Glasgow, Scotland – Mention the name Humza Yousaf at Silverburn Shopping Center and the response is rather muted.
While many here, in the heart of the constituency of Nationalist politician, Glasgow Pollok, support his bid to become Scotland’s next Prime Minister, few are convinced he will succeed in leading the nation to independence.
“I’m all for independence,” said Sandeep Adhikari, a 32-year-old chef at the mall, which recruits three-quarters of its staff from the local residential areas. “But it’s gotten to the point where they’re wasting their breath. Nothing happens.”
Charismatic and quick-witted, Yousaf is favored to replace Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the ruling Scottish National Party later this month following her shock resignation in February.
As a cabinet minister, the 37-year-old has had a number of tricky assignments, most recently as health secretary in charge of a crisis-plagued National Health Service (NHS) during the coronavirus pandemic.
Now SNP ringleaders believe he is the man who can hold together an increasingly unruly party – now in power for 16 years – while convincing a convincing majority of Scots to go it alone and the United Kingdom amid deepening cost-of-living crisis.
But his rise comes just as the SNP juggernaut has run into the sand.
While most Scots rejected independence in a 2014 referendum, the party’s push for self-determination was given new impetus by the 2016 Brexit vote, which forced Scotland out of the European Union along with the rest of the UK. In the EU membership poll, most Scots voted to remain in the bloc, unlike the British.
But Holyrood requires a transfer of statutory powers from Westminster to hold another vote – a request that has so far been rejected.
Under Sturgeon’s leadership, it has focused on forward-thinking policies in areas such as transgender rights and social security reform, but the big question of how it will achieve its first priority looms ever larger.
The leadership contest has exposed long-suppressed divisions within the party, raising questions about its future direction.
Yousaf has differentiated himself from his two arguably more radical rivals, the pro-business social conservative Kate Forbes and instant independence fighter Ash Regan, simply by promising more of the same.
He pledged to preserve the SNP’s “winning formula” of progressive values and urged the party to stop being obsessed with litigation. “If we build that consistent majority, then the political obstacles that stand in the way will disappear, they will disappear,” he said.
As platforms go, it’s thin stuff. But, prepared for more than a decade as a future leader and enjoying the support of the party elite, Yousaf has no intention of taking any hasty steps.
Fergus Mutch, the party’s former head of communications, believes he didn’t show his teeth in the leadership contest.
“There’s an element of being a frontrunner, trying not to stumble,” he said. “But if he thinks he has to fight for something, like social justice, oh boy, he’ll go for it.”
Having confronted racist abuse head-on throughout his career – including a highly publicized Islamophobic joke by a former Labor councilor in 2018 – the politician had said after a rally: “No one would have seen [Yousaf] under his burqa” – the SNP hopeful has developed “well-tuned moral antennae”.
Yousaf’s compelling backstory
The son of immigrants who arrived in Glasgow in the 1960s, Yousaf is a persuasive politician with a compelling backstory that can take a beating.
His father was from the town of Mian Channu in Pakistan, while his mother was born into a South Asian family in Kenya, forced to flee the country after an increase in violence against the Asian population.
Yousaf launched his campaign in Clydebank in Glasgow, where his paternal grandfather worked in a Singer sewing machine factory.
He is seen as someone who embodies radical change.
“He says radical change is what I am. It’s what I represent,” said an SNP insider in Westminster.
In interviews, he has often spoken about how 9/11 changed his world and sparked his political awakening.
He was at Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow at the time, where his classmates were asking questions such as, “Why do Muslims hate America?”
The fallout led him to learn more about his religious and cultural heritage.
In 2003, he marched in London against the United States-led invasion of Iraq.
“We joined more than two million others who took to the streets to express our anger at what was an illegal invasion based on a lie,” he later wrote.
He studied politics at the University of Glasgow and joined the SNP in 2005 after hearing an anti-war speech by former SNP leader Alex Salmond.
His beliefs were further deepened after another speech by the mother of Gordon Gentle, a 19-year-old boy from Pollok, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra. Yousaf noticed that only independence would prevent Scotland from being dragged into an illegal war.
Akhtar Khan – a Glasgow-based activist who has known Yousaf since their school days, when they played football together in Queen’s Park, and who ran into him again when they volunteered with the British charity Islamic Relief – noticed from the start that he had a knack for persuading people .
“His wit and humor helped because it made him likeable. He could attract people because they were attracted to him as a person. The rest of us were pretty in-your-face and a little too passionate.
When the SNP came to power in 2007, Yousaf worked for the late Bashir Ahmad, the first non-white Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP), who had come from Pakistan in the early 1960s and started out as a bus driver.
In the two years they worked together, Yousaf said, Ahmad became a mentor who taught him through his character, rather than telling him what to think.
Ahmad’s son, Atif Ahmad, says his father regarded Yousaf as a third son.
“He is very well mannered, a good listener, conscientious in his work. He also absorbed good advice,” he said.
When Bashir Ahmad died of a heart attack, Alex Salmond quickly recruited Yousaf as an assistant.
“The SNP could have just let Humza go,” said Atif Ahmad. “They didn’t want that to happen. They saw him as someone with talent.”
In 2011, Yousaf was elected MSP and took his oath of office in English and Urdu.
His ascent was fast, but bumpy.
As transport minister, he was fined £300 ($363) in 2016 for driving a friend’s car without insurance.
Promoted to justice minister in 2018, he sparked more controversy with his hate crimes bill, a messy piece of legislation yet to become law, the ban on “inciting hatred” sparked a rancorous debate over freedom of speech.
As health secretary, his record has once again come into question, particularly on accident and emergency waiting times.
Margaret Hay, 50, told Al Jazeera her 57-year-old sister died after waiting 10 hours in an ambulance outside a local hospital.
The pain was compounded when Yousaf’s constituency did not respond to her email messages, she said.
‘He has some explaining to do. He has been a minister for 11 years. In politics, that record eventually comes with negatives,” said Gerry Hassan, an academic and political commentator.
Hassan said the party is in a “nervous, agitated state”.
“They have had a golden generation of the SNP and they are trying to keep that story alive. His personal story is powerful, but what does he stand for?”
Scotland’s first ‘activist’ leader?
During his campaign, Yousaf promised to be the country’s “first activist”.
It is an area where he has shown commitment, particularly on refugee rights.
Roza Salih – an SNP councilor for Greater Pollok who arrived in Scotland as a refugee from Iraq in 2001 and rose to prominence as a schoolgirl campaigning against the deportations of asylum seekers – first met him at a refugee rights protest in 2015.
“He’s always turned up, always spoken,” she said.
“For many people, that comes across as leadership. People understand that they are part of the community. Humza understands people from different backgrounds. He has that understanding of people’s struggles.”
As leadership debates continued this week, support for independence across the country fell to 39 percent, according to a Sky News survey.
Back in Silverburn, it’s clear that while Yousaf is appreciated for his warmth and his fast-paced Glasgow banter, he may struggle to revive the movement on more substantive issues.
Of the many people Al Jazeera approached, only two – both SNP party members – saw independence as a realistic prospect.
Adil Arif, 33, is wary of independence because he works as a web developer for an English company.
But like many, he sees the SNP as a party that stands up for Scots and would like to see Yousaf become the country’s leader.
He is shocked by the hate Yousaf has received online.
“Racism is still a problem here,” he said. “I think if you want to change the dynamics to create a successful society, there has to be more representation.”
SNP member Scott Barclay thinks Yousaf’s strength lies in his ability to engage with people first and resist the urge to force arguments on them about the cause.
It is a counter-intuitive way of working that harks back to the approach of his former mentor, Bashir Ahmad.
Barclay has no doubt that Yousaf is the only candidate to succeed Nicola Sturgeon.
“Of all the candidates, he has the best leadership qualities,” he said. “He’s not overwhelming like other politicians.”
The 44-year-old will soon vote in the leadership election, which runs until March 27, and Yousaf can rely on his vote and many others.
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