Humza Yousaf on Monday won the race to become Scotland’s new leader, its youngest and first from a minority ethnic background, charged with reviving a faltering independence movement after Nicola Sturgeon’s long tenure.
Yousaf emerged victorious with 52 percent of Scottish National Party (SNP) members’ preferentially ranked votes, following a divisive three-way leadership battle triggered by Sturgeon’s surprise resignation announcement last month.
He is set to be sworn in as first minister on Wednesday, becoming the first ethnic minority leader of a devolved government and the first Muslim to lead a major UK party.
The 37-year-old will also be Scotland’s youngest leader, taking the helm months after Rishi Sunak became the youngest UK prime minister in modern times when he entered Downing Street aged 42.
Yousaf vowed to continue pursuing the SNP’s central policy — independence for Scotland — which Sturgeon has championed since the party lost a 2014 referendum on the issue.
“We will be the generation that delivers independence for Scotland,” Yousaf said in his victory speech, adding in subsequent interviews that he would formally request that the UK government allow another vote.
He added his “immediate priority” was protecting Scots from Britain’s cost-of-living crisis and reforming public services.
“I will aim to lead Scotland and the interests of all of our citizens, whatever your political allegiance,” Yousaf insisted, noting he would look to work “constructively” with London.
Sunak’s spokesman said the prime minister “looks forward to working with him” but ruled out granting the required permission to stage another independence vote.
– ‘Momentous’ –
Yousaf, who was health minister in Sturgeon’s last cabinet, narrowly beat finance minister Kate Forbes to become SNP leader once party voters’ second preferences had been counted.
Former minister Ash Regan finished a distant third.
Forbes, who won 48 percent of the votes in the contest, came under the spotlight for her conservative views as a member of the Free Church of Scotland, which opposes same-sex marriage and abortion.
But Yousaf, who has close ties with Sturgeon, also faced scrutiny and criticism over his record in successive roles in the Scottish government.
Sturgeon, 52, has served as first minister since November 2014 but said last month that she felt unable to give “every ounce of energy” to the job.
Congratulating Yousaf on his victory, she tipped him to be “an outstanding leader”, adding on Twitter: “I could not be prouder to have him succeed me”.
The Muslim Council of Britain called his election “momentous”.
But success is likely to be judged on his ability to further the independence movement.
Polling indicates that support has been declining after briefly spiking through last year.
Surveys show around 45 percent of Scots are currently in favour of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, the same tally recorded in the 2014 vote.
During campaigning Yousaf said the SNP needs to focus on creating a vision for an independent Scotland, and promised a civic movement to drive the campaign.
– ‘Answers’ –
Yousaf faces a challenge to win over the wider Scottish electorate, with a UK general election expected within the next 18 months.
According to Ipsos polling, he enjoys a favourable opinion among just 22 percent of voters.
The SNP has also seen a backlash over a new law allowing anyone over 16 to change their gender without a medical diagnosis.
The law would have allowed a transgender woman who was convicted of rape before she began transitioning to serve a prison sentence in a women-only facility.
As debate raged, the UK government used an unprecedented veto to block the legislation.
The UK Supreme Court last year also ruled that Sturgeon’s government could not hold a new referendum on sovereignty without London’s approval.
The devolved government in Edinburgh was created in 1999 through devolution reforms initiated by the UK government in London.
The SNP has since emerged as the dominant force in Scottish politics, drawing support away from the Labour party in particular.
But Labour is hoping Sturgeon’s departure could provide a path for a potential comeback north of the English border, that would help defeat the Conservatives in the next UK election.
“The SNP do not have the answers on the NHS or on the cost-of-living crisis,” Labour leader Keir Starmer tweeted alongside his congratulations to Yousaf.
“Only Labour can provide the change that Scotland needs,” he added.