Humza Yousaf: My ability to compromise makes me the best choice for leader
It was fortuitous for health secretary Humza Yousaf that his family decided to drop its discrimination case against Little Scholars Day Nursery exactly one week before Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation. Being embroiled in headline-grabbing litigation while running to replace her would have been a distraction too far, after all.
As things stand it was apparently just lucky timing, with Yousaf saying he knew nothing of Sturgeon’s plans until she called him the night before she made her announcement, but with the legal claim out of the way he has been free to make his leadership bid with gusto.
When he launched his campaign in Clydebank Town Hall – chosen for its proximity to the old Singer sewing machine factory his grandfather worked in on arrival from Pakistan in 1962 – Yousaf said his record in government makes him the most suitable person to succeed Sturgeon as both SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister.
With three big jobs – transport, justice and health – under his belt, he says he has the experience to now take on the biggest job of all.
When we catch up, he details what he sees as his biggest achievements in each role: bringing the Queensferry Crossing, which was signed off by his Liberal Democrat predecessor Tavish Scott, to completion; keeping the country updated – and moving as best it could – during the Beast from the East; agreeing a pardon for miners who were convicted during the strikes of the early 1980s; getting the country ‘boosted by the bells’ when Covid flared again at the end of 2021.
“The point about government experience is that we deal with tough times, and I’ve dealt with many of them,” Yousaf says.
By definition, nothing about holding a government role is easy, he says, but that will stand him in good stead should he prove victorious in the leadership race. Steering the Hate Crime and Public Order Bill, which has introduced the crime of ‘stirring up hatred’, through parliament is a case in point.
Though it is yet to be implemented two years after being passed – updating Police Scotland’s systems has thrown a spanner in the works, it seems – Yousaf says the fact it started off being opposed by every party bar the SNP and the Greens and ended up being backed by every party except the Conservatives shows he is able to work across political divides and, crucially, embrace compromise.
Similarly, having been able to avert strikes in the health service with a pay deal that unions are currently taking to their members, he says he would be able to replicate his approach across the entire public sector should his bid to become FM be successful.
“I would do my best to try to make sure we don’t have strikes in any industry,” he says. “That’s the absolute goal of any government and first minister. It’s not about throwing money at it – the [health sector] pay deal is about much more than just money. That was achieved through engagement and reaching compromise where we could, but it takes two to do that. We’ve brought something to the table, but the trade unions have been willing to engage with that.
“Trade unions are battling on behalf of their members and will always take a robust line. That’s why I think I’m best placed [to become first minister] because I’ve got the experience of dealing with the RMT, Aslef, RCN, Unison, GMB, Unite. They all have a good reputation for being robust on behalf of their members but in many instances we’ve avoided strike action and got to a deal.”
In an interview with Holyrood last year Yousaf said the health brief in particular has given him sleepless nights, with everything from the impact of Covid and soaring waiting times to staffing shortages and the unavailability of social care places weighing on his mind. Nevertheless, he says he’d want to keep on responsibility for health should he not win the race to become first minister – though keeps his counsel on who he would choose to replace him if he does win.
Wider policy areas he says he would focus on if successful relate to his past portfolio briefs, with ensuring severely delayed and hugely expensive ferries that are supposed to be serving Arran and the Western Isles are finally delivered top of the priority list.
“It’s important that we get the ships built and out in the fleet – that’s what people want to see and what the islanders want to see. That’s a significant priority,” he says, adding that the budget signed off by cabinet colleague John Swinney last week has already made more funding for the inter-islands ferry network available.
“On the NHS, first and foremost we’ve got to look at the level of vacancies because it’s too high, particularly in nursing. I’m the first to admit that. We’ve launched a nursing taskforce because we need to make the entry point as wide as possible and the exit door as narrow as possible. We’re looking at the possibility of apprenticeships for nursing.
“I’m also very, very keen to see what more we can do to recruit staff into social care because there’s no NHS recovery without social care.”
On the controversial National Care Service Bill, which he introduced last summer and which has been heavily criticised by opposition parties, organisations including The Scottish TUC, Parkinson’s UK and Common Weal as well as a number of parliamentary committees, Yousaf says he’d be prepared to take another look, potentially turning his vision for a centralised service into something else entirely.
“I’m willing to work with those who oppose the current plan to see if the there are some areas where we could compromise,” he says.
This interview appears in issue 502 of Holyrood magazine. You can also read our interviews with Ash Regan and Kate Forbes.