Interview: Humza Yousaf on tackling hate head-on
He may now be on the front line, charged with keeping Scotland safe, but one of the scariest moments Humza Yousaf ever had was telling his parents he wanted to study politics and not law at university.
“Ha, well, you see, I’m Asian and growing up, you’re either going to be a doctor, dentist, pharmacist, accountant or lawyer, that was it,” he tells me. “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 OK 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.
“And it’s true, the most frightening conversation I have ever had with them to date was about the UCAS form where I think you must have five choices, and I think I put four down for law and snuck politics in at the end. I got into law at one or two of my choices, but I got into politics as well, and I remember the scariest thing ever was going to speak to my mum and dad.
"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 front-line politician, but he said, ‘goodness knows where it will take you but follow your heart’.
“Nothing else really mattered to me other than getting that parental backing and while in the community, I used to get people all the time saying to me, ‘what kind of job can you ever get with studying politics, you should have done law’, I knew my mum and dad supported me and that was the main thing.”
Yousaf’s parents were both immigrants who came to Glasgow in the ‘60s. His father arrived from Pakistan with his family in 1964 as typical Asian economic migrants 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.
“I’m really lucky,” says Yousaf. “I had a great childhood but I’m a typical son of immigrants and they were typical of first-generation immigrants. Their parents worked incredibly hard; bus conductors, shopkeepers, went in to the restaurant business and other things but both came here for quite different reasons, in one sense.
“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 Channi, 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 grandfather was a train conductor, so he was seen as taking that job away from a black African, a black Kenyan, so life became very difficult.
"My family was attacked a few times and there was one 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’m Scottish born, bred, raised. My primary school was 95 per cent white Scottish, there was only me and one other brown face, and so I don’t know what it is or why it is but I remember almost just literally waking up one day and wanting to ask my mum and dad why we were here, what was the background like, what was life in Pakistan like, what was life like as an immigrant? I think there comes a moment when you want to know more about it. About yourself.
“For me, I suppose that would have been more into the beginning of high school, so, yeah, adolescence but look, 9/11 was described as the day that changed the world and for me, in my small bubble, my world, it just completely changed.
“I’ll give you the most basic example. I used to sit beside the same two guys in my high school in registration class before you start all your subjects and we used to talk about the same things all normal 16-year-old boys would talk about and the day after 9/11 took place - and remember, I was watching the same images they were watching, the same horrifying pictures and broadcasts - the same guys I used to sit beside and talk to about football and all these others things, were now asking me questions I had no idea how to answer.
“They’re asking me things like, ‘why do Muslims hate America?’ It wasn’t malicious or anything, but they expected me to have the answers. I remember at that point thinking I’ve really got to learn a lot more about this.
"And that is hugely to do with how I ended up where I am today because I had to ask a lot more questions about my parents, more about their religion, more about the culture, more about their journey here.
“It’s important because you need to understand where you have come from. One of the most spiritual experiences I’ve had in my life was going back to Pakistan with my dad. I went back in 2009 and I say spiritual because I remember just actually being teary about it because I got to see the place where my grandfather was a tailor. I got to see where he would sit and sew garments, and for me, it was just a hugely spiritually uplifting moment because I’m the product of that hard work and that is why I am where I am.
"There is no way that when he was doing that – pricking his fingers, cutting himself, just doing the hard graft in the heat of the sun with no air con – could he ever imagine that his grandson would be a member of parliament, let alone a minister in government. That would have been inconceivable, but I was able to stand on the spot where he had worked and that was incredible.”
Was there a feeling that he needed to make that trip to feel complete?
“I suppose I didn’t know at the time that I was incomplete but my older sister hadn’t been back to Pakistan since 1991 and she went back last year and only then completely understood why I kept telling her to go back, because although you feel you’re complete, there’s so much more you get when you speak to your relatives, or you just even observe where Pakistan is now compared to where we are, and that journey, it was not easy.
"You talk to some of the first immigrants who came here in the 50s, even earlier than when my grandfather came here, when there were no mobile phones. You couldn’t just fire a telegram across and it would arrive the next day, you were sending your kids off and would just not hear from them for a month or two maybe, if they were taking the long journey round, so you’d just have to hope that they got there safely and they were OK when they got there.
"You know my mentor, Bashir Ahmad, he got here with literally a few quid in his pocket and a piece of paper with his cousin’s address on it, not even his first cousin, his second cousin or something, and he just showed it to a bus driver in Glasgow and had to make his own way and you know, yeah, I don’t know if I knew I felt incomplete but certainly having gone there, you feel you get a better idea of who you are.”
And who he is, is a 33-year-old MSP who joined the SNP in 2005 while studying politics at the University of Glasgow having been inspired by Alex Salmond speaking out against the Iraq war.
He says that speech, cemented further by listening to Rose Gentle talking about the death of her son, Gordon, in Iraq, was when “the penny dropped” that only independence would prevent Scotland being dragged into an illegal war. He then campaigned hard for the party at every opportunity. And when polling day in 2007 landed on the same day as his final exam, he just worked around it.
“I remember just having to cram in my studying and drinking Irn-Bru 32 to help me stay up all night. I went into my exam and when the exam finished at three or four in the afternoon, I grabbed a pile of leaflets and stood outside the polling station until it closed at 10pm. I then went straight to the count at the SECC and just watched it all unfold.
“You might remember that we had the issue with the electronic counting at the count, so we didn’t get the result until I think it was about 12 or one in the afternoon on the Friday and we found out the SNP had won. I think Alex had probably already declared it but not officially and I was just listening to the radio and every two minutes phoning people and checking in asking, ‘have we done it?’ I remember just feeling euphoric and we all went to Edinburgh to party.
“The next day, virtually, maybe not quite the next day, but days after that, I was being offered a job to work with Bashir Ahmad [the first Muslim and non-white MSP to be elected]. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do at the time and I was swithering – do I take it or do I not, but then Nicola [Sturgeon] convinced me. Really, I didn’t take much convincing that at the age of 22 that this would be a great opportunity. I was the victim of good fortune, really.”
However, Ahmad tragically and unexpectedly died of a heart attack in 2009 which had a huge impact on Yousaf.
“I don’t think I understood when Bashir was alive, the profound impact he had on my life until he passed away. I know that’s a horrible cliché and I try and avoid them but genuinely I didn’t quite understand that.
"I used to get frustrated with Bashir sometimes. We would argue quite often about different things, we’d have a different perspective. He was, after all, 40 or 50 years my senior, so we’d naturally disagree and have our ‘moments’ but the moment he passed away, I remember breaking down. This was the first time I had experienced the death of someone close to me at an age that I could understand, and it was utterly heartbreaking.
"I was with him that morning and he was fine so to then get that call from someone, and it wasn’t a particularly sensitive call either, to say, ‘look, by the way, you know Bashir has passed away and I’m in the hospital just getting the body prepped. Have you been told?’ and I was like ‘nope’. It was just awful and then I remember having to break the news to Nicola and to just make sure Peter was there with her. She was like, ‘what’s wrong’ and when I told her, oh, I still remember that noise…”
Following Ahmad’s death, Yousaf continued to work in the parliament, where he has now been a fixture for well over a decade. And it is fair to say that since his election as an MSP – the youngest ever at the time at 26 in 2011 – his rise through Scottish politics has been stratospheric. He worked as parliamentary liaison officer to Alex Salmond as First Minister who then appointed him to the role of Minister for Europe and International Development just a year after being elected. Nicola Sturgeon then made him Minister for Transport and the Islands in her ministerial team and earlier this year he was elevated to the cabinet, becoming the Justice Secretary.
He has consistently been tipped as a future leader of the party and of the country, but there has also been an underlying thread of doubt that perhaps he had been promoted too soon. But if it is any measure of how much he has grown, commentators have now stopped remarking more on his suits and eyelashes than on his politics.
It’s been a very public growing-up and at times, it’s been tough. His ‘annus horribilis’ was 2016 when both his professional and personal life appeared to be on the verge of implosion. His transport brief stuttered from one calamity to another with a particular spotlight on an underperforming ScotRail, he was exposed as having been fined by the police for driving without insurance – a moment of ignominy for any transport minister – and his marriage to SNP activist, Gail Lythgoe, ended.
Perhaps what doesn’t break you does make you and Yousaf now presents as a more humble, less impatient and more assured young man. He is also in a new relationship, is a step-dad and been promoted at work but is also battle-scarred.
“There is no doubt that 2016 was easily for me the most difficult year of my life,” he says. “We had a great election, I became a constituency MSP and I ran the Europe campaign for the SNP but there was a lot else going on. I must have dropped to about nine and a half stone, and I’m 12 now, so I was looking pretty gaunt. It was a mentally, emotionally and physically draining year and on the car insurance stuff in particular, when I figured out the mistake, it was utterly crushing. I just remember how horrific I felt, made worse by the fact that it was this genuine honest mistake because of my marriage breakdown and the paperwork being incorrectly completed by me – so hands up – but it was a really hard time.
“I had faced some negativity before but nothing as intense as what happened in 2016 and with the ScotRail issues running over a four to five-month period, it seemed to go on for ever. It’s very hard, you know, people calling for your head and all that kind of thing and it was really, really challenging. I was even getting death threats. I think honestly the only way I got through it, and I’m sorry for the clichés, but it was with the support of loved ones and colleagues.
“I remember John Swinney sending me a really nice message, I’m sure he won’t mind me saying it, he basically signed it off saying, ‘remember we all love you’. That’s a really nice thing for a fellow politician to say, and not something you’d necessarily associate with John. Though he is an extraordinarily warm person for anybody that knows him, a deeply caring individual. That message made me well up.
“Having the support of your colleagues and all of them, especially those who have been through it, telling me that when the proverbial hits the fan, it’s difficult and your opponents sniff blood, the media sniff blood, and they will go for you, but so long as you know what you’re doing is right and you know it will get you on the right path, then your colleagues will have your back utterly, totally, entirely.
“Look, if I compare it to the UK Government, they’re just constantly briefing against each other, or go back, look at the Brown/Blair era, that’s what I thought politics was. I thought when you got involved and then at a higher level, you’re going to be constantly on your guard, wondering whose knife is in whose hands, who’s gonna’ end up looking to do you over, and then I get involved and get appointed to government and I see the complete opposite.
“In the SNP you have an entire support network. We know each other’s personal difficulties, we know the challenges people are facing, we know the portfolio challenges, but we also know the personal ones. I know more about my colleagues’ personal lives than I ever thought I would because we genuinely lean on each other. It’s part of the support structure you have with your family and friends, and it’s just invaluable.”
I wonder, then, how he has personally dealt with the allegations currently facing his mentor, the former FM, Alex Salmond. And on this, Yousaf is refreshingly honest.
“Personally, heartbreaking is the right word, and without going into the veracity of what’s being said, just what has happened is personally, utterly heartbreaking, and all of us round that cabinet table, we all have personal stories of how Alex has influenced us. I don’t think anyone will feel it as much as Nicola feels it but all of us have stories to share.
"Alex’s speech is what got me into the SNP. He encouraged me to stand, in 2009 after Bashir died, he encouraged me to stand, in 2011, he gave me my first government role, he mentored me throughout that period, and there were many kindnesses he showed me and my family. Many kindnesses to us and to my community.
"If you talk to my community, the Scottish Pakistani community, about Alex Salmond, he is revered in that community. No ifs or buts about it. He would attend an event and Alex could not leave for hours because people would want pictures with him, talk to him, give him food and he was just a hero.
"So, on a personal level, it’s utterly heartbreaking but you must, we must, separate that from the due process. We’ll be judged by how that process is seen to be transparent, open and fair and holds to account, regardless of who the complaints are being made against. The seniority or the party affiliation of that person should play no part in how that due process works.”
Yousaf talks about fairness a lot and, unlike Tony Blair, he does ‘do religion’ and we discuss his faith at great length during the interview and how it guides him.
“There’s a sense of peace that I get from my faith and as difficult as the world can get, as difficult as the personal struggles can get, as challenging as international pressures can be, there’s always a place for me to go.
“I get up before sunrise every morning and it’s just me and it’s a way for me to get some inner peace from the rest of the world. People get that through meditation, I get that through both meditation and prayer and, for me, there’s a peace of mind I get before I start my day that no matter how difficult the challenges are, I feel like I’m not alone in it. There’s that personal and reflective space that I get.
“You know, when a Muslim greets another Muslim, they say As-salamu alaykum, the root word of ‘salam’ means peace, we’re literally saying to each other ‘peace be upon you’, that’s what we’re saying to each other, not what is being perceived and portrayed by those who choose to corrupt and manipulate it.
“I suppose like most religions, particularly the three monotheistic religions, there are common principles there, but I don’t think you have to be religious to believe in those principles.
“I’m certainly guided by what I’ve been taught around and, interestingly, given my current role, justice is a big part of my faith. Justice is a huge part of the faith, as is mercy, as is compassion, and again, you don’t have to be religious to believe in these – many people who aren’t religious are the best advocates of these principles and vice versa, not all those who are religious are the best at practising these.”
How has he dealt with those that attack him because of his religion?
“Look, if I’m walking with a group of white friends when we were are all in our teens and we’ve all got rucksacks, and go walking through Central Station, and I’m the only one who gets pulled over by a BTP officer, what do you think? Do you think I’m not going to be angry?
“Or if I’m coming off a flight and 99 per cent of the passengers are white and they go through the airport immigration fine but I’m the only one who’s pulled over and the officer has got the audacity to tell me it’s based on intelligence. You think I’m not going to be pissed off? Of course, I’m going to be angry.
“If I’m at a football match and somebody shouts some racist abuse towards me, you think that’s not going to piss me off when I’ve got the same coloured strip he’s got on? Of course, I’m going to be angry.
“These things, they’ve all happened to me. The question is how you direct that anger. So those who look to radicalise, they thrive on that anger, the propaganda videos that ISIS make, and before that Al Qaeda made, all had elements of ‘look what’s happening to our brothers and sisters in Palestine, look what’s happening to you at home’, they’d have videos of all that sort of stuff going on so you have a choice of directing that anger in a way that is deeply, deeply unhelpful or for me, a natural way to direct this is to stand up to it and that’s where my father played a big role in my life because he was political with a small ‘p’ and a big ‘p’, he said there is a way of dealing with this – go talk to the MP, the MSP, go challenge them, go write letters to the police, there is a way of directing it, go write to your high school teacher about this, that, and the other. He directed my anger in a really helpful way and essentially, that’s where my turn into politics began.
“But my mum, she was a real trailblazer. She’s a really strong woman – as are both my sisters – and she won’t walk by where she sees injustice. She took an estate agent to court because she was sure they weren’t letting her view a house in Newton Mearns because she was Asian. She had a suspicion because she kept phoning to view this house and was told ‘oh, you can’t, they’re on holiday’. This went on for three or four weeks and my mum really wanted to see this house and to move into Newton Mearns.
"She wasn’t getting anywhere, so my dad got a couple of his white friends to call and they got an appointment just like that. My mum went, ‘nope, there’s something going on’ and she took them to court. It was horrible, we got hate mail through the door, people at my school were shouting at me, I’m sure mum and dad got a mountain of stuff although we never really talked about it, but they eventually won the case. This was back in the ‘90s and my mum was just like ‘I’m not taking that crap’ and I am very proud of her.”
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