true. And he was able to come back and embrace mainstream Islam. He was able to change himself without losing his core beliefs around inequality and the civil rights movement.”

As the months have passed, Yousaf’s own approach to leadership has evolved, and is already showing a marked difference to the controlling style of his immediate predecessor. He is, he says, “a different character to Nicola. What I’ve tried to do with my cabinet is to empower them to make decisions. I’m here to help where those decisions are difficult, where you need that guidance or judgement from me as First Minister.”

Having recently set out his Programme for Government (Scotland’s equivalent of the King’s Speech) Yousaf will next week begin regular one-to-one meetings with his cabinet ministers, to check on the progress they are making, and says he will push them to go further and faster where necessary. This brings us to the heart of the political issues facing his administration. Support for the SNP has been falling fairly consistently in the polls since he became First Minister. Independence campaigners have begun to doubt that the party is going to achieve its constitutional goal, and the wider public is losing faith in its handling of the economy and the public services. Sturgeon’s drive to secure a second independence referendum, and her prioritisation of issues such as transgender rights, have left parts of the electorate angry and disenfranchised. Rutherglen was only the most explicit indication of a mood that has been brewing for months – is the age of SNP hegemony finally over?

Yousaf has come under pressure from both inside and outside his party to refocus the government on voters’ priorities. He insists that he “gets it”, and that his approach is about to undergo a substantial shift. “Let’s not beat around the bush, people are genuinely asking questions around our credibility on delivery. I might argue that’s unfair, but I cannot get away from the fact that some people believe that we have a challenge around delivery. I want to make sure that we reduce, no, eliminate, frankly, that credibility gap that might exist.”

In what could be taken as a passing swipe at Sturgeon, he adds that “for many people, if I’m being frank, they associate us with identity politics, which, as a minority in this country and as someone who lives with hatred probably on a weekly if not a daily basis, I will never apologise for. But we have to accept that far too many people believe us to be a party of identity politics as opposed to delivering on the issues that matter to them. So my relentless focus is going to be on the cost of living, the NHS and public services, and growing the economy.”

That’s all well and good, and it’s the right rhetoric at least, but the main focus of the SNP conference in Aberdeen from Sunday (15 October) will inevitably be independence. Yousaf has put forward a motion ostensibly stating that if the party returns the most Scottish seats at the general election expected next year, the devolved administration will be “empowered to begin immediate negotiations with the UK government to give democratic effect to Scotland becoming an independent country”. This has been widely taken to mean that if, say, the SNP wins 24 Scottish seats to Labour’s 23, it will attempt to claim a mandate for independence. This is even more extreme than Sturgeon’s much-mocked “de facto referendum” plan, which would have treated a majority of Scottish votes as the basis for independence negotiations.

[See also: Labour has finally ended the age of SNP hegemony]

I tell Yousaf the motion is confusing, and ask if he can clear up its intention – does he know what he means? His answer is long, and not entirely clarifying. “We’re talking about the most seats, and in terms of majority, you’ll see within the conference agenda there are amendments around majority versus most seats. I’ll take a look at those amendments and take a view on them closer to conference time.

“That doesn’t mean that you immediately begin negotiations on independence. What we say is that we will then have negotiations with the UK government on how to put that into democratic effect. Now if the UK government say ‘democratic effect’ is another referendum, great, let’s have the referendum. That’s been our Plan A from day one. If they say, let’s have negotiations on independence, which, let’s be frank, they’re not going to do…”

Well, quite. The SNP, Yousaf says, has spent too long “navel gazing around the process about independence, constantly talking about referendums or de facto referendums or this, that or the other. I get it. Whatever conference decides, that is that.” Damage has been done – too many voters have come to see independence as an abstract. “They do not view it as being meaningful to their lives when they can’t pay their mortgage or their heating bill. What we’ve got to do is make independence relevant to the cost-of-living crisis, because it is. But at the moment we just don’t talk about policy. We talk and obsess about process. I’ve always felt that people will believe your message and believe the messenger if you are credible. We have to be credible. People have to believe we can deliver with the powers of devolution and then imagine what we can do with the powers of independence. We have to deliver.”

Let’s talk about this newly emphasised priority of NHS reform, then. Yousaf is a former health secretary, and during the SNP leadership election said he was keen to launch an official “national conversation” on the subject. Senior figures in the embattled health service warn me that it has about a decade under current arrangements before it “falls over”. Economists say that due to demographic ageing and the intention to expand social care, the projections on the funding of healthcare are horrific. Bodies such as the British Medical Association and the Royal Colleges have been pushing for the national conversation to get started. It almost feels irresponsible to ignore the situation.

“I think a lot of that is fair,” the First Minister responds, and suggests that the only non-negotiable in the debate should be that care remains free at the point of need. “I offered a national conversation, and the BMA’s argument is very persuasive. I’ll see where we are with the health secretary – I asked him to speak to the BMA around the national conversation. You’ll know yourself there never seems a right time to have that conversation given the pressure on the NHS. We’ve just come out of a really tough summer with Covid cases rising and we’re heading for a really tough winter, but we have to find a space to have that conversation.”

I want to ask him about taxes, too. Under the SNP, any Scot earning above £28,000 already pays a higher rate than their equivalent elsewhere in the UK. Yousaf has been making it pretty clear that he intends to increase personal taxes still further in December’s Scottish budget. The money raised has mainly been used to tackle poverty, most effectively through the Scottish child payment, which gives low-income families £25 per week per child until the age of 16. Given the strains of the cost-of-living crisis this is hard to argue against, but I’m not the only one to have detected that middle Scotland is beginning to object to being squeezed.

Yousaf says he is “unequivocal about my support for progressive taxation”, but is less committed than I expected on whether he will follow through on his proposed tax rises. “You’ve obviously got to be mindful about the behavioural impacts, and we are, and we’ve got to be mindful of what the UK government does – that could have an impact on what we do here. And you have to grow the economy, so we have greater tax revenue and great investment in our public services.”

He says my points about middle Scotland are “absolutely right. People who we would traditionally say have really good jobs will come into my constituency office when I do my surgeries on a Friday. I had a police officer who is married to a nurse, really struggling, four-bedroom house, got a mortgage to pay, heating bills gone up, and despite their combined salaries, they are struggling. We’re really conscious of that when it comes to looking at taxation. Equally, if I take my own situation – four-bedroom house in Broughty Ferry, Dundee – I could afford to pay an extra 20 quid a month, and there will be other people like me.”

He accepts that Labour, both at Westminster and Holyrood, “have a spring in their step”, acknowledges that Keir Starmer will be the next prime minister, and that the party is the SNP’s major competitor ahead of the general election. “Labour will have a message that will resonate with a lot of people, that doesn’t have to be too complex. It’s basically, ‘We’re not them. Get the Tories out.’ And the SNP will have to come up with a convincing message, and I think probably Rutherglen and Hamilton West told us we haven’t crafted it yet.”

And finally, what of Yousaf’s own position? Unlike the other main Westminster parties, the SNP doesn’t have a tradition of ousting even its weaker leaders. But it’s impossible to ignore the chatter among some Nationalists that if support continues to decline ahead of the general election, and then before the 2026 Holyrood contest, change may be unavoidable. Yousaf has become leader at a troubled time for his party after long years of success. You can’t win forever. But being forced from office would still be a humiliation. 

“I’ve had a lot of this on the back of Rutherglen,” he acknowledges. “Throughout my time in politics – fairly or unfairly, that’s for you and other people to judge – I’ve often been told I’m not good enough. Or I’ve been told I don’t belong in politics – your race, your age, your religion. Remember, I was a 16-year-old in the midst of 9/11, a Muslim growing up in the West, and being in politics was as far away as I could ever imagine. So I’ve been told that, and become the first person of colour to win a [Holyrood] constituency seat, become the first person of colour to be in government, the first person of colour to become a member of cabinet, and now the first person of colour to occupy this office. So lots of people like to write me off, and have done, but I don’t pay too much attention.

“Sure, I’m downhearted about the result in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, but I am nowhere near fatalistic. The general election will be a challenge, but I’ve got every confidence that not just will I lead us into that general election, but I’ll lead us to the next Holyrood election.”

I take my leave of a First Minister currently dealing with more problems than most, on both a professional and personal level. He is, clearly, a charming, warm-hearted man who has battled the odds to make it to the very top. His photograph now sits next to those of other first ministers on the wall of the Bute House staircase. That alone is impressive. The question is, how long will he and his family get to stay here?

[See also: Scottish independence is not going away]

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