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by Humza Yousaf
19 June 2024
Humza Yousaf: We’re right to celebrate our diversity, but there’s no room to rest on our laurels

Humza Yousaf: We’re right to celebrate our diversity, but there’s no room to rest on our laurels

We always knew it was a good day when dad came back from work with gulab jamin, a South Asian dessert so sickly sweet it makes tablet taste positively sour. When the results of the Scottish devolution referendum were confirmed on 12 September 1997, dad, an SNP member since 1972, brought home mountains of gulab jamin in celebration of the result. 

In truth, I have little memory of the 1997 Labour landslide and the subsequent Scottish devolution referendum. The most important issue to me in 1997, aged 12, was whether Celtic was going to be able to stop Rangers winning an historic 10th consecutive title. Thankfully a Swedish saviour in the form of Henrik Larsson eased any worries I might have had. 

For most of my life, and certainly for all the time I have been politically conscious, the Scottish Parliament has been a constant. I struggle to remember a time before it. The decisions made by the Scottish Parliament have had a profound impact on me. I am a beneficiary of free university education and welcomed my daughter Amal to this world knowing Scotland’s Baby Box provided everything I needed to give her the best start in life. 

Yet when growing up, and as I became more politically active, I became conscious that there were very few people who looked like me in politics – and certainly none of my generation. We shouldn’t forget that upon the election of Labour’s Mohammad Sarwar to Westminster in 1997 a 33-strong contingent of BNP fascists tried to disrupt the Glasgow Govan count, with police having to step in to stop the violence from escalating. The fact our parliament elected its first first minister of colour a quarter of a century later speaks to how far we have come as a country. 

Humza Yousaf is sworn in as Scotland's first Mulsim first minister | Alamy

With the progress we have made, it would be easy to be complacent. That would not only be lazy but dangerous. Scotland is not immune to fascism – trust me, barely a week goes by when I haven’t been targeted or threatened by the far right. At a time when we see a rising global tide of populism, it is more important than ever to ensure minority voices are represented in our nation’s parliament.

Most major political parties in Scotland have made progress in ensuring better representation, but we still have a long way to go if we want our parliament to be truly representative of the communities we seek to serve. For all the progress, every MSP of colour has South Asian ancestry. There has never been a single black, Polish or Chinese MSP in the history of devolution. We are right to celebrate the progress we have made but there is no room to rest on our laurels and assume the job is done. 

Political parties must proactively commit to measures that further enhance our representation as a parliament. Our politics, and devolution, can only benefit from a range of diverse voices.

I mentioned earlier that I cannot envisage any institution other than the Scottish Parliament being the centre of our nation’s political discourse. However, as I witnessed during my time as first minister, there is a deliberate attempt by some in our political system to fundamentally undermine devolution. Those at the forefront of such efforts are politicians and commentators who, one suspects, never actually believed in devolution in the first place.

Just take the issues of the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Act and the deposit return scheme. We can disagree on the merits or otherwise of GRR or DRS. What is, however, beyond doubt is that both were supported by a majority of the Scottish Parliament, and both were within devolved competence. Yet they were both vetoed, at a whim, by the UK Government. 

Anyone looking objectively at just these two examples must surely conclude that the very foundations of devolution are being deliberately and systematically undermined. The mere existence of the Internal Market Act, as well as repeated breaches of the Sewell Convention shows a complete and utter disregard for devolution, something that would have been unthinkable at the inception of the Scottish Parliament. 

Political parties must proactively commit to measures that further enhance our representation as a parliament; our politics, and devolution, can only benefit from a range of diverse voices

There are those who carelessly put this down to obvious constitutional differences between the SNP and Conservatives, but do they honestly think that Donald Dewar would have rolled over and allowed the UK Government to strike a pen through legislation our parliament had passed? 

The architects of devolution described it as a process, not an event. Many of us will differ on the end destination, but progress along the devolution journey cannot be allowed to be held back by those who don’t fundamentally believe in it. It is a duty on us all, across the political spectrum, to be at the vanguard, at the very forefront, of protecting devolution. 

That requires all of us, the SNP included, to elevate our political discourse and remind ourselves of the common principles that bind us, and the protection and enhancement of devolution must surely be one of those core principles.

The creation of the Scottish Parliament has allowed our politics to be rooted in our communities, and much closer to home compared to the pre-devolution era. However, it has also given Scotland the ability to reach beyond our borders, and further demonstrate how we can contribute to the world, not just in terms of innovation and invention, but to speak to the world about our values too. 

Former first minister Jack McConnell should take great pride in the critical role he played in deepening the friendship between Scotland and Malawi, an issue he put at the heart of his government’s agenda. His decision, and the actions of subsequent Scottish governments, has led to enduring bonds of friendship that have resulted in millions of pounds in development assistance being provided to some of the poorest people on the planet.

Similarly, on the global stage, there was no question in my mind of the need to show leadership in calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, a call we continue to reiterate today under the leadership of John Swinney. That call, made days after the horrific attacks by Hamas on 7 October, and the subsequent response from Israel, was heard worldwide, including importantly by the people of Gaza and Israel, as well as other heads of government. Week after week, thousands of people take to our streets to demand a ceasefire. Our parliament, while perfectly aware that foreign affairs remain reserved, can, at the very least, give democratic expression to that call and to the very visible upset and anger felt by so many. 

Humza Yousaf resigns as first minister | Alamy

Our parliament and I would argue our country is at its best when we reach beyond our borders in friendship and solidarity with those who are suffering, be that through poverty or persecution. If you somehow doubt this, just ask Ukrainians fleeing war who have been welcomed into the homes of generous Scots up and down the country. That generosity of spirit, sadly, seems lacking in our domestic politics. Our forefathers and mothers, in their wisdom, wanted politicians across the spectrum to work collaboratively, to engineer solutions to some of the most entrenched social challenges in our country. 

There are plenty of examples where successive administrations have done just that. From the first Labour-Liberal administration introducing the smoking ban to the SNP-led Scottish Government introducing the Scottish Child Payment, there are numerous examples of policy introduced and pioneered by the Scottish Parliament that has led to better outcomes for the people of Scotland.

There are some who will reflect on “the good old days” with nostalgia. I prefer to have hope in the future. Our young people are far more engaged, confident in who they are, focused on the global challenges our planet faces, than I ever was at their age. We should – we must – show them a better example of how to conduct ourselves in the face of political disagreement.
A quarter of a century after its birth, I hope we can endeavour to collectively ensure our parliament truly represents the beautiful diversity of our nation, and that we don’t only speak to ourselves, but also the world. 

After all, we have so much to offer.

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