Edinburgh, March 28 (AFP/APP): Scotland’s parliament is set to confirm Humza Yousaf 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 two SNP rivals on 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 reforms 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 in his victory speech.
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.”
Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) will vote to confirm a new first minister later on Tuesday, with Yousaf ensured of succeeding Sturgeon given the SNP is the largest party in the devolved assembly.
He will then be sworn in at a ceremony on Wednesday, following formal approval from King Charles III — whom Yousaf wants to dislodge in favour of an elected head of state for Scotland.
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 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 settled the matter for a generation.
The Conservative government in London was quick to rebuff Yousaf’s demands for a fresh plebiscite. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman told 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,” he added.
Yousaf, who was health minister in Sturgeon’s last cabinet, narrowly topped the SNP contest with 52 percent of members’ preferentially ranked votes. 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 Scottish voters.
Another Ipsos poll conducted shortly before he was announced as SNP leader showed that half of the Scots feel that the country is heading in the wrong direction, while just a quarter feel it is heading in the right direction.
Despite winning a succession of elections under Sturgeon, the SNP also faces bitter divisions following the three-way leadership battle.
Neil Gray, the Scottish culture minister and manager of Yousaf’s election campaign, said his friend would reach out to defeated rivals Kate Forbes and Ash Regan.
“He will look to utilise the talent across the party in a big-tent approach,” Gray told Times Radio.
“In terms of what Humza will do differently, he has already said that he will be his own man. He will have his own leadership style,” Gray added.
Sturgeon’s last months in power were overshadowed by the backlash against a new Scottish 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 jail.
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 Scottish independence without London’s approval.
The twin setbacks prompted rare criticism of Sturgeon’s leadership and tactics.