Scotland’s youngest ever minister outlines his priorities as the SNP prepare for an unprecedented UK influence
HUMZA YOUSAF is in confident mood. As well he might be. The SNP is on the verge of an historic victory at the 7 May election. It is riding so high in the polls just now that its members must be suffering from a bout of altitude sickness.
For a party that has been in government for eight years, its levels of popularity are quite astonishing. This does not fit with everything we have been told to expect in politics. But then again, there is nothing ‘normal’ about politics in Scotland these days.
On Saturday, thousands of people – mostly women – turned out on Glasgow’s Buchanan Street as Nicola Sturgeon launched her party’s election pledges for women. She was mobbed for over an hour in a sea of selfies, hugs and handshakes.
“Everything you see in public is being mirrored privately in our canvass returns. The whole rules of politics seem to be switching before our eyes.” Humza Yousaf
Just around the corner, thousands more attended a rally in the city’s George Square. This was a vast gathering in support of the SNP, but the party played no organisational role nor had any high-profile members in attendance.
How would Yousaf, a Scottish government minister aged just 30, sum up his party’s position just now?
“Terrifyingly exciting,” he says. “Everything you see in public is being mirrored privately in our canvass returns. The whole rules of politics seem to be switching before our eyes.”
His phone beeps. “Have you seen this?” exclaims Yousaf.
The latest TNS polls are out. The SNP is up two points to 54 per cent. Labour is down two to 22 per cent. This was followed by a Daily Record/Survation poll which put the party’s support at a comparatively more modest 51 per cent. If replicated on 7 May then these numbers would give the SNP well over 50 of the 59 seats available in Scotland.
Perhaps the most fascinating feature of these polls is that support for the SNP is even higher among women than men. In its 81-year existence, the party has long faced – often justified – accusations of being male-centric and struggling to relate to female voters. No more.
“Traditionally, the SNP has struggled in appealing to women. That has fundamentally changed now.” Humza Yousaf
While independence may still have been more popular among men last September, women are now flocking to the nationalists in their droves.
“Nicola Sturgeon has had a huge impact,” says Yousaf. “Traditionally, the SNP has struggled in appealing to women. We’ve had strong women in the past… Winnie Ewing, Margo MacDonald, Nicola, to name a few, but we’ve not actually broadened the appeal to women very well. That has fundamentally changed now.”
Since succeeding Alex Salmond as first minister last November, Sturgeon’s profile across the UK has rocketed. While the Daily Mail has called her the most dangerous woman in Britain, the British public gave her top ratings for her performance in recent UK leaders’ debates. Yousaf agrees.
“She not just held her own, but actually bossed the debates against the prime minister and opposition leaders,” says the Glasgow MSP. “For a while, a lot of people south of the border thought that the SNP were a bunch of fringe, looney nationalist, romantic, face-painted bravehearts. But now they’re seeing us in a whole different light.”
In 2012, at the age of 26, Yousaf was given the portfolio for external affairs and international development, making him Scotland’s youngest ever minister.
Like his party’s leader, Yousaf represents a modern and progressive face of the SNP. Born in Glasgow to a Pakistani father and Kenyan mother, he is the epitomy of an inclusive, civic nationalism that the party promotes.
In 2012, at the age of 26, he was given the portfolio for external affairs and international development, making him Scotland’s youngest ever minister.
He is held in affection by a Scottish public who shuddered in collective disgust when Ukip’s David Coburn told a journalist that he refers to the government minister as “Abu Hamza” earlier this year.
This was, for Yousaf, a reminder that, for all the talk of a new Scotland, the blight of racism and Islamophobia remains present in Scottish society and is even on the rise across Europe.
“I don’t think we should look at Scotland with any rose tinted glasses,” he says firmly. “Sometimes we like to think of Scotland as being above racism, and Islamophobia. It’s not.
“Islamophobia, anti-semitism, racism, these things all exist in Scotland. You don’t even have to scratch below the surface to see they exist. I’ve grown up and spent my whole life in Glasgow and during that time been called everything under the sun.
“Sometimes we like to think of Scotland as being above racism, and Islamophobia. It’s not.” Humza Yousaf
“And whether its the hijabs being banned or minarets being banned, there are hints that Islamophobia is getting worse across the European continent. We need to be vigilant.”
Did the response to Coburn’s comments encourage him?
“I was heartened by the kind messages from across the political spectrum,” he says. “The main message is that the voices of positivity in Scotland will always defeat the voices of negativity and that makes me very proud.”
When it comes to the issue of immigration, however, the opposite seems to be true. Negative scare stories about immigrants litter the speeches of Britain’s political leaders in a debate seemingly influenced by the rise of Ukip.
Yousaf accepts that the SNP’s pro-immigration stance is not necessarily a vote winner – “I knock enough doors to know that” – but says that it is nonetheless “incredibly important that politicians try to shape and change attitudes”.
Brought up by his mum to think of Labour as the “party of immigrants”, Yousaf now believes it has betrayed this mantra. A recent election mug on sale on the party’s website with the words “controls on immigration” emblazoned across it was but a symptom of that, he says.
Brought up by his mum to think of Labour as the “party of immigrants”, Yousaf now believes it has betrayed this mantra.
“I’m disappointed with the Labour leadership in how they’ve been painting migrants.I think its pretty poor. The party of immigrants has now become the party that’s happy to have a pop at immigrants at any opportunity for cheap political gain.
“We desperately need immigrants for our economic prosperity. It’s not the only thing that immigrants are needed for but its important for our economy to thrive. These are highly skilled people who want to work so why on earth wouldn’t we let them into the country to do that?”
With the SNP looking more likely by the day to hold the balance of power at Westminster post-election, talk is turning towards the areas where the party could potentially win concessions from a minority Labour government.
While an end to austerity and scrapping the Trident nuclear missile system are – by some distance – top of the party’s priorities, there are other issues that the SNP will seek to influence.
Perhaps on shutting down controversial detention centres for asylum seekers, such as Dungavel in South Lanarkshire?
“Dungavel should be shut down without any shadow of a doubt. We don’t think detention is actually a good way to deal with asylum seekers at all.
“We don’t think its humane for any asylum seeker to be detained whether its in Scotland or across the United Kingdom so we hope they wouldn’t be needed across the UK,” says Yousaf.
“I would like to see Scotland realign the UK’s foreign policy to something that is a lot more positive and progressive.” Humza Yousaf
Being the closest thing that Scotland has to a foreign minister, it is no surprise that Yousaf is also eager to see the SNP wield influence in the international arena.
The SNP’s opposition to the Iraq war was one of the driving forces that him led to join the party and his objections to UK foreign policy remain evident.
“I would like to see Scotland realign the UK’s foreign policy to something that is a lot more positive and progressive,” he says, mentioning official recognition of a Palestinian state as one such issue he is keen to see pushed.
Will he go as far as SNP parliamentary candidate Stewart McDonald who recently called for a boycott of Israel?
“As a government minister I might have a more diplomatic response,” he says cautiously. “Where segregation exists – take the separation wall for example – we have to be unequivocal about that and say it is unacceptable, utterly condemnable and should be removed.
“We call for an arms embargo (on Israel) and that remains the case. We’re in a position when these things are always under review. We certainly don’t dictate to other organisations what they should do – that’s a matter for them, but ourselves as a government we don’t have a position of boycott.”
“The establishment tells you that you’ve got to have Trident to be safe, what a load of rubbish.” Humza Yousaf
In just over a week’s time, if Labour is indeed reliant on SNP MPs to pass bills, Yousaf may be granted his wish to see the SNP have more influence on UK domestic and international policy.
This responsibility will likely bring with it other problems. Despite being in government at Holyrood for eight years, the SNP has been successful in continuing to pitch itself as something of an anti-establishment, almost radical, political force. This image could become obscured, at the very least, if the party does play a pivotal role at big, bad Westminster.
“We are challenging the establishment,” insists Yousaf. “Whether we’re in government or not, the SNP will challenge the status quo. The establishment tells you that you’ve got to have Trident to be safe, what a load of rubbish.
“The establishment tells you you’ve got have austerity politics, that there’s no money in the coffers so you’ve got to make cuts. We’re going to challenge that. The establishment says that because Scotland said No in the referendum we’ve come to the end of the devolution journey. We’re not having that either.”
Few people in Scotland, and indeed the UK, would really now assert that Scotland’s devolution journey has indeed come to an end. While another referendum on independence is not currently on the cards, events could change that.
“The establishment says that because Scotland said No in the referendum we’ve come to the end of the devolution journey. We’re not having that either.” Humza Yousaf
If the election goes the other way and the Conservatives somehow cling on to power, a referendum on EU membership is on the cards. If Scotland is dragged out of the EU against its will, would that give the party the legitimacy to call a second poll on independence?
“I’m not going to get drawn into whether that is an automatic trigger or not but it would give us real cause for concern,” says Yousaf. “We would have to very seriously consider what the next steps would be.
“A referendum would have to be in our manifesto and would have to command majority support. That’s the only way it would happen. But the EU question is fundamental. It would certainly be a considerable change in circumstance if that (an EU exit) were to happen.”
Yousaf pauses for a moment, and then smiles. “It would be the worst crisis since the abdication”.
Picture courtesy of the Scottish Government