When I was growing up near Glasgow in Scotland in the 1990s, I remember telling my mother than I was interested in politics. She looked absolutely mortified. “Are you mad?… politics – especially here in Scotland is not for people like us. Now go upstairs and study to become a doctor. Idiot.” And here we are 30 years later. The SNP has elected Humza Yousaf to be their new leader which means he becomes Scotland’s eighth First Minister and the first ethnic minority Muslim leader.
It feels like a big moment not just for Scottish politics but for representation across the UK, with Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister, Sadiq Khan as London Mayor and his chief rival, Anas Sarwar – leader of the Labour party in Scotland, who is also Muslim. Sarwar and Yousaf also went to the same private school in Glasgow (Hutchesons’ Grammar) with people already joking that it’s the new Eton of Scottish politics.
My social media timeline is already full of people raging at the fact that I pointed this fact out. “Why does his skin colour even matter?” It matters because it tells a story about how Scotland has changed from when I was growing up. I am as proud and interested in Yousaf’s back story as I am in Sadiq Khan’s or Rishi Sunak’s. There is great endeavour in the journey of immigrant families who came to this country with a suitcase, a couple of quid and little English, who suffered discrimination but worked hard and who have seen their children rise. I found it moving when Yousaf paid tribute to his grandparents – from the Punjab to leading the Scottish Parliament. I find that story more interesting than lets say someone whose parents were wealthy, established and politically and socially well connected.
Smashing a glass ceiling may be historic and merits positive acknowledgment, but having won power, Yousaf will be judged on what he does with it.
His result was not a decisive win with Kate Forbes running him a close second with that fabled statistic 52:48. Re-run anyone? That means he leads a party which is divided and interestingly not just on the question of independence. Ironically there was consensus between Yousaf and Forbes that progress on independence had stalled under Sturgeon and that the whole project needed a reboot.
The differences lay in social, “jiggery wokery” issues like the highly controversial gender reform legislation which Forbes opposed. It will be interesting to see how Yousaf navigates these tensions between older women in the SNP and younger more progressive members and the Greens. Will he want to pursue the court battle with the UK Government over their Section 35 blocking order?
All these divisions along with the fact that he hasn’t got a particularly strong record as a Minister – brutally laid bare by Kate Forbes – means that the Labour Party is feeling very happy right now. This is their perfect outcome. The continuity candidate winning by a narrow margin with a divided party and no clear answers on independence is a result for them.
With Nicola Sturgeon as leader, any chance of a revival for Scottish Labour seemed impossible even though Sarwar is a much more accomplished leader than recent figures who have been pretty hopeless. Sturgeon’s shock departure gives Labour their best chance of making progress since the wipe out of 2015 where Labour lost all its MPs bar one – Ian Murray.
Optimistic projections had Labour picking up 10 Westminster seats. This could now increase to around 20. The SNP may well still be the largest party in Scotland but those extra seats could help Keir Starmer get a majority as Prime Minister which is crucial for him.
But there is no room for complacency. It’s a cliché but it’s deadly serious for Labour. Labour is picking up support from disillusioned Tories but their big challenge is to win over soft independence supporters. Labour has to send a signal that it doesn’t despise anyone who has ever flirted with independence or denounce them as stupid or inferior. I think Sarwar gets that. Instead of making everything about the constitutional question, it should focus on what’s best for Scotland.
The fact that many people have cooled on independence presents a big opportunity for Labour. At the final hustings for the SNP race last week in Edinburgh, many of the audience told me that they still wanted Scotland to be independent one day, but they didn’t think now was the right time and they wanted to focus on competence plus improving the economy and public services.
That should all be good news for Labour provided it doesn’t alienate these people. The only fly in the ointment for Labour was that a number of people told me that even though they didn’t love the idea of independence, they were going to stick with the SNP because they’re the only pro-EU, anti-Brexit option in Scotland. There are still a lot of people are also still very wary of Labour and felt that they really let them down when they were in government.
There’s no doubt that the end of Sturgeon provides a fresh chapter for Scottish politics and an opportunity for Labour but they shouldn’t think anything is in the bag.