Journey of discovery: interview with Humza Yousaf
Transport Minister Humza Yousaf has thrown off the pressure of being a ‘rising star’ in the SNP to emerge a stronger, happier man with an exciting but challenging portfolio
Humza Yousaf - image credit: David Anderson
Humza Yousaf can vividly recall his reaction when Nicola Sturgeon told him he would be Scotland’s next transport minister.
“You probably couldn’t print it,” says Yousaf, thinking back to the torrid headlines his predecessors have faced over the years.
“After I uttered a few profanities, she said: ‘Funny, that’s exactly what Derek Mackay said’.
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“Being transport minister does not make you the most popular person in the world, and you just have to look at my Twitter feed on most occasions to see that.
“But it comes with the territory as public expectations are very high, and rightly so. It is also one of those jobs where not everything is within your control.
“But once you’ve gone through a storm, and I have faced one or two, it actually makes you stronger.
“I have never had an appreciation as much as I do now for the saying, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.”
Yousaf comes across as a confident man about town, often immaculately dressed in a three-piece suit with an easy smile and snappy handshake, but there is also a self-confessed vulnerability about him.
He is uneasy talking about his private life, but frank about his personal shortcomings, and he is also open about his own perceived limitations as a politician.
His recent divorce from SNP activist Gail Lythgoe made him reassess his work-life balance and he admits that he struggled throughout his first months as transport minister.
But it takes a certain inner confidence to own up to feeling overwhelmed in a parliament full of predators on the lookout for the first sign of weakness.
First elected in 2011 at the age of just 26, he had to face the challenges of early adulthood in public and there is now a sense that he is donning the personal and political armour that could see him carry on in public life for as long as he desires – however long that may be.
“Politicians have a short shelf life, maybe 20 years if you want to and you’re really lucky – some might say that’s unlucky actually – so you’ve got to make the best of it in the time you have,” he says.
While transport can feel like a poisoned chalice it is often the springboard to greater things. Past transport ministers went on to become party leaders, while Yousaf’s most recent SNP predecessors, Keith Brown and Derek Mackay, now share the responsibility of managing Scotland’s economy in the cabinet.
“It either makes you or breaks you and I am pleased to say that for most people, it has been the making of them,” says Yousaf.
“There might be a target on my back, or not, but in transport you always have to be managing and putting out fires. You’ll do some stuff proactively but of a lot of it will be reactive, and a lot of it will be quite personal so you’ve got to develop a thick skin.”
For Yousaf, his biggest challenge – and biggest personal achievement – was turning round ScotRail’s plummeting performance figures while also weathering a number of personal, political and meteorological storms.
“It felt like everything that could go wrong did go wrong in the space of about three months,” he says.
“We had a breakdown at Haymarket, and incidents with overhead cables, and it just seemed like week after week, there was one thing after another.
“For the first time in my political career, which has been relatively short, I even began to question myself, which is quite a frank admission.
“But I have very strong colleagues around me and the support you get from colleagues gives you a bit of perspective, and makes you realise you just have to roll your sleeves up and get on top of it, with your colleagues standing right behind you, and now ScotRail’s performance has really turned a corner and is absolutely going in the right direction.
“I’m incredibly impressed with the new managing director, Alex Hynes. I think he understands where some of the shortcomings of the organisational structure are, he is very experienced, he knows how to deal with Network Rail, and he’s not averse to taking advice as well as drawing on his own experience.
“The big gamechanger for ScotRail is going to be the new rolling stock. Once you get the new 385s coming in, and the high-speed trains which will connect all seven cities, people are really going to see a difference in their journey.”
The Scottish Government is currently laying the groundwork for a public sector ScotRail bid when Abellio’s ten-year contract runs out in 2025, or even sooner if the five-year break clause is activated.
“The 2020 break clause could be Abellio handing back the keys or us taking back the keys if Abellio falls below certain thresholds on performance and financial viability,” he says.
“But I have to say, having a public sector bidder ready for 2020 would be hugely, hugely ambitious. One of the unions said to me, ‘do this right, don’t do it rushed’.
“That discussion will take place in a couple of years’ time, but I am very confident in Abellio’s ability to continue to improve performance and deliver the best railway that Scotland has ever had.
“But equally, Abellio could decide not to carry on, and goodness knows what will happen in UK politics if Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister in the general election, which could happen at any time. If the legislation around UK ownership changes, we would have to examine that and I don’t know how seriously train companies are taking that.
“We should get a public sector bidder up and running as soon as possible, and we also have arrangements for what you might call an operator of last resort, but I am very confident that Abellio will continue to provide a very good service for the remainder of the contract – if that is what they wish to do.
“Some of the attacks on Abellio have been downright disrespectful, bordering on xenophobic.
“I’ve not held back on my criticism of one video by the TSSA union which made fun of every Dutch stereotype.
“There is an argument for public sector bidders. I’m sure there’s an argument for nationalising the railway, which the opposition has called for, but I don’t agree with wholesale nationalisation and we don’t have the powers to do it. But make the argument using the power of persuasion, not with personal attacks and stereotypes.”
Yousaf is no stranger to xenophobia as a Muslim of mixed Asian and African descent, and he has some sympathy for Holyrood’s only other minority ethnic MSP – Labour’s Anas Sarwar, who has just come out of “the dirtiest election campaign for many years”, according to Yousaf.
The pair have a common background, most notably as former pupils of Hutchesons’ Grammar School which has prompted considerable criticism of Sarwar after he decided to send his own children there.
Yousaf said: “I’m never disparaging of my parents for sending me to a private high school, it was their choice, I didn’t have any say in it and I suspect Anas didn’t have any say in it either, or (fellow Labour leadership candidate) Richard Leonard, for that matter, who also went to private school.
“I don’t have children myself at the moment, but that is a decision parents will make and I won’t personally attack parents for making that decision.”
However, he said it is “absolutely right” that the charitable status of private schools is reviewed.
“Our function in government is to make our state schools the best they possibly can be and the number-one priority in that is the reduction in the gap of equality, and that is where our focus should be.”
Yousaf expects to make an announcement on a ScotRail public vehicle “in the not too distant future”, with ferry operator David MacBrayne, Glasgow transport operator SPT and Edinburgh Council-owned Lothian Buses, amongst the possible candidates.
Lothian Buses is already being lined up to bankroll an extension to the already hugely expensive Edinburgh tram line, which is currently the subject of a public inquiry and is still viewed with suspicion by the SNP.
“Edinburgh City Council has given me an update on their tram extension proposal, but obviously, it is a matter for them to take forward,” says Yousaf.
“I understand why they want to get the ball rolling but before it rolls too far, I have suggested they wait until after the tram inquiry, because there may be some good lessons for us all to learn from – and for them to learn from in particular.”
Yousaf is also cautious about another hangover from the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat administration at Holyrood, a plan to connect Glasgow Airport to the rail network.
“There is still some work to be done on the Glasgow Airport Access Project,” he says.
“It could have an impact on other services in Ayrshire and Inverclyde, and there could be costs in areas that they haven’t taken cognisance of.
“I commissioned an independent study of the outline business case, and I’ve had the report back so I should be able to comment on it in the not too distant future.
“But all that being said, I am positive about finding a solution to the airport access project. It just can’t come at additional cost to the Scottish taxpayers who have already put in a lump sum for city deal projects.
“If there is an increase in the cost, and then that is managed by the partners, and if the consequences of the impact it could have on other rail networks are also mitigated, then there is no reason why it shouldn’t go ahead.”
Yousaf also hopes to make an announcement soon on the future of Prestwick Airport, which the Scottish Government bought for £1 in 2013 to prevent its financial collapse, and is now being touted as a possible spaceport or logistics hub for London Heathrow.
“I think Prestwick has a good future,” he says.
“UK Transport Minister John Hayes has given me a briefing on the UK Government’s space plan, which is confidential, but I’m pretty excited that it could put Scotland and the UK in a position for space exploration that we have not been at before.”
He added: “There are positive discussions on a buyer, which I can’t say much more about, but we are very close, touch wood, to a positive outcome on Prestwick.”
One SNP policy which could make Prestwick more competitive is the abolition of Air Departure Tax (ADT), but this has been postponed amid concerns it could be “catastrophic” for the highlands and islands, as Inverness Airport may lose its air tax discount due to complex EU regulations that could apply after devolution.
“We certainly won’t leave the highlands and islands worse off…but at the same time, we have made a commitment to airlines and there is a lot of interest in further investment in Scotland if that cut was to go ahead,” he said.
The SNP has also drawn criticism from the left for proposing a tax cut for the jet set while discussing an income-tax rise for Scottish residents.
“I really hate that argument,” says Yousaf. “I find it really offensive to suggest that people on a lower socio-economic demographic don’t go on holiday and wouldn’t benefit from a cut in ADT.
“But there is a valid discussion to be had about emissions, as there is no doubt that cutting ADT will increase your aviation emissions, but we have been told by the independent Climate Change Committee that you can offset that if we work hard in other areas.”
Glasgow will become the first city to introduce low emission zones next year, with other cities to follow in the years ahead, a plan which also has its critics.
“Frankly, opponents are going to have to get on board because the health benefits speak for themselves,” says Yousaf.
“We will work closely with the city council and stakeholders, but these are coming in, make no bones about it, and we’ve got to make them work for our cities.”
The SNP also has plans to make Scotland’s longest road, the A9, an ‘electric highway’ with charging points along the way, while there are a number of other high-tech and low-tech solutions going on around the country such as a hydrogen-powered bus fleet in Aberdeen, liquid natural gas-powered ferries, support for the uptake of electric cars and more funding for active travel.
So there is plenty on Yousaf’s plate, but after the last few years he is determined to ensure he does not let it all get on top of him.
“The mistake I have made previously has been throwing myself into my work without regard to the consequences that would have on my personal relationships, whether that was my marriage or even other relationships with family,” he says.
“Sometimes you learn that lesson only when it is too late. My marriage broke down for a number of reasons which I don’t need to go into. It ended amicably between Gail and I…but certainly one of the issues, which is entirely my fault and not Gail’s in the slightest, was paying too much attention to my work without realising the impact that had.
“If I look at my personal life, I’m in a happier place now than I have been in a long, long time, with no disrespect to my previous partner at all, but simply that I have managed to get my priorities in a much better place now.”
Yousaf also has an ongoing admiration for his former mentor, Alex Salmond, despite the former first minister’s decision to host a talk show on controversial Russian state broadcaster, RT.
“I have only got the highest regard for Alex and what he has done for Scotland and our movement, but it wouldn’t necessarily have been my first choice of channel,” says Yousaf.
The Glasgow MSP is frequently tipped as a future first minister, but he has urged political punters not to waste their money.
“I genuinely find it bizarre when people tip folk,” he says.
“Politicians and political correspondents are a very fickle bunch, and people have been tipping me to be leader and all this other stuff, frankly, since I entered politics. Why? Based on what? Based on a couple of good speeches or a couple of good performances on Question Time? That does not a good leader make, and you need many more qualities to be a good leader.
“Where I am asked to serve, I will serve, and if Nicola asked me to do another job tomorrow, I would do it without question and get on with it. That is our job, we are here to serve the public as best we can.
“Transport minister is, frankly, bloody stressful enough, let alone any other job that carries even more weight and even more responsibility.
“If I have learned one lesson over the last five years, it is to dedicate more time to the ones that you love.
“If I’m a tip then I would put my money on the other options.”
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