A Leadership Race Exposes the Myth of Scottish Exceptionalism

Scotland's new first minister, Humza Yousaf, is the country's first Asian leader — but progressives shouldn’t celebrate just yet

A Leadership Race Exposes the Myth of Scottish Exceptionalism
Humza Yousaf, the newly elected leader of the Scottish government, poses with his family at the Scottish Parliament on March 28, 2023, in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

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In 2016, when Humza Yousaf took his oath of allegiance in the Scottish Parliament — in both English and Urdu — he paired the kilt with a gold-embroidered sherwani, a traditional South Asian jacket. This was not the first time he had fused the two cultures with which he most identified. Ever since he used the phrase “bhangra and bagpipes” to describe his heritage and the multiculturalism of Scotland in a 2010 blog, the media have often used it to describe the politician. Bhangra is the traditional folk dance of Punjab, a region that spans both India and Pakistan, while the bagpipes are the quintessential musical instrument of Scotland.

This week, South Asians in the U.K. and elsewhere have been celebrating the ascent of Yousaf as Scotland’s first minister — the head of the devolved Scottish government. Sunder Katwala, director of the think tank British Future, called Yousaf “the history maker” on Twitter, urging that his inauguration “be recognized across the partisan divides in Scottish and British politics.”

“The Empire strikes back,” tweeted Jelina Berlow-Rahman, a human rights lawyer in Scotland. It was a historic moment for British politics, she said, given that the British-Indian Rishi Sunak became the British prime minister last year, while Sadiq Khan was reelected as mayor of London in 2021. Others pointed out that King Charles III would be inviting both a Hindu prime minister of the U.K. and a Muslim first minister of Scotland to his coronation in May.

Yousaf’s father was born in Mian Channu, a small town in Pakistan’s Punjab province, while his mother hails from Nairobi, Kenya. Both migrated to Scotland in the 1960s. In a speech given shortly after becoming the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Yousaf recalled his grandparents — Muhammad Yousaf, who worked in the Singer Sewing Machine Factory in the town of Clydebank, and Rehmat Ali Bhutta, who stamped tickets on the Glasgow Corporation Buses. “As immigrants to this country, who knew barely a word of English, they could not have imagined their grandson would one day be on the cusp of being the next first minister of Scotland,” Yousaf said. “They couldn’t have imagined, in their wildest dreams, that two generations later their grandson would one day be Scotland’s first minister.”

The leader of Scottish Labour, Anas Sarwar, is also the child of immigrants. While describing the SNP as “chaotic and divided” in a statement on Twitter, he added that it was important to reflect on the fact that Yousaf will be the first first minister from an “ethnic minority background,” calling it a “significant moment” for Scotland.

The SNP and the British government have been embroiled in a political battle over a second referendum on Scottish independence, which the SNP have promised to deliver as their flagship policy. The fact that Yousaf would now go head-to-head with Sunak in any future negotiations was an irony not lost on observers, given the two men’s family backgrounds.

“A Hindu and a Muslim are discussing the partition of Britain,” tweeted Hari Kunzru, a British-Indian novelist, recalling the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan at the hands of British colonial administrators. Anand Menon, director of the think tank UK in a Changing Europe, tweeted: “Much excitement in the family whatsapp group this morning at the prospect of an Indian and a Pakistani bringing about the partition of Britain.”

Yet if, at first glance, the result appears to be cause for celebration among Scottish progressives, there is far more cause for concern. The difficulty of the leadership battle and the narrow margins on which it was won have broken the edifice of Scottish exceptionalism — the once-popular notion that Scotland is uniquely progressive, especially compared to its neighbor to the south, and is therefore insulated from the global tilt toward the radical right. Scotland, it turns out, is no less vulnerable to those forces than the rest of the world.

Yousaf beat his primary rival, the former Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, by a mere 1,000 votes. A defeat, yes, but still a pretty strong performance for a candidate who appeared to have suddenly and spectacularly self-immolated at the very beginning of her campaign. Forbes is a member of the evangelical and anti-Catholic Free Church of Scotland, though she herself has disavowed its sectarian outlook. She quickly grabbed headlines with her hard-line socially conservative religious views: She opposes gay marriage; she believes trans women are men; sex outside of marriage is wrong; and LGBTQ+ conversion therapy should be legal if someone consents to it. These views are significantly to the right of mainstream opinion in both Scotland and the rest of the U.K.

An openDemocracy investigation found that Forbes’ first job in the Scottish Parliament had been sponsored by the evangelical lobby group CARE (Christian Action, Research and Education), which openly seeks to replicate the successes of the U.S. anti-abortion movement in the U.K. According to the investigation, “Almost 10% of her meetings as an MSP with registered lobbyists have been with representatives of ultraconservative groups, including CARE, the Evangelical Alliance and the Christian Institute.”

While the SNP has always been a big-tent party, uniting many different political persuasions behind the cause of Scottish independence, in practice it governs from the left-of-center. Yet Forbes’ statements didn’t dent her momentum in the party’s leadership contest nearly as much as had been predicted. Given that Yousaf was backed by most of the party leadership and positioned himself as the continuity candidate to his popular predecessor Nicola Sturgeon — whose surprise resignation in February kicked off the leadership process — the result was shockingly close.

That continuity might have been Yousaf’s problem. “The SNP is at least two parties — the Old SNP, and the New SNP,” a party insider, who wishes to remain anonymous, told New Lines. “The Old SNP is small-c conservative, socially. It’s rural, small town. Sturgeon was mercilessly urban, and she wasn’t afraid to show it.”

It’s no coincidence, then, that Forbes represents the rural Highland constituency of Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch in Parliament. But where the division really came to a head was over transgender rights, an issue on which Scotland looks markedly more like its English neighbor than other Western European countries. The furious culture war over the proposed Gender Recognition Act, which would allow transgender people to change their legal genders on official documents, is a distinctly British phenomenon — Ireland and Spain, for instance, have passed similar legislation without anywhere near the same degree of controversy. Though the Scottish Parliament did eventually pass the legislation last December, the debate split the country and the SNP itself down the middle. “Any time an SNP politician mentions it, we lose votes,” the party insider said. In an unprecedented move, the U.K. government has intervened to block it.

Yet the influence of Yousaf’s personal reputation cannot be discounted either. Reportedly branded a “lightweight” by senior party figures, he emerged as the front-runner largely because no other prominent minister wanted the job. His record in government has been questionable at times, and he is notoriously prone to gaffes.

The immediate practical question facing Yousaf is that of independence, which has undergone a number of setbacks in the past year — the British government has ruled out a second referendum, and an attempt to force the issue in court failed last November. These setbacks, as well as its internal divisions, have left the party’s base demoralized and without an obvious way forward on independence.

“The challenge this new SNP leader faces is trying to reenergize that base,” a senior adviser to the Yes Scotland campaign told New Lines.

“Make no mistake, the new [first minister] has his work cut out for him,” the SNP insider added. “He’s the first leader in the modern era who will have to properly confront the party’s internal dichotomy.”

In the face of these challenges, and the skepticism about Yousaf’s capacity to overcome them, British media outlets have been quick to pronounce the cause of independence “dead.” We’ve been here before, of course. When Sturgeon’s now-disgraced predecessor Alex Salmond resigned in 2014, predictions that the SNP’s demise would follow fast proved to be greatly exaggerated. An old-school political silverback with a brash and overbearing style, Salmond was too often assumed to be keeping the independence movement alive through sheer bluster and force of will. The words “cult of personality” were bandied around by the press to the point of indignity. It all looked more like wishful thinking than sober analysis, and with the same old takes being dusted off for another round, it still does. The reality, obvious not only to Scots but also to almost everyone outside of the English press, is that the “Yes” movement was always bigger than a single person. Movements almost always are. Is it bigger than a single party? Depending on Yousaf’s performance, we’ll see.

But what’s true of the independence movement will be equally true of whatever it was that Forbes was tapping into. Recent years have seen a marked rise in far-right groups like the Scottish Family Party. Scotland may so far have avoided the far-right populist phenomenon that has engulfed much of the rest of Europe, but the surprisingly strong support for Forbes highlights that the potential is there. It would be naive to think that Scotland is somehow immune.

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