Scotland politics: Humza Yousaf selected as new first minister, succeeding Nicola Sturgeon

Newly elected Scottish National Party leader Humza Yousaf speaks after being announced new SNP leader, at Murrayfield Stadium, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Monday, March 27, 2023.
Newly elected Scottish National Party leader Humza Yousaf speaks after being announced new SNP leader, at Murrayfield Stadium, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Monday, March 27, 2023. Copyright AP
By David Mac Dougall with AP
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Humza Yousaf becomes Scotland's first Muslim leader.

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Humza Yousaf has been selected to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland's first minister. 

The 37-year-old son of South Asian immigrants is set to become the first person of colour to serve as Scotland’s first minister, the first Muslim, and the youngest person to hold the office.

Yousaf, currently Scotland’s health minister, beat two other Scottish lawmakers in a controversial contest to replace First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who unexpectedly stepped down last month after eight years as leader.

Yousaf, who is due to be confirmed as first minister by lawmakers in the Scottish Parliament Holyrood on Tuesday, faces the challenge of uniting his fractured Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and re-energising its campaign for independence.

“Just as I will lead the SNP in the interests of all party members, not just those who voted for me, so I will lead Scotland in the interests of all our citizens whatever your political allegiance," he said in an acceptance speech at Edinburgh's Murrayfield stadium.

Yousaf says his priorities will be to "tackle child poverty with progressive taxes," and defend Scotland's democracy. 

He has also said he will maintain a pro-independence majority in parliament, which in practice means maintaining a governing alliance with the Greens. 

The SNP’s 72,000 members narrowly chose Yousaf over Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, with lawmaker Ash Regan a distant third in a campaign that was plagued with scandal.

The integrity of the voting procedure itself was called into question by candidates who didn't even know how many party members were eligible to vote. 

The SNP's chief executive Peter Murrell - also Sturgeon's husband - and the party's head of media both resigned in March after fake membership figures were given to journalists.

Andrew Milligan/AP
Scottish National Party leader candidates Ash Regan, left, and Kate Forbes applaud as Humza Yousaf, center is announced new SNP leader, Edinburgh, 27 March 2023Andrew Milligan/AP

Who were the candidates vying to replace Nicola Sturgeon?

A formidable leader who led the SNP to a dominant position in Scottish politics, Nicola Sturgeon failed in her aim of leading Scotland out of the United Kingdom. 

She also divided the party with transgender rights law which was considered controversial by some vocal protest groups, even though it passed by a wide majority in Holyrood, with cross-party support last December. 

The three candidates to succeed her shared Sturgeon's goal of independence, but differed in their economic and social visions for Scotland.

Yousaf is widely seen as a “continuity Sturgeon” candidate who shares the outgoing leader’s liberal social views.

Forbes, 32, is an evangelical Christian who has been criticised for saying that her faith would have prevented her from voting in favour of allowing same-sex couples to wed, had she been a lawmaker when Scotland legalised gay marriage in 2014.

Both Forbes and 49-year-old Regan opposed oppose legislation championed by Sturgeon to make it easier for people in Scotland to legally change their gender.

"The public perhaps switched off a bit during the campaign, they weren't tracking it or it wasn't illuminating things for them. Most people in the public, and most SNP voters don't have an opinion of the candidates," explained Paul Robertson from the Big Partnership agency, which carried out polling during the leadership election campaign.

Andrew Milligan/AP
Scottish National Party leader candidates Ash Regan, left, and Kate Forbes applaud as Humza Yousaf, center is announced new SNP leader, Edinburgh, 27 March 2023Andrew Milligan/AP

What happens to the independence movement now?

The SNP holds 64 of the 129 seats in the Scottish parliament and governs in coalition with the much smaller Greens. 

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The environmental party had warned it might quit the coalition if the SNP elected a leader that doesn’t share its progressive views -- meaning a victory by Forbes or Regan could have splintered the government.

Yousaf faces the challenge of leading the independence movement out of an impasse, but said on Monday in Edinburgh that he belongs to "the generation that will achieve independence."

"Voters want the new first minister to focus on the big three issues, not independence: and that is the cost of living crisis, the National Health Service, and the economy," said Robertson.

"Although this contest has focused on independence, their popularity as first minister is going to be shaped by what they can do on those issues," he told Euronews. 

Scottish voters backed remaining in the UK in a 2014 referendum that was billed as a once-in-a-generation decision. The SNP wants a new vote, but the central government in London has refused to authorize one, and the UK Supreme Court has ruled that Scotland can’t hold one without London’s consent.

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Yousaf has signalled he will act cautiously. He says he wants to build a “settled, sustained” majority for independence. Polls currently suggest Scottish voters are split about evenly on the issue.

Polling has shown that 75% of SNP voters want to see another independence referendum within the next five years. 

"That might sound like a short period of time, but I think it shows a bit of patience on the part of SNP voters," says Robertson. 

The bruising leadership contest has pushed the SNP’s poll rates down -- to the delight of the Labour Party and the Conservatives, which hope to gain seats in Scotland during the next UK-wide election, due by the end of 2024.

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