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Humza Yousaf: People can call me the continuity candidate but I'm my own man

First Minister Humza Yousaf photographed for Holyrood by Anna Moffat

Humza Yousaf: People can call me the continuity candidate but I'm my own man

It’s fair to say that it hasn’t been an easy first month for Scotland’s new first minister. An almost daily diet of scandals engulfing the party he now leads has dominated the headlines and overtaken much of the commentary which, by rights, should have emanated from his historic election as the first Muslim politician to lead a Western democracy, the first person from an ethnic minority to become Scotland’s first minister, and the youngest MSP to find himself in the top job.

There are many historic firsts with Yousaf’s election but as he, Deputy First Minister Shona Robison and some of his closest advisers worked on into the night, shuffling SNP MSPs’ names around on a large piece of paper spread out on the formal dining table in Bute House as they put together the final touches to Yousaf’s new ministerial team, it was his role as first dad that broke the moment when his then three year old (she celebrated her fourth birthday last week), Amal, wandered in to the grand Cabinet room, barefoot and wearing her unicorn pyjamas. Unaware of the momentous task that her daddy was involved in, she placed her tired head on the table and asked him for a hug and to be taken to bed.

“It was really such a lovely moment,” says Yousaf. “And while some of my colleagues were basically stood there with their jaws dropped, it reminded me of some of my priorities. Bute House has never really had that sound of the pitter-patter of small feet with young children living there and the staff have actually said to me that it is lovely, it brings another dimension altogether having young children in here and hearing their chatter. It makes it feel much more homely for everyone. And while I am sure it will come, we haven’t yet had my teenager [stepdaughter Maya] slamming the Bute House doors.” 

It was when Yousaf was a teenager himself, that he remembers having to pluck up the courage to break the news to his parents that he wanted to study politics and not law at university.
“I’m Asian and growing up, you’re either going to be a doctor, dentist, pharmacist, accountant or lawyer, that was it,” he jokes. “And perhaps the stereotypes were true about parents like mine who had come to this country in the ‘60s, but those five professions were it – you didn’t really have much choice. 

“I was never particularly great at science and much to my dad’s annoyance, because he is an accountant, I was only okay at maths but not brilliant, so basically, most people thought I was going to go into law. 

“Fair to say that my parents expected I was going into law. 

“I’m like shaking, saying to them I want to do politics instead of law, and honestly, I shouldn’t have worried – they were fantastic. My mother was a bit more, ‘do what you want, son’ but really in her head she was going, ‘law, law, law,’ and my father was much more like, ‘which one is your heart really into?’ 

“But importantly, my dad, who really had so much foresight, said that we were living at a time when we [in our community] needed more representation and we didn’t really have anything. He was the one that said I should go into politics. I did say at the time that I just enjoyed the research and I wanted to do background stuff rather than being a frontline politician, but he said, ‘goodness knows where it will take you but follow your heart’.”

Less than two decades later, that nervous teen, whose parents might not have believed politics was a sound career path, is Scotland’s sixth first minister, and while his own political journey has been astonishing in its ascendancy, first elected in 2011 at the age of 26, having previously worked as a parliamentary assistant to Scotland’s first Asian MSP, the late Bashir Ahmad, he was made a junior minister the following year before serving in various ministerial roles, and latterly as Cabinet Secretary for Health. He, in turn, describes his family’s personal journey from Pakistan to Bute House as “mind blowing”. 

Yousaf’s father arrived from Pakistan with his family in 1964, simply seeking a better life post-partition while his mother’s family, who were of south Asian descent, fled from Kenya post-independence as hostilities towards Indians increased.

“My paternal grandfather was your typical economic migrant. Things in Pakistan, post-partition, weren’t great and as is so often the story in immigration, he had a friend who’d come to Scotland and worked in Clydebank in the Singer sewing machine factory and as immigrants, they would save for a few years to go back to visit Pakistan and he went back to my grandfather’s home town and said, ‘oh you should come to this place, I’ve got a job and there’s a great economic opportunity there and it’s much better than you have here’ and ‘da, da, da’, and effectively, almost that whole town, Mian Channu, at one point ended up migrating to Glasgow. In fact, when I was elected for the first time in 2011, the council chief of that town gave me a call, I’ve never met that man in my life, but it was quite a nice moment. 

“My mum’s journey was slightly different. She grew up in Kenya but she’s from a south Asian background. A lot of south Asians migrated to east Africa; Uganda, Kenya largely, some in Tanzania, and for them it was difficult because with Idi Amin, Jomo Kenyatta and a few others coming through, life as an Asian in east Africa became very difficult because they were essentially seen as taking all the good jobs.

“My family was attacked a few times and there was one [incident] in particular when my maternal grandmother was attacked with an axe in the back. She survived and so on but that was the last straw for my grandfather; it was time to get away and again, it made sense because there was a British call for people from the Commonwealth to come and take on industrial jobs. 

“I have been thinking a lot about my paternal grandfather, Muhammad Yousaf, over the last few weeks. We weren’t that close when he was alive, although I still spent a fair bit of time with him, but bizarrely, I have felt closer to him in the last four or five weeks than I think I ever have in my life when he was alive. That sounds like a really strange thing to say but I think all of this, becoming first minister, has made me reflect so much on the journey he must have made to get here. 

“I mean, I am attending the King’s coronation…how could Muhammad Yousaf who was bold in his protest against British rule in India, then following partition, making that difficult journey from the Indian side of British India to Pakistan, and then made the really difficult decision to come to Scotland, you know, uproot his family, his kids, to come to a country where he didn’t know the language, or barely knew the language, didn’t have much money, didn’t know the culture, didn’t really know anyone, how could he have ever imagined that two generations on, his son’s son would end up being first minister of Scotland and attending the coronation of a future king? I mean, it’s mind blowing, but also makes me think that I’m so thankful that he made the journey, and really grateful for all the sacrifices that he made, as did his wife, my grandmother, she died quite young, and I never met her.

“And the same is true of my maternal grandparents, they went through a really tough time, sacrificed a lot, and just worked to the bone so that their kids would have a good life, and then their grandkids would have a good life. And they did all of that for us. So, it’s made me feel really close to them in a way that I maybe didn’t appreciate when they were alive. I maybe wasn’t as thankful or grateful for what they’ve gone through. But I am just so thankful [now].

“One of the really lovely things that happened when I got elected first minister was that virtually every single person in my grandad’s hometown in Pakistan must have tried to call me. I have no idea how they got my number, but I was getting calls from unknown numbers that were plus nine two, that is the Pakistan dialling code, and sometimes I would answer them. I wouldn’t answer them all, and the caller would tell me they were from Mian Channu, where my grandfather came from, and they just wanted to say ‘hello’ and they told me they had had a street party in my honour and that the mayor had been there and, apparently, the governor of the city came. This is a small town and people were just phoning me constantly and I was having to speak to as many of them as I could, it was amazing, but it’s also just so disconnected to the way my life is now here.” 

It is hard to believe that it was just a matter of weeks ago that Yousaf described himself as the “luckiest man in the world” when he narrowly beat Kate Forbes to become the new leader of the SNP and was then duly elected as first minister. He had dubbed himself the ‘continuity candidate’ to replace Nicola Sturgeon but with key moments of his incipient government hijacked by an ongoing police investigation into his party’s finances, Yousaf has gone from all but calling himself a cut-price Sturgeon to realising if he is to have any chance of survival, he has to cut all ties. I ask him how he felt when he first heard the news of the arrest of the party’s chief executive, Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell?

“It was really gut wrenching, actually; I make no bones about it. I have known Peter and Nicola for many, many years. They are friends of mine. They are people that have helped me throughout my political career. And, frankly, I couldn’t quite believe the news. But then I also understood the magnitude of the impact it would have on the politics, but also, frankly, on the party, as well. But my job is to lead, and I’ve got to make sure I steer the party through what are probably some of its choppiest waters.

“I’m only in control of what I’m in control of. And I try my best to remind myself of that. So, I’m not in control of what happens next in terms of the police investigation; I have no more knowledge of that than you do around what will be the next steps. What I am in control of, though, from a party perspective, is the governance we’ve got in place. What can we do around transparency? What can we do about our financial oversight? How I communicate to the public that this is a party you can trust. And how I communicate to our members that we’re not down and out, far from it.

“And then I’ve got to do that while still being the first minister. And that’s the real challenge. But what I found in the last few weeks, and I’ve even heard some of our opponents begrudgingly admit, is that actually the government side of things has gone quite well.
“I would say that, of course, but I think we’ve been able to send clear signals about what we’re intending to come forward with in terms of some of the early policies which drive that direction of travel; we’ve been able to begin the process of refresh and resetting some of the important relationships with business, and the like, but yes, I feel frustration, of course, that it has been overshadowed, totally, by what’s happened in the past. 

“No, I don’t feel betrayal. Frustration, for sure. Not betrayal. But frustration that issues that started even before the election contest finished with the membership numbers debacle, it just didn’t have to happen and led to a whole disruption within the party. Frustration, when I think about the legitimate press questions about when the auditor resigned and why did the party not know about it? Why did members not know about it? And what’s been going on for six months since that has happened? So, I definitely feel a sense of frustration. Not betrayal, but selfishly, a frustration that this is going on while I also have a big job to do to lead the country.
“And I’m not expecting anyone to pull out a small violin, but it’s why most nights, I’m working till about midnight, because I’ve got to get on with the job. My first primary responsibilities are about being first minister. That comes with its own challenges, difficulties, stresses. And then any time that I’ve got left in the evenings, I’m spending time making sure that I can, frankly, rebuild the party, where it needs rebuilding, particularly around those issues of governance. So, you basically do have to compartmentalise it all in a way to get through it.”

Yousaf is desperate to get cut through with his ‘refresh’ of the government he now leads. And with a reshuffle and a refocus built around three main missions centered on the principles of equality, opportunity and community, I ask him if the label of continuity candidate became more of a liability than an advantage.

“I get why people would ask that, understandably, given what’s happened in the last few weeks, but I make the point of continuity meaning continuing the progressive agenda, winning election after election, then yeah, that’s fine for people to label me with that, but I also have to look back at the election contest and go, I won and I am my own man.”

The first opportunity to show what kind of first minister Yousaf plans to be was with his statement to the parliament on his government’s priorities. It marked what some see as a move to the left. But along with aspirations to eliminate child poverty and introduce more progressive taxes, were delays or a halt to various flagship policies including the ill-fated Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), the National Care Service, the ban on alcohol advertising, and quickly followed by suggestions that plans for Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) could be shelved, announcements that garnered enthusiastic support from the Tory benches, which isn’t exactly where Yousaf might have wanted to be.

However, he has also started to erect his so-called ‘big tent’, had early meetings with the business community, local authorities, published a wide-ranging criminal justice bill putting victims at its heart, and hosted an early promised poverty summit. It is fair to say that he has also put a very clear divide between Sturgeon’s infamously tight-lipped, and at times one-woman, cabal by giving the impression of being a much more inclusive and obviously more transparent first minister.

But one key area where there has been no attempt to diverge from the Sturgeon era is in the legal challenge Yousaf’s government has mounted against the UK Government preventing the divisive Gender Recognition Reform Bill proceeding to royal assent. He has tried to position this as a matter of principle in terms of protecting devolution and the democratic will of the parliament, rather than on the details of the legislation, but with the GRR causing such toxicity and with public opposition to self-ID being so overwhelming, a long legal challenge that tests the detail of the GRR against the UK’s Equality Act will likely do nothing to calm the nature of the debate – which some have said will become the SNP’s poll tax – particularly in light of the Isla Bryson case, which saw a rapist who self-identified as a woman initially sent to Cornton Vale women’s prison before being transferred into the male estate following a public outcry.

Yousaf has been mocked for being unable to say that Isla Bryson is a man but given this would undermine the government’s central tenet within the GRR bill that self-ID poses no increased risk to the safety of women and girls, his reticence is politically understandable. But he, like other ministers, has tied himself up in linguistic knots and in confused pronouns in an attempt to not state the obvious.

I ask him what he means when he says Isla Bryson “is at it” as he has described it.

“They are trying to manipulate the system so that they can end up in a female prison, when they shouldn’t be there,” he says.

Frustrated at asking the same question in a variety of ways, I ask bluntly whether he means Isla Bryson is a man pretending to be a woman? 

“I am happy to say that,” he says, without actually saying it. “That is what Isla Bryson is clearly trying to do, manipulate that system.”
So, is he a man?

“Well, a man that is trying to…but by law, of course, they’ve got the legal right, Isla Bryson has the legal right to self-identify, it is nothing to do with the GRR bill, I mean, the GRR bill hasn’t even had royal assent.”

I suggest to the former justice secretary that while there are certain rights conveyed over gender recognition by both the Equality Act and the Gender Recognition Act, self-ID – that is, to be viewed legally as the opposite sex and with the removal of various third-party checks to that – is not currently a legal right. Indeed, that is what the GRR is seeking to introduce. A point I’m not sure is fully understood.

No, I don’t feel betrayal. Frustration, for sure. Not betrayal. But frustration that issues that started even before the election contest finished with the membership numbers debacle, it just didn’t have to happen and led to a whole disruption within the party.

“But the point is, though, under the law, Isla Bryson can say, or anybody can say, I am a man or a woman. What I don’t think is helpful, is looking at the Isla Bryson case where I think universally, almost universally, most people [would] say, there is somebody who is at it, trying to game the system.”

A point I don’t disagree with, but I suggest it directly shows the unintended consequences around self-ID which feeds into concerns that some women have expressed around their own safety that were dismissed as “not valid” by his predecessor.

“Isla Bryson was trying to manipulate the system for their own ends. What most people will say is that 99 per cent of people that are trans, certainly 99 per cent of trans women, don’t do that, they don’t try to manipulate the system for their own ends. So, the question is, do you roll back the rights that they have because one individual is completely at it? And frankly, the system should not have been allowed to be manipulated in that way; Isla Bryson should never have ended up in Cornton Vale even when the assessment initially was going on, and hence, why the guidance has been updated.”

The GRR bill may now be subject to a legal challenge, but the issues are not going away. Yousaf and I sit down after his third outing as FM at FMQs. During the session, Tess White, the Conservative MSP, raises the matter of the protest that occurred at Edinburgh University the night before which caused the screening of the documentary film Adult Human Female to be cancelled. She says that women were shut out and a discussion about women’s rights was shut down, and asks the FM whether he agrees that freedom of speech should be defended in academic institutions.

Yousaf replies by saying that he has not seen the content of the film but his stance on freedom of speech has no conflict with “the other stance that I am very proud of and that is supporting trans rights and that is something I am unequivocal about”.

I ask him why, when he says he has not seen the film and when Tess White did not mention trans rights but focused on the issue of women’s rights, that he introduced trans rights, therefore immediately pitching the issue a certain way.

“Well, as far as I could see, and you can feel free to tell me I’m wrong, those protesting against the film, many of them were holding up trans flags and placards mentioning their support for trans rights and that was what was being reported in the press, so, I was going off that and as I say, I have not seen the film.”

So why centre his answer on trans rights? 

“Correct me if I am wrong and you can check the official record, I think what I said was, or if not then I’m certainly happy to clarify now, is that I don’t see a conflict between a stance on freedom of speech and a stance on trans rights but also women’s rights and trans rights.”
I remind him that he didn’t mention women’s rights.

“I am happy to clarify now, then, and say unequivocally that I don’t see that there is a conflict between standing up for women’s rights and standing up for trans rights.”

I suggest that this gets to the core of the issue, and why this has become so toxic, that people, even first ministers, have made this into a trans versus women issue and that having admitted he didn’t know what the content of the film was, he unwittingly, or otherwise, still picked a side.

“Look, there is a really important job for all of us to do in this, which is listening to those that are affected, so women, of course, should be listened to, and as a straight bloke, I have got to make sure I am listening to women about where they think their rights are under threat but I have got a job to do to make sure, as first minister, that I listen to every community and there are people in our trans community that tell me they feel more marginalised now than they ever have done before.

“I read some of the commentary and many of the concerns raised, I am sure, I know, are legitimate, but a number of those in our trans community feel that they are being targeted in a way that they have never felt before; they have never felt as marginalised in their life, and I need to listen to that and the point I was trying to make at FMQs was that university is meant to be a place of debate, enlightenment, robust debate, disagreement, and so I don’t agree with those who tried to block the entry of those trying to get in to see a film.” 

I again ask him whether it is right that this whole debate has been pitched in a way that has become about women versus trans people and whether he, as a political leader, has a responsibility to try to bring some calm to it?

“I agree with you there. It shouldn’t have ever been pitched like that and I will certainly do everything I can in my power to soothe things. But equally, I think it’s going to take all of us, I mean, this place, parliamentarians, everyone, to really do everything we can to try to take some of the toxicity out of it, but it is going to be a challenge. I don’t doubt it for a minute.

“But also, I know from my own experience, as a minority in this country, my entire life spent as a minority, that we have to make sure we are advancing everyone’s rights and not [be] in conflict with others. And at times in government although things may be unpopular, I think we’ve got a job to lead when it comes to the advancement of rights. If there is a way of taking the toxicity out of the debate, if there’s a way of doing it, I will be absolutely keen to make sure we can.

“And using the hate crime bill as an example, there we had a bill that when we first introduced it, I think we only had the Greens supporting it, and a lot of stakeholders, members of society, were very firmly against it. By the end of the bill process, through that big-tent approach, if you want to describe it that way, the ability to compromise was found. We ended up with every single party supporting it bar the Conservatives. A number of those who opposed it, not all of them by any stretch, but a number of those who initially opposed it, ended up saying actually, the bill has merit and were either then neutral or ended up supporting it as well. I will use all the skills I possibly can to try to find a way through on GRR in the same way, but it will be a challenge given the toxicity.”

One explanation promulgated for Yousaf’s determination to push on with what looks like a doomed legal challenge over the GRR bill is the SNP’s relationship with the Greens. And for them, the GRR and self-ID, in particular, is a red line in their co-operation deal with the SNP in government. But given the disaster around DRS, the policy around HPMAs looking unlikely, and there being no imminent independence referendum likely, why continue with the Greens in government?

“For a couple of reasons. One, you have to remember our membership voted for it overwhelmingly and I have made a big pitch about listening, quite rightly, to our membership. The second reason for me, having been elected to this place first in 2011, the atmosphere in 2011 compared to now is very different, and I and anybody who observes our politics, would say that the atmosphere here at times is more toxic than I think it’s ever been.”

But I suggest it is that relationship with the Greens that could be contributing to that toxicity, and perhaps working across the parliament as a minority government, like the SNP did so effectively in 2007, could bring more consensus, more harmony, and build the case for independence?

“Look, I remember in the last year of the last session and the run-up to the Holyrood election in 2021, we just constantly had the energy drained from us as a government because we were fighting off votes of no confidence, for having a legislative programme disrupted by any way and means by the opposition, which of course, is their right to do so, but for me, having stable government, having that majority to be able to pursue your legislative agenda, to get your budgets through, is a good style of politics. The Greens will push us hard on a number of issues, and they’ll have to compromise on issues, it involves us having to compromise, and that’s not a bad way at all of doing politics. But for me as first minister, having that majority in the chamber is worth its weight in gold.

“Looking back at 2007, it was completely different. We are not any more talking about people who I may disagree with their politics, but people with wise heads, like David McLetchie and Annabel Goldie on the Conservative side, and we are not going to be able to do deals, or many deals, with Douglas Ross. Yes, there are things we probably can work on, and I am very interested in his Right to Recovery Bill, for example. I don’t think he’s published the detail yet but [I’m] quite interested in his ideas on that and, for instance, Jamie Greene today spoke very eloquently around some justice issues, but the atmosphere in that parliament, in that chamber, is more toxic than I’ve ever known it to be. Certainly, since the time I’ve been involved in politics.”

There is no doubting that Yousaf has some big challenges ahead and only some that are within his control, but the one that might be the hardest to duck is the promise he made to his daughters during the leadership contest that he would buy them a cat if he won. Is that promise already broken?

“Ah, so the youngest one wasn’t aware of this, she can’t read it, but my 14 year old keeps asking me about when this cat is going to make an appearance and my answer is that we are not going to be living in Bute House while the renovations are happening or the roof is being repaired. It’s worked for now, but I’m not going to get away with that excuse for much longer.” 

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