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by Kirsteen Paterson
17 September 2023
Humza Yousaf's first six months: Is Scotland's first minister leading from the front?

Humza Yousaf photographed for Holyrood magazine by Anna Moffat

Humza Yousaf's first six months: Is Scotland's first minister leading from the front?

In the six months since Humza Yousaf became first minister, he has been seen to do.

The SNP leader has been skateboarding in Dundee and at a music festival in Fochabers. He has fronted an independence march in Edinburgh, met the heads of tech start-ups in Stirling and eaten ice cream in Largs. He has joined world leaders at the King’s coronation in London and followed a man carrying a ram’s head on a pole at the Govan Fair in Glasgow. He has taken selfies and shaken hands; he has been visible and he has been everywhere.

The receipts have been plastered over social media feeds as the new FM – our youngest and first from an ethnic minority background – has sought to put his stamp on the job. Nicola Sturgeon, the woman who could fill Glasgow’s Hydro arena, made selfies with supporters a marker of her time in office and it is now up to Yousaf to remake the role in his own image while also repairing that of a party and a government damaged by allegation and antagonism, and which has been found wanting in successive reports on service delivery.

The drug-deaths rate in Scotland remains the highest in Europe. The long-delayed ferries, still far from sea-worthy, keep soaking up more public money. The NHS, which Yousaf used to helm, labours under unsustainable pressure. Unhappy landlords have accused the Scottish Government of running a “pogrom parliament” over short-term lettings reforms. Ministers’ challenge to the UK veto of the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill will unfold in a three-day hearing this week. Fergus Ewing, son of the feted Winnie Ewing, has been more critical of the SNP’s government partnership with the Greens than many of the opposition and now faces possible suspension. Party finances have tanked in light of the membership drop and the Operation Branchform investigation into the handling of SNP cash by former decision-makers has yet to conclude. And there is widespread speculation that the SNP will lose the Rutherglen and Hamilton West byelection to Labour. 

Against poll results that have made SNP insiders wince, it will take more than photocalls to paper over the cracks that have developed. The leadership election which Yousaf won by a whisper half a year ago turned more discrete fissures in SNP unity into rifts that are more difficult to repair and has contributed to poorer public perceptions, psephologist John Curtice has said, and that’s borne out by some of the commentary behind the curtain at Holyrood. “A lot of people are waiting to see the [2024] general election result, and if it’s bad they will go for him,” an SNP source says. “That’s predictable. We are a divided party now, unfortunately. We say we are united, but we are not.” 

And yet with no shortage of tasks before him, Yousaf’s smiles are not just for the cameras, according to those who know him. Government voices say the Glasgow Pollok MSP is genuinely enjoying the job and is confident he can deliver for Scotland. Friends agree. The first few weeks and months were “difficult”, says Qasim Hanif, convenor of SNP affiliate Scots Asians for Independence (SAFI), but Yousaf is “committed and he’s not half-hearted”. “He’s had the courage to take this on, he’s looking to deliver,” Hanif says. “That’s why he’s made himself out to be the ‘first activist’. 

“It hasn’t been the easiest time for him to take the job on, but you can only judge someone on what they’ve done and he has been taking action. He’s tried really hard to engage with businesses, he’s commissioned an internal governance review to improve transparency in the party. He’s different from Alex [Salmond] and Nicola [Sturgeon] and he wants to do things his way.”

That desire to escape the shadow of his predecessors and former mentors was evident in Yousaf’s first Programme for Government (PfG). The speech was notable for being personal, digging into Yousaf’s family history. His leadership campaign was in a part a ‘lad o’pairts’ pitch based on his grandfather Muhammad’s move to Scotland. The former private school pupil returned to that story in his PfG, revealing how his grandmother died at the age of 33, just five years after immigrating, leaving “five devastated children” to mourn her. The disclosure, which came at the top of the speech, was used to set out Yousaf’s stall as being pro-business and anti-poverty.

“There is no way that my grandfather, all those decades ago, could have supported his five children and have been a successful small business owner if it wasn’t for the support of society and of the state,” Yousaf said. “At a time when he really needed it, the government was there to support him financially. That in turn helped to unleash his entrepreneurial spirit and over the decades he created jobs and contributed significantly to society, not least through the taxes that he paid. There is no doubt in my mind that economic growth goes hand-in-hand with tackling poverty, as it did for my grandfather all those years ago.”

Against strict new speaking time limits in the chamber, Yousaf was adamant that the story had to stay, something that left speechwriters straining to cut excess from elsewhere. That’s because, Holyrood was told, he wants the public to know who he is.

Indeed, Yousaf’s politics have often drawn from the personal, and he and wife Nadia el-Nakla launched a drive to improve miscarriage care long before he joined the leadership race. That too was referenced in Yousaf’s PfG speech as he pledged to “continue to improve care and support for miscarriage, including ensuring women do not have to wait until a third miscarriage to receive tailored support”. And he could hardly have been more public-facing, making himself more available to the media than his predecessor did and delivering an independence convention for SNP members in Dundee. It was there that Theresa Mallett, one of the patients affected by botched-op surgeon Sam Eljamel, heckled the FM, which resulted in a pledge to meet with her to discuss the issue. 

You've got to give a person a chance. It would be too easy to say he's not doing well

Yousaf has made that pledge many times to many people. He is unafraid, it seems, of speaking to critics and keen on dialogue. The issue, then, is action after the talking stops and there has been some quiet criticism from those who feel little has come from their facetime with the FM.

But on Eljamel action has been taken, with Yousaf telling First Minister’s Questions that a public inquiry will be held. There has been movement, too, on drug deaths. Safer consumption rooms, so long fought-for by campaigners, look set to open in a local pilot in Glasgow after Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain confirmed she would write a prosecution policy which leans away from charging service users with possession in the facility. Activist Peter Krykant, who operated an unsanctioned safer consumption facility from a van in the city, welcomed the news, saying he was “for the first time waking up not to the question constantly in [his] head about ‘if’ overdose prevention sites will be open, but ‘when’ they will open”. 

Yousaf has also signed-off on the Verity House Agreement since taking office, coming to new terms with councils body Cosla in a bid to improve relations between town halls and St Andrews House. And, having successfully diffused a pay dispute that threated to send Scottish junior doctors out on strike, the SNP leader offered the Scottish Government’s help to mediate talks between unions and the government in England. 

“You’ve got to give a person a chance,” says one SNP politician. “It would be too easy to say he’s not doing well, but he has not had a lot of time and he has achieved things.”

But if the first six months of Yousaf’s time at the top have been bumpy, the next six look to be even more difficult. Having promised junior doctors their largest-ever pay uplift, he must find the money to pay for this, and for other increases across other parts of the public sector. Wages there have risen at a faster pace than in the private sector and, at 8.1 per cent compared to England’s 7.8 per cent, are also changing at a quicker pace than those across the border. Tory MSP Pam Gosal has challenged ministers to “explain what magic money tree they have seemingly discovered or whether they will be making cuts elsewhere to fund these pay deals”.

There was little detail in the PfG about how commitments on care-worker pay, early years education and more will be paid for, but ministers have for some time now made references to “difficult decisions” ahead and their support for “progressive taxation”, and it is expected that the upcoming budget will include cuts on the one hand and tax increases on the other. Both will be politically uncomfortable, especially when 50 per cent of respondents in a recent Ipsos poll said the SNP was handling the economy badly.

The party is currently focusing its Rutherglen and Hamilton West byelection campaign on the cost of living in what sources have told Holyrood is a trial run for messaging in next year’s much-anticipated general election. But if the budget contains measures that raise household bills, it will be difficult for the SNP to then win votes claiming that they will protect voters from the Tories or Labour doing the same. And, of course, performance at the ballot box will reflect on Yousaf.

Initially leading from the front in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, he’s now dropped back, allowing candidate Katy Loudon more space in the spotlight, with MPs like Stephen Flynn, the SNP’s Westminster leader, backing her up. Still, Labour is confident. Jackie Baillie, the party’s depute leader in Scotland, says voters are “coming back to us” and locals are “genuinely disappointed” with the SNP’s record in government.

“At the start of the year I had six target seats,” she told LabourList, “and I might have thought that on a good day that will get to ten.” But recent polling suggests as many as 24 Westminster wins are possible for Labour in Scotland, and though his party’s projections aren’t quite so high, even Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael is confident about taking votes from the SNP. “Having crowed for years about the trials of other parties, the SNP looks far less comfortable defending its record these days,” the Orkney and Shetland MP says. “A political tsunami came in for the nationalists in 2015 and swept almost everyone else away. As anyone in the Northern Isles will tell you, however, when the tide turns back it can turn hard”.

After so many years of political dominance, the SNP, and Yousaf, find themselves with a serious fight on their hands and a lot to prove. Recent polling by Ipsos gave him a net approval rating of minus 12, lower than the minus eight recorded for Labour rival and former schoolmate Anas Sarwar, and efforts are underway to improve elements of his presentation. 

When the tide turns back it can turn hard

But it will take more than presentational tweaks to tidy up the mess in front of the FM. The GRR case is a huge test of his leadership, as is the situation with Fergus Ewing, who has joked openly about losing his place in the SNP MSPs group and doubled down on his criticism of the policies underlining the Bute House Agreement, one of which is the GRR Bill. Named MSP of the Year at the Holyrood Garden Party and Political Awards, Ewing is nonetheless expected to lose the party whip for voting against Lorna Slater in a vote of confidence, and for savaging proposed regulations on short-term lets and highly-protected marine areas, as well as that drawn up for the now binned Deposit Return Scheme. Disciplinary proceedings were previously postponed, given the death of his mother Winnie Ewing.

To be the SNP leader who oversees the sanction of the son of ‘Madame Ecosse’, himself a former government minister, would certainly allow Yousaf to make his mark on the role. How he handles this, and other tricky situations, will help to define his leadership of a party that is seeking a clear path to follow.

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