Humza Yousaf: Going for counselling was one of the best decisions I ever made
Humza Yousaf is a man with a lot on his mind. Fresh from the SNP’s heavy defeat in the Rutherglen by-election and with his party’s annual conference just days away, the first minister has plenty to be preoccupied with when we meet in the elegant surroundings of a recently renovated Bute House.
It’s not politics, however, but the safety of his family that is foremost in his thoughts when we eventually sit down to speak. Yousaf is late for our interview, having come directly from consoling his wife, Nadia El-Nakla, whose parents are trapped in Gaza after going there to visit an elderly relative in the days before Hamas launched its deadly attack on Israel.
Earlier in the day Yousaf had spoken movingly of the perilous situation his wife’s relatives found themselves in, the emotion evident in his voice. But he also condemned the actions of Hamas, whose bloody incursion into Israel led to the death of more than 1,200 people. While it’s a horrible thing for any family to go through, Yousaf doesn’t have his problems to seek. In the weekend following his party’s calamitous showing in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, the newspapers were full of headlines laying the blame squarely at his door. The SNP’s poor showing follows a period unlike anything in its recent history during which it has been mired in controversy due to the ongoing police investigation into its finances.
“We expected genuinely a very, very difficult night indeed for the SNP,” he says, easing back into one of the Bute House sofas. “It was a disappointing result, of course it is – that’s an understatement…but we expected to lose and expected the defeat to be considerable given some of the contextual factors around that seat.
“I was knocking many doors in the weeks and months ahead of polling day and it was pretty clear that people were obviously and understandably very hacked off with the actions of [former MP] Margaret Ferrier and, to be frank, the police investigation [into the SNP’s finances]. Trust in the party came up from our own voters, people who would actually be inclined to vote for us.”
Given he knew his party was on a hiding to nothing, it seems strange therefore that Yousaf put himself front and centre of the campaign to hold onto Ferrier’s old seat, which was vacated following a successful recall petition after she broke Covid rules. He made a number of visits to Rutherglen and was accused of sidelining the party’s candidate, Katy Loudon, at press calls and photo opportunities.
“You lead from the front,” he says. “I don’t believe in doing anything other than that. I made a virtue of being not just the first minister but the first activist. I don’t shy away. If I only turned up at the elections or by-elections I thought I was going to win, that wouldn’t be true leadership. Leadership is rolling up your sleeves and leading from the front even when you know it’s going to be a difficult night for your party.”
It’s not just in Rutherglen that the SNP has had a tough time of it – it’s been a truly tempestuous 12 months for Scotland’s ruling party. At last year’s SNP conference, Nicola Sturgeon sought to tackle rumours about her future head on, telling delegates she intended to be first minister “for quite some time yet”. But less than six months later she was gone, vacating Bute House as Operation Branchform appeared to crank up a notch with the arrest of her husband and former party chief executive Peter Murrell and then her own arrest two months later. Both were released without charge.
Since defeating Kate Forbes and Ash Regan in the resulting leadership race, Yousaf has found himself unable to fully emerge from the shadow his predecessor continues to cast over the party she once so tightly ran. As well as the ongoing police investigation, he’s had to contend with the difficulty of finding a new auditor to sign off the party’s accounts and mini backbench rebellions over the deposit return scheme (DRS) and Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), both of which have been kicked into the long grass for now.
On the party’s raison d’être, independence, there has been confusion over what exactly the SNP’s current policy should be. The party’s conference – where the issue is likely to be debated at length – closes on 17 October – two days before the date Sturgeon had earmarked for a referendum. But while the party has seen its support dip in the polls, support for leaving the UK has held relatively stable. So should the SNP actually be talking about independence more?
“It’s not that we haven’t talked about independence enough,” Yousaf says. “It’s that we have been obsessing over process rather than policy. Independence seems very abstract to people – we haven’t made the case vociferously enough, robustly enough…
“Whether this is fair or unfair, there are many people who think we are focused more on identity politics than on issues like the cost-of-living crisis, the NHS, and the economy. Those are the top three issues that matter to people and, for me, independence is essential to tackle all those issues. There are clearly people who think we need to focus more on those issues and hence why I’ll be making sure there’s an unrelenting focus on those three issues in particular.”
But while the first minister might rather talk about other things, at least for the time being, the process of how the SNP secures another referendum is likely to dominate the party’s conference in Aberdeen. Perhaps somewhat optimistically, he tells me the reason the debate around independence policy has been scheduled for Sunday is so that it can be done and dusted by the time of his keynote speech on Tuesday.
Along with the party’s Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, Yousaf has put his name to a motion which says the SNP would “begin immediate negotiations” for independence should it win the most votes in Scotland at the general election. If approved as the party’s strategy, it could theoretically see the SNP losing upwards of 20 seats and still claiming it has an electoral mandate to leave the UK.
“What I’m saying, very clearly, is that if you want to test the proposition of independence, do that through a referendum – we’re not the barrier to that.
“If you’re blocking that, as the Westminster parties are, the next way to do that is through a general election. The way you win the general election is by winning the most seats. That doesn’t mean you automatically begin negotiations on the terms of independence, it means you begin negotiations with the UK Government of how to give that democratic effect.”
But if the government in London is not listening to the SNP now when it has 43 MPs at Westminster, what makes Yousaf think it will listen after the election when it could have considerably fewer?
“That’s a question you should put to the UK Government. If they’re not listening when the SNP has won Scottish Parliament elections, if they’re not listening when we have a pro-independence majority, if they’re not listening when we win Westminster elections, how on earth do we leave what is supposed to be a voluntary union?
“I’m not somehow pretending the UK Government are going to roll over, regardless of what the result is. That’s why I have to lead the party to make sure we have a significant result – that we win that election and that we win it handsomely.”
Barely had the results in Rutherglen been announced when a poll carried out by Redfield and Wilton Strategies found that amid a host of depressing findings for the SNP, support for independence is nevertheless holding up. According to the survey carried out earlier this month, 46 per cent of Scots would vote Yes, compared with 48 per cent for No. Another poll, published in September, put support for independence at 52 per cent when undecided voters were removed from the results.
But while the polling shows support for separation remains around the 50 per cent mark, it also shows the SNP has been unable to significantly shift the dial of public opinion in the nearly 10 years since the referendum.
Yousaf says his party has spent too long outlining the failures of Westminster and not enough time sketching out an alternative vision for Scotland’s future.
“We have to be willing to speak up and say, here’s why we need independence. The status quo is not as good as it gets – it can be better. The evidence is all around us in European countries of our size which have higher economic growth, higher productivity and fewer people in poverty. We’ve got to shift not just from talking about the negatives, to talk about the positives.”
While Sturgeon ran a tight ship with little dissension in the ranks, Yousaf’s short tenure has already seen long-serving MP Angus MacNeil expelled from the party following a row with the chief whip at Westminster. MacNeil, who now sits as an independent MP, memorably said he had not left the SNP but that “the SNP have left me”. At Holyrood, Yousaf’s former boss when he was a transport minister, ex-cabinet secretary Fergus Ewing, was given a one-week suspension from the party for voting against Green minister Lorna Slater in a vote of no confidence. Yousaf says the sanction given to Ewing – which he was expected to appeal – is “proportionate” and that he hopes to welcome him back into the fold.
Given the apparent unpopularity of the power-sharing deal with the Greens among certain sections of the SNP, has Yousaf any reservations about continuing the Bute House Agreement until the next Holyrood election?
“People want different parties to work together,” he says. “Where we can work together to tackle the issue of climate change, which is the biggest existential challenge we face...that I believe is something people want to see. I spent not just weeks but months knocking the doors in Rutherglen and Hamilton West and I can’t remember the Bute House Agreement coming up very often at all.
“Divided parties don’t win elections, so where people are divided on the issue of the Bute House Agreement, of course it’s difficult and can be problematic. What I would remind my colleagues is that our party had a vote on the Bute House Agreement and agreed with it overwhelmingly…we cannot lose sight of the issue that unites us and that is our core belief that Scotland’s future is better in Scotland’s hands. Anything we do to undermine that ultimately undermines not just the party, but the cause that we all endeavour to strive for – the independence of this country.”
It’s clear, though, that the SNP is far from being a unified camp at present. Last month Lisa Cameron, MP for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow, threatened to force a by-election as figures in the SNP pledged their support to a party official who was challenging her to be the candidate at the next election. She later dramatically defected to the Tories, describing the SNP Westminster group as “toxic and bullying”.
Meanwhile, following the Rutherglen by-election, this magazine revealed that Mhairi Black, the party’s deputy leader at Westminster, had threatened to quit on the eve of the important ballot unless the party gave its backing to her preferred candidate to succeed her – someone who is understood to have failed internal vetting. Yousaf says Black will “continue to be a strong voice for independence” and says he would “love to see her back in elected office” after she stands down at Westminster.
While much of the domestic press has made for difficult reading for the first minister in the six months since he was sworn in, there have been some bright spots. French daily Le Monde wrote a fawning piece which spoke of Yousaf’s “velvet eyes” and “salt and pepper beard”, while the illustrious Time magazine put him on its cover, describing him as a “trailblazer shaping the future”. When his party got hammered in Rutherglen the following day, the magazine’s famous masthead was doctored and appeared on X, formerly Twitter, as “Time’s Up”.
But Yousaf says he has learned to take the rough with the smooth during his time in politics, crediting a period of counselling he underwent while transport secretary as giving him an equanimity and the resilience needed for the top job. Even with the challenges of being first minister, he still tries to set aside time each day to use a mindfulness app called Headspace.
“I still practise mindfulness, which was one of the techniques given to me when I went to counselling during that period. I think it’s about extricating yourself from the bubble, which is important. We can think that because something is a big issue on Twitter that it’s the issue that needs dealt with or the issue that people are talking about. Genuinely, my wife says that to me every night. I say, ‘Nadia, here’s what people are thinking’ and she says, ‘what people?’
“I went through a really tough time. I had personal issues – I was going through divorce and some other relationship issues. On top of that, I was going through a really tough time professionally, having trouble with the trains at that point as transport minister. I was feeling really down about things and I’m not sure I could have continued as a minister without having that counselling. You’ve seen, of course, fellow transport ministers, colleagues, unfortunately having to step back because of their mental health.
“I definitely think counselling has given me resilience. I was just talking to my wife, actually, last week about making sure I continue counselling as first minister. I don’t need to do it weekly as I was doing in the past, but people shouldn’t wait until a crisis moment to access counselling. I haven’t done it yet, but I was just mentioning to my wife that it would be a good thing for me to do. [Going for counselling in the past] was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
Since becoming first minister, Yousaf hasn’t spent much time in Bute House. The Georgian townhouse was closed for a period to allow for refurbishment which included putting safety mesh up in the steep staircase to prevent his young daughter Amal from popping her head through the banisters as she had been known to do on occasion. His aides say that he prefers to spend time at home in Broughty Ferry in any case when not in Holyrood.
Intriguingly, as I leave the first minister’s official residence and head off into the early evening, I’m met by a delegation of former Deputy First Minister John Swinney, party grandee Bruce Crawford and MP Stewart Hosie heading in the opposite direction and presumably off to meet the party leader. There is plenty for them to discuss.