EDINBURGH: Scotland’s devolved lawmakers are set to confirm Humza Yousaf, a descendant of Pakistani immigrants, as the new first minister on Tuesday, after he narrowly won the contest to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as Scottish National Party (SNP) leader.
Yousaf beat out two SNP rivals Monday to clinch the party’s top job, vowing to rejuvenate its signature policy of pursuing independence for Scotland which has stalled in recent months.
The 37-year-old will be the youngest first minister since devolution created the Scottish parliament in 1999, and the first leader of a national UK party from a minority ethnic background.
“We should all take pride in the fact that today we have sent a clear message that your colour of skin, or your faith, is not a barrier to leading the country we all call home,” Yousaf said after winning the SNP leadership race.
He pointed to his own background — born in Glasgow, with a father from Pakistan and a mother from Kenya — and views as examples of the inclusive, socially liberal, and multi-ethnic Scotland that the SNP has promoted.
Promising to be a leader “for all of Scotland”, he pledged to “kickstart” a civic movement that would “ensure our drive for independence is in fifth gear”.
“We will be the generation that delivers independence for Scotland,” he declared in his victory speech.
Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) will vote to confirm a new first minister at lunchtime, with Yousaf ensured of succeeding Sturgeon given the SNP is the largest party.
He will then be sworn in at a ceremony Wednesday.
The seismic shift in Scottish politics follows Sturgeon’s surprise resignation announcement last month after more than eight years at the helm.
The 52-year-old said she was quitting because she felt unable to give “every ounce of energy” to the job.
But it followed a difficult period for her government, during which support for independence has slipped.
Recent surveys show around 45 percent of Scots support Scotland leaving the United Kingdom — the same tally recorded in a 2014 referendum which London insists settles the matter for a generation.
Yousaf said Monday he would continue Sturgeon’s policy of pushing the Conservative government there to allow another vote.
That was immediately rebuked in London, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman telling reporters that the new SNP leader should focus on economic and policy issues “that matter” to Scottish voters.
“That’s what the (UK) government will be focused on,” the spokesman noted.
Yousaf, who was health minister in Sturgeon’s last cabinet, narrowly topped the SNP contest with 52 percent of members’ preferentially ranked votes.
During campaigning, he argued the party needs to create a better vision for an independent Scotland.
Despite ultimately emerging victorious, he attracted criticism over his record in several roles in government.
He now faces a bigger challenge to win over the wider Scottish electorate, with a UK general election expected within the next 18 months.
According to Ipsos polling, Yousaf enjoys a favourable opinion among just 22 percent of voters.
Despite winning a succession of elections under Sturgeon, the SNP could also be in need of a boost following the divisive three-way leadership battle.
Sturgeon’s last months in power were also overshadowed by the backlash to 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 the debate raged, the UK government used an unprecedented veto to block the legislation.
The twin setbacks prompted rare criticism of Sturgeon’s leadership and tactics.