Under Humza Yousaf, the Scottish National Party Has a Choice Between Revival and Decline

Humza Yousaf narrowly won the SNP leadership contest against a conservative challenger. If Yousaf doesn’t follow through on the left-wing policies in his campaign agenda, his party and the wider cause of Scottish independence faces decline.

Newly appointed leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Humza Yousaf, speaks following the SNP Leadership election result announcement at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh on March 27, 2023. (Andy Buchanan / AFP via Getty Images)

Yesterday, Humza Yousaf narrowly beat Kate Forbes in the race to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the SNP. Today, Yousaf is being confirmed as Scotland’s sixth first minister since the dawn of devolution twenty-four years ago and its first from an ethnic minority background.

The new leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) — and of Scotland — is a thirty-seven-year-old Muslim, a self-described “republican” and “socialist” whose primary political objective is the break up of the British state. Under his leadership, the SNP and the wider cause of Scottish independence faces a stark choice between revival and decline.

Down to the Wire

Yousaf’s grandparents arrived in Scotland from Pakistan in the 1960s. His father, an accountant, became an SNP activist on the south side of Glasgow. Yousaf was sent to an elite Scottish private school — Hutchesons’ Grammar — in the 1990s and studied politics at Glasgow University, where he agitated against the war in Iraq and for Palestinian independence.

The symbolic power of the moment was not lost on Yousaf in his acceptance speech:

As Muhammad Yousaf worked in the Singer Sewing Machine Factory in Clydebank, and as Rehmat Ali Bhutta stamped tickets on the Glasgow Corporation Buses, they couldn’t have imagined, in their wildest dreams, that two generations later their grandson would one day be Scotland’s first minister.

And yet, for all the apparent potency of Yousaf’s candidacy — Scotland’s population is more than 95 percent white — the race was far closer than it should have been.

When the leadership results were tallied on Monday, Yousaf had edged out Forbes by less than three thousand votes. A third of the SNP’s seventy-thousand-strong membership didn’t vote at all. After the redistribution of Ash Regan’s third-place ballots, the percentage breakdown was 52 to 48 percent in Yousaf’s favor — an ill-fated figure in British political numerology.

Right-Wing Revolt

Yousaf’s victory staved off an unexpectedly forceful right-wing revolt. He was the overwhelming favorite of the party hierarchy and had the support of SNP legislators in Edinburgh and London, as well as the tacit approval of Nicola Sturgeon herself — who remained officially neutral throughout the contest.

Forbes, meanwhile, seized on her status as a political outsider. Her most enthusiastic backers were Blairite commentators — the New Statesman’s Chris Deerin issued one oddly breathless endorsement after another — and sections of Britain’s reactionary press. Forbes claimed to be the candidate for “change,” while Yousaf promised Sturgeonite “continuity.”

And the strategy very nearly worked. The SNP considers itself a party of the center left, but it also desperately wants to win elections (or to go on winning elections: it has been in power at Holyrood for the past sixteen years). The crux of Forbes’s campaign pitch was that she was better placed than Yousaf to convert conservative and unionist Scots to the independence cause. A surprisingly large chunk of the SNP’s base agreed.

Had she won, however, the party might well have split. Forbes is a member of the fundamentalist Free Church of Scotland. Her hard-line social views on abortion and trans rights echo what the late Tom Nairn once called the “rough-hewn sadism” of the SNP’s provincial, traditionalist wing. Under her leadership, urban millennials would have fled — and taken their disproportionately high levels of enthusiasm for Scottish self-government with them.

But by electing Yousaf, the SNP — after a decade and a half of incumbency — has given itself a shot at progressive reinvention.

Yousaf’s Agenda

During the five-week election campaign, as Forbes railed against Scotland’s “over-regulated” economy, Yousaf rolled out a raft of reforming social democratic policies, including the introduction of windfall taxes, wealth taxes, and the public ownership of Scottish renewables. His inaugural act as first minister, he told the Daily Record on March 26, would be to convene a summit of anti-poverty organizations in Edinburgh.

To this ostensibly left-wing agenda, Yousaf added flashes of populist rhetoric. In February, he warned Forbes against a “foolish” lurch to the right that would cede vital electoral ground to Keir Starmer’s resurgent Labour Party. In March, he said he wanted to ditch the British monarchy — the SNP’s current policy is to retain Charles III as Scotland’s head of state after independence.

There are the stirrings of a semi-radical platform here, anchored in Yousaf’s stated willingness to use the economic powers of the Scottish Parliament to their fullest extent. Crucially, unlike Forbes, Yousaf will also honor Sturgeon’s coalition arrangement with the Scottish Greens, which means maintaining the current pro-independence majority at Holyrood and bolstering demands for an accelerated Scottish transition to net zero.

But there are reasons to be wary, too. First off, Yousaf is Sturgeon’s heir, and Sturgeon, above all, was a gifted manipulator of Scottish public opinion who regularly gestured at social change but never delivered on her transformative potential.

The statistics tell their own story. At the start of her first ministerial tenure in 2014, child poverty rates in Scotland stood at 24 percent. Last week, as she prepared to exit Bute House, child poverty rates in Scotland still stood at 24 percent. Sturgeonism was a political management project cloaked in a careful performance of social concern.

Likewise, despite his youth, Yousaf is a long-term career politician who has been active in the upper echelons of the SNP for more than a decade. He worked as a parliamentary aide at Holyrood before being elected as an MSP, at the age of twenty-five, in 2011. He then became a junior minister in Alex Salmond’s second administration in 2012.

After that, Yousaf climbed the ranks of the Scottish cabinet, rising from Europe minister in Sturgeon’s government to health secretary in the space of seven years. Nothing in his professional biography indicates a willingness to meaningfully challenge the Scottish political order.

New Generation, New Challenge

Instead, Yousaf’s first task will be resetting the SNP after a stinging succession battle. The narrowness of the result has revealed the scale of the party’s internal cultural fissures. For the first time since the 1970s and ’80s, Scottish nationalism has an identifiable “left” and an identifiable “right.”

Forbes’s hostility toward “woke” politics and her deregulatory economic vision now have a visible foothold inside the movement and could serve as a disruptive counterweight to Yousaf’s — already imperfect — political authority in the months ahead. The rank-and-file demand to reinvigorate an independence campaign that looks increasingly marooned may compound the sense of crisis.

One of the interesting features of Sturgeon’s resignation is that it has abruptly — and, perhaps, prematurely — ushered in a new generation of nationalist leaders. Yousaf is not yet forty. Forbes is thirty-two. The SNP’s leader at Westminster, Stephen Flynn, is thirty-four. His deputy, Mhairi Black, is twenty-eight.

This is a cohort of Scots that grew up after the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and shares an instinctive belief in the inevitability of Scotland’s independence. They watched as the SNP surged from strength to strength, first under Salmond and then under Sturgeon, insouciantly defeating its unionist rivals from one election to the next.

There will be nothing insouciant about the Yousaf era for the SNP. Whatever the optics, however pleasing, it will be an era of revival or decline.