EDINBURGH: Humza Yousaf on Monday won the race to become Scotland’s new leader, the youngest and first from a minority ethnic background, charged with reviving a faltering independence movement after Nicola Sturgeon’s long tenure. Yousaf emerged victorious with 52 percent of Scottish National Party (SNP) members’ preferentially ranked votes, following a divisive leadership battle triggered by Sturgeon’s surprise resignation announcement last month.
He is set to be sworn in as first minister on Wednesday, becoming the first ethnic minority leader of a devolved government and the first Muslim to lead a major UK party. He is also Scotland’s youngest leader, taking the helm months after Rishi Sunak became the youngest UK prime minister in modern times when he entered Downing Street aged 42.
The 37-year-old vowed to continue pursuing the SNP’s central policy — independence for Scotland — which Sturgeon has championed since the party lost a 2014 referendum on the issue by 10 points. “The people of Scotland need independence now, more than ever before, and we will be the generation that delivers independence for Scotland,” Yousaf said in his victory speech.
He added his “immediate priority” was protecting Scots from Britain’s cost-of-living crisis and reforming public services. “I will aim to lead Scotland and the interests of all of our citizens, whatever your political allegiance,” Yousaf insisted, noting he would look to work “constructively” with the UK’s Conservative government.
Yousaf, who was health minister in Sturgeon’s cabinet, narrowly beat finance minister Kate Forbes to become SNP leader once party voters’ second preferences had been added to their tallies. Ash Regan, a former minister in the cabinet, finished a distant third. Polling indicates that around 45 percent of Scots are currently in favor of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, after 55 percent of Scots rejected such a move in a 2014 vote.
During campaigning Yousaf said too much time had been spent pointing out the UK government in London’s failures and not enough on creating a vision for an independent Scotland. He has promised a civic movement to drive the campaign. He has a challenge to win over the wider Scottish electorate, with a UK general election expected within the next 18 months. According to Ipsos polling, Yousaf enjoyed a favorable opinion among just 22 percent of the electorate, trailing Forbes on 27 percent.
Forbes, who won 48 percent of the votes in the contest, came under the spotlight for her conservative views as a member of the Free Church of Scotland, which opposes same-sex marriage and abortion. But Yousaf, who has close ties with Sturgeon, also faced scrutiny and criticism over his record in successive roles in the Scottish government.
Sturgeon, 52, has served as first minister since Nov 2014 but said last month that she felt unable to give “every ounce of energy” to the job. In her final months in office she faced uproar about a new law allowing anyone over 16 to change their gender without a medical diagnosis. The law would have allowed a transgender woman who was convicted of rape before she began transitioning to serve a prison sentence in a women-only facility. As debate raged, the UK government used an unprecedented veto to block the legislation.
The UK Supreme Court last year also ruled that the Scottish government could not hold a new referendum on sovereignty without London’s approval. Several polls have since shown waning popular support for breaking away. But Sturgeon said she has “every confidence” that her successor will lead Scotland to independence.
The devolved government in Edinburgh was created in 1999 through devolution reforms initiated by the UK government in London. The SNP has since emerged as the dominant force in Scottish politics, drawing support away from the Labour party in particular. But Labour is hoping Sturgeon’s departure could provide a path for a potential comeback north of the English border that would pave the way to defeat the Conservatives in the next UK election. – AFP