Politics

Humza Yousaf on working with Labour, multiculturalism's success and calling for a Gaza ceasefire

Nine months into the job, the first minister of Scotland reflects on the challenges facing the UK

Humza Yousaf

Scotland's First Minister Humza Yousaf in conversation with Big Issue Editor, Paul McNamee. Image: ©Exposure Photo Agency Ltd

Humza Yousaf is one of Britain’s most pivotal politicians. As first minister of Scotland, how he leads in the coming months will have a very real impact on the independence issue. And that has ramifications beyond the future of the union with England and the make-up of Britain, to a potential acceleration of other global secession movements. The road ahead is bumpy.

He took over in March after his predecessor and mentor Nicola Sturgeon left in a hurry. The day before her resignation, 14 February, Yousaf, then Scotland’s health secretary, had no idea of what was to come. At around 9.45pm that night, he says, “I got a call from Nicola, and she tells me she’s going to resign the next day. I was shocked.” He won the run-off election, beating former finance minister Kate Forbes by 52%/48%, to become the first Muslim child of immigrants to be leader of a UK nation. “It is absolutely a vindication of the immigrant’s story. For those people who say that multiculturalism has failed I say, well, no.” 

The Labour surge in other parts of the UK hasn’t translated heavily into polling in Scotland… yet. A recent Ipsos poll found SNP at 40%, 5% below the vote share they secured in the 2019 Westminster election; but the headwinds are tricky. The police inquiry into Sturgeon and her husband, former SNP chief exec Peter Murrell, over party funds continues to cast a shadow. Scottish schools are slipping down international league tables. The health system, devolved in Scotland, faces similar pressures to the rest of the UK, but failings can’t be laid at the door of the Westminster government. 

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There are issues around missing/deleted WhatsApp messages that the Covid Inquiry requested and took much time to receive, making it difficult for the SNP government to retain moral high ground in the face of the Tory Covid behaviour. There is an ongoing scandal over expenses with health minister Michael Matheson. Recently, a diplomatic row broke out over Humza Yousaf meeting Turkey’s president Erdoğan at the COP28 summit without British government oversight. He was slapped down and Westminster threatened to close Scottish diplomatic offices around the globe. The upcoming Scottish budget will be one of the most fiscally difficult ever. 

It’s been a “challenging” time for the SNP in recent months, he concedes. 

THE BIG ISSUE: What is the one thing that has surprised you about being first minister that, despite years in politics, you didn’t see coming? 

HUMZA YOUSAF: I did not expect the level of interest that people in the public have about you as an individual. I’ve been in various different roles, and although there’s interest, this is on a different scale, where people will stop, be it in the supermarket or at the park with your family. Most of it will be nice. The ones that I find funniest are the people that don’t think you can see them when they’re taking photos. 

Was impact on family a concern in the decision to run? 

I made a pros and cons list, which I’ve kept actually. On the cons it’s family intrusion – not just family intrusion, but what it means to your family. I’ve got two kids who are at really important stages of life. I’ve got a four-year-old, and she needs me. I’ve got 14-year-old – at that time, she was 13 – and that’s a really important stage in her life and her development. And I’m a hands-on dad. So seeing [being first minister] first hand, there was a real question mark about whether to go for it or not. 

You have a long-term personal commitment to fighting homelessness – you’ve sold The Big Issue during one of our sell-off events in the past. As leader, what will you now do to really get to grips with the problem?  

If you’re not going to address poverty, then you’re not going to be able to address the homelessness issue. So of course, we’re going to continue to build homes, and of course we’re going to make sure they’re available not just for the social rented sector, but build council homes as well. 

We’ll do what we do around Housing First. We’ll take forward the recommendations of the [Homelessness Prevention] Task and Finish Group around homelessness. All of that is going to be done. But if you don’t tackle the underlying and systemic issues of poverty, then all of that can be well and good, but it won’t address the underlying fundamental problem that will continue to contribute towards homelessness.  

We will be a government that will be focused on driving down poverty, and I can’t eradicate it at the moment, I’m afraid, given the limitations of our powers. This is not to pass the buck because we have responsibility. But the UK government’s atrocious mishandling of the economy has undoubtedly driven people further into poverty. What we’re trying to do through Social Security Scotland, through the additional benefits that you get only here in Scotland, such as the Scottish child payment and
others, is deal with underlying causes.  

How does the proposed council tax freeze help deal with underlying poverty?  

In my surgeries in the last year in particular I’ve seen people who’ve come who’ve never come in before, people on above average salaries who need to ask advice. So we’re choosing to spend to help those in in-work poverty, while social security measures are targeted to those who are the poorest in society. This year alone we’re estimating our measures are helping lift 90,000 children out of poverty. 

But if you freeze council tax that stops vital services at local level. And at some point to get money back you’ll have to bring in an even bigger hike later. 

We will speak to local authorities. We’ll fully fund the council tax freeze. Let’s make sure that we are working to give local government the settlement they need in order to provide the local services that they require to do so. So that’s a conversation that’s very much ongoing. So let’s speak to COSLA about what the landing zone on the council tax freeze looks like. None of us could have envisioned the absolute nightmare that would have ensued after Kwasi Kwarteng and Liz Truss’s dreadful mini-budget – what that was going to do to energy prices, inflation, people’s weekly shop. I’m certainly not the only one who’ll see people who, at any other time, on a decent enough salary to get by on are really struggling.  

The Tories as the fountainhead of all that is wrong is an SNP shibboleth. Humza Yousaf isn’t shy in voicing his disdain in what he describes as “that mob down there”. He says, “I don’t get much back. I found them incredibly difficult.” If he had full powers of monetary levers, he’d get rid of the two-child limit on child benefit, he’d scrap the bedroom tax and reform the benefit system so it doesn’t, he says, view people with suspicion but help the majority who need it as a “safety net”. He condemns the Tories’ “completely degrading and debasing debate around migration”. Labour under Keir Starmer also gets a sharpener. He won’t need to win Scotland to be PM, says Yousaf, “but he’ll need us to keep him honest”. 

Humza Yousaf reads The Big Issue
Scotland’s First Minister Humza Yousaf reads his favourite magazine. Image: ©Exposure Photo Agency Ltd

And your relationship with Rishi Sunak

It’s a professional relationship.  

Do you get on with any senior members of the current Conservative cabinet? 

[Laughs] I don’t think every single Conservative politician is a terrible individual by any stretch of the imagination. There’ll be plenty there who, you know, show good service to their country. 

Like who? 

The late James Brokenshire was somebody I worked with when I was justice secretary and he was security minister, and even though we had disagreements he was doing things for the right reasons. I had a good conversation with Michael Gove about community tensions on the back of Israel/Gaza. I am happy to work with whoever in the interests of Scotland. 

While there is no mutual admiration between Holyrood and Westminster administrations, Humza Yousaf was applauded by watchers beyond Scotland for his approach in the immediate aftermath of the Israel/Gaza situation, following the Hamas attacks on 7 October. Yousaf’s mother-in-law and father-in-law were trapped in Gaza as Israeli bombings began in response to Hamas. Yousaf’s calm, even-handedness in his response at a very difficult personal moment saw him lauded for a statesman-like reaction. He condemned Hamas while asking for sympathy for Palestinians under bombardment, and ultimately calling for a ceasefire. His in-laws subsequently secured passage into Egypt.  

Speaking on this issue I can’t tell you how many thousands of emails I’ve had. People want their leader to speak about it. They see the inhumanity on their screens, and they want somebody to be speaking and engaging on it. I was probably one of the only, if not the only person calling for a ceasefire a number of weeks ago. My position is absolutely we need a ceasefire, but more than that we need long lasting peace. As somebody who is interested in Israel’s peace and security, this level of targeting civilians is not going to make your country safer. But the family period for that four weeks was probably the most difficult of my life, and my wife’s life, I suspect. 

The key question for many in and out of Scotland is when are you going to call for another independence referendum? 

I want the decisions about this country made by the people who live here. Unfortunately, it’s not in my gift to give people a referendum. Because the Scottish parliament, as we know, doesn’t have the power to bring forward a referendum bill – the Supreme Court made that pretty clear. It’s a reserved power, so it’s in the hands of a UK government. And I would be willing to work with any Labour government on that very issue. 

So, are you ready to take forward a referendum bill within the lifetime of this Scottish parliament? 

If the UK government said to me today that I’ve got the power to hold a referendum I’d hold one. Not quite tomorrow, but I’d hold one as soon as possible. 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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