Yesterday, a little-known 37-year-old named Humza Yousaf was elected the new leader of the SNP, replacing Nicola Sturgeon – until recently the party’s
Yesterday, a little-known 37-year-old named Humza Yousaf was elected the new leader of the SNP, replacing Nicola Sturgeon – until recently the party’s all-powerful superstar.
‘We will be the generation to win independence for Scotland!’ declared the precocious millennial.
Once, this kind of ‘sunlit uplands’ talk worked for the pro-independence faithful. But not any more. They’ve heard it all before and, for all their fervour, the hated Union with England still stubbornly persists. The prospect of independence, moreover, seems far from assured in the hands of a man as underwhelming as Yousaf, dubbed ‘continuity Sturgeon’, who used his first speech yesterday to beg his fractious party to come together again after what, he admitted, had been a ‘bruising’ five-week election process.
Certainly, he will have a hard job convincing his own colleagues that he is up to being First Minister – let alone the Scottish electorate.
In a particularly acid remark during the campaign, veteran SNP MSP Christine Grahame accused him of ‘taking credit for others’ work and not taking the blame for ‘what he’s responsible for’.
Yesterday, a little-known 37-year-old named Humza Yousaf was elected the new leader of the SNP , replacing Nicola Sturgeon – until recently the party’s all-powerful superstar, writes Eddie Barnes
Runner-up Kate Forbes (right) looked pleased as Yousaf won the battle to be the new leader of the SNP
His predecessor as health secretary, Alex Neil, has added: ‘He was totally out of his depth. He can’t do the job he currently has, let alone the top job. It’ll be an electoral disaster for the party if he becomes the leader.’
What a difference a few years have made! For a long spell under Sturgeon – who ruled in autocratic fashion for eight long years as First Minister – Britain’s 300-year-old Union frequently seemed at mortal risk.
Propelled by a raft of election victories, ‘St Nicola’ was able to convince herself, many Scots and much of the United Kingdom that independence was, in her preferred term, ‘inevitable’.
Though her judgment failed in the end, particularly over a disastrous plan to turn the next general election into a ‘de facto’ referendum on independence and amid a bizarre battle over trans rights, Sturgeon has been, for the most part, a strikingly effective party politician, albeit one who was not particularly good at governing.
Her departure and her sub-par replacement, then, are excellent news for anyone who opposes independence. One poll for Sky News during the leadership campaign put support for independence at below 39 per cent, well below the 45 per cent figure from the 2014 referendum.
Polls also show most Scots simply aren’t interested in having the debate all over again: even SNP voters think the cost of living crisis and the NHS are now the priority.
Forbes hugged winner Yousaf yesterday after he narrowly won the battle
Sturgeon sensed this mood – and quit. Several of her more senior colleagues then decided to back out of the race. Bluntly, Yousaf has won the throne because many others in the SNP did not want it.
So who is the man critics call ‘Humza Useless’ – and what can we expect from him?
Born in Glasgow to parents who came to Scotland in the 1960s – his father is from Pakistan and his mother from the South Asian community in Kenya – the young Yousaf studied at the city’s fee-paying Hutchesons’ Grammar School.
He traces his politicisation to the Iraq war and then-leader Alex Salmond’s pugnacious opposition to Britain’s involvement in that conflict. After joining the SNP as a student, he didn’t look back – and was fast-tracked by Salmond and Sturgeon into jobs in transport, justice and health. But his record does not inspire confidence. Yousaf was at transport when a disastrous contract to build two new ferries was being negotiated: they are still not finished and the price tag has rocketed from £97million to over £300million.
He was the justice secretary who led on the SNP’s controversial Hate Crime Bill, which critics say will curb free speech. Two years after being passed, it has still to be enforced because of police concerns.
While at transport, astonishingly, Yousaf was cautioned by police after being caught driving a friend’s car without insurance.
And at health, his job until yesterday, he has presided over NHS Scotland cracking under the strain – with A&E delays rocketing and the number of patients waiting more than a year for a procedure at a record high.
His allies point to his amiability and his smooth media skills. But senior officials who have worked with him are less forgiving. ‘As shallow as a spring puddle’ was how one police chief described Yousaf to me this week.
To make matters even worse, he faces an in-tray that would daunt a veteran leader, let alone one still in his 30s. He has to start dealing with what actually matters to people: particularly health, for which he will be blamed if the NHS chaos continues. He must resolve the ferries scandal.
Surprisingly, he has committed to return to Sturgeon’s trans-rights reforms – which would allow anyone to change their legal sex on their own say so. The radical plans are deeply unpopular, but Yousaf has said he will take the fight over them to the UK government, in part to appease the fanatically pro-trans Scottish Green party, which is in coalition with the SNP in Edinburgh.
And behind all that is Scotland’s unreformed public sector, fast running out of money. This week, police warned that thanks to £50million budget cuts, there soon won’t be enough beat officers to carry out patrols.
Yousaf will try to dodge the blame for all these by complaining as usual about Whitehall and ‘the Tories’ south of the border. But Scots are increasingly bored with the SNP’s rhetoric and are asking themselves: after running Scotland for 16 years, how much longer can the SNP blame Westminster politicians for their country’s woes?
Which brings me to my next point: the UK general election next year or in January 2025 at the latest. Sir Keir Starmer believes that the chaos in Scotland presents him with a golden opportunity.
In 2015, the party that had dominated Scotland for generations during the 20th century lost all but one of its 41 Scottish Westminster seats to the SNP. Now the Labour leader thinks he can get many of them back.
Never mind the ‘Red Wall’: Sir Keir’s attention in recent weeks has been the ‘Tartan Wall’ in central Scotland: SNP territory that he believes is ripe for Labour reclamation. Starmer has travelled north of the border four times in the past few weeks.
Along with some longed-for gains in those northern English constituencies that voted for Boris Johnson in 2019, Starmer believes these seats could make all the difference – and secure his entry into No 10.
As for independence? Privately, for all their public boasts of a ‘free’ Scotland ‘within the next five years’, many nationalists now concede it’s off for the foreseeable future. So while Rishi Sunak must remain watchful, the Union can take a breather.
And ironically, we have Sturgeon to thank for that. For the past 16 years, Unionists in Scotland have fought a rearguard action to protect its place in the UK.
In the space of six chaotic weeks, Sturgeon’s decision to walk away, leaving chaos in her wake, has finished the job for them.
Yousaf’s election yesterday shows that the SNP’s iron grip on power in Scotland is finally beginning to weaken. In an age often short of it, that can only be good news.