(CN) — Scotland’s ruling political party elected Humza Yousaf as its new leader Monday, putting him in line to become the nation’s most senior politician following last month’s shock resignation of longtime First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
In his acceptance speech for the Scottish National Party, Yousaf reaffirmed his dedication to the Scottish independence movement his party represents,
"My solemn commitment to you is that I will kickstart our grassroots, civic-led movement and ensure our drive for independence is in fifth gear," he said. "The people of Scotland need independence now more than ever before, and we will be the generation that delivers it.”
Yousaf triumphed narrowly over his main rival Kate Forbes, winning 52% of the vote among party members to his opponent’s 48%, in what has been a bitter and divisive contest for the normally disciplined and unified political machine that the SNP has become under Sturgeon, and before her Alex Salmond.
Given Salmond's and Sturgeon’s dominance of the party over two decades, this was the SNP’s first leadership contest since 2004, and it became a deeply ideological battle between its two main candidates. Yousaf is a socially liberal and center-left politician seen as Sturgeon’s favored successor, and he was careful to minimize his criticism of his long-serving predecessor.
Forbes, on the other hand, is a center-right social conservative and was strongly critical of Sturgeon’s administration, and of Yousaf’s role in it. She accused Yousaf of “mediocrity”, telling him in a televised debate: “You were a transport minister and the trains were never on time, when you were justice secretary the police were stretched to breaking point, and now as health minister we’ve got record-high waiting times. What makes you think you can do a better job as first minister?”
Forbes’ stinging attacks on Yousaf throughout the campaign have highlighted significant divisions in the SNP rank-and-file and proved to be a bonanza for the party's political opponents, who have jumped on the criticism to undermine the new leader’s credibility.
Speaking after the results were announced, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said: “This chaotic and divided party is out of touch and out of ideas. Humza Yousaf has inherited the SNP’s woeful record, but he has not inherited Nicola Sturgeon's mandate.”
The Scottish Conservatives echoed Labour’s criticism, stating they were “concerned about his ability” and accusing Yousaf of having lurched from “failure to failure.”
Yousaf, who was born in Glasgow to parents of Pakistani origin, is the first and only British Muslim to be a member of the Scottish Cabinet, and only the second British Asian to become a national political leader in the United Kingdom, following the appointment of Rishi Sunak as British prime minister last October. At 37 years old, Yousaf is the youngest of the U.K.’s national leaders, as well as the youngest-ever first minister of Scotland by quite some margin.
Yousaf’s age indicates the speed of his ascent to the top job. He became the youngest member of the Scottish Parliament when first elected in 2011 at just 26, and was appointed as a junior minister in government just a year later, retaining a government portfolio ever since. Yousaf has long been well-connected with the SNP’s senior inner circle, having acted as an assistant to both of his predecessors, Sturgeon and Salmond, before his parliamentary career began. He is widely seen as a Sturgeon loyalist who shares her liberal views on issues such as transgender rights, and has defended her record repeatedly. His strength is perhaps his support among the SNP establishment, and his experience in government.
But both could also prove to be a weakness in the job, precisely as Forbes so bluntly alluded to during the contest. Yousaf is viewed as having underperformed in his previous government roles, overseeing high-profile failures on public policy. It has been reported that Sturgeon deliberately gave Yousaf some of the most difficult government roles in the hope of strengthening him for a future run at the party leadership, indicating just how long he has been positioned as her successor.
His status as a continuity candidate may also clash with a party itching for a new direction of travel, with the Scottish independence movement appearing to have run out of momentum following a U.K. Supreme Court decision denying the Scottish government the right to unilaterally hold an independence referendum.
But it is not just the independence movement looking shaky – the SNP itself is too. Sturgeon’s resignation was in part driven by an increasing inability to reconcile the demands of the grassroots membership for an immediate push towards independence, with the prioritization of stable, everyday governance among the wider electorate. This difficult balancing act is unlikely to prove any easier for Yousaf than his politically accomplished predecessor.
In addition, the divisions exposed by the leadership contest will not be easy to heal. The goal of independence has long enabled the SNP to consolidate what would otherwise be rather disparate goals and beliefs among its members. However, the bitter exchanges and ideological chasms between the candidates have shattered this illusion and left many members wondering exactly what the values of their ruling party are. Having vocally championed social liberalism for more than a decade, some Scots may be forgiven for wondering how the SNP came so close to electing a leader – Forbes – who is opposed to same-sex marriage and abortion.
That Yousaf has won such a marginal victory will only add to the sense of identity crisis. It is a far cry from a party that looked to be at the peak of its powers only two years ago, securing another landslide parliamentary result and launching a renewed push for succession. Yet just last week, SNP President Michael Russell described the party as being in a “tremendous mess.”
While the incoming first minister enjoys goodwill among his immediate colleagues in the Scottish Parliament, there are clearly doubts among the grassroots membership that he is the right man to re-energize and reunite his party and movement. The implication of such a narrow victory is clear: expect bumps in the road ahead.
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