Sturgeon’s shadow still looms large for Humza Yousaf

It’s been a year since Nicola Sturgeon resigned as Scotland’s First Minister, after almost a decade on the frontline of politics. At the time, I questioned what Sturgeon would be remembered for, but few of us could have predicted that within months of her departure images of a blue forensic tent outside her and former SNP chief executive Peter Murrell’s house would dominate the front pages. Whilst the Scottish leader had long been the stoic counterpart to chaos in Westminster, 2023 saw the SNP embroiled in investigations over financial irregularities and lies to journalists about the party’s membership figures. 

South of the border, Boris Johnson’s premiership was becoming ever more fragile, leading eventually to the ‘3 PMs and 2 monarchs in one year’ situation, and a soggy lettuce coming to represent Liz Truss’s catastrophic 50 days in power. Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Reagan all raised concerns that the contest to replace Sturgeon would be biassed or undemocratic, but with Yousaf eventually coming out on top, what is the state of Scottish politics now? 

Despite her resignation and clear desire to protect her personal life from the papers, there has hardly been a week since last February when Sturgeon hasn’t appeared in public. Perhaps most concerning are the emerging revelations which point to a culture of secrecy and dishonesty amongst Sturgeon’s closest allies during the pandemic, which came to light in her recent admissions to the Covid inquiry. Amidst more than five hours of questions, Sturgeon acknowledged that not only had she deleted thousands of WhatsApp messages containing important decisions about the nation’s lockdowns, but that she clearly has not listened to her advisors

A recent podcast from Tortoise described how, many years earlier, Sturgeon had failed to heed warnings about a potential conflict of interest within the party, as her husband took a leading role in the SNP. This decision has had serious repercussions – in December 2022 it emerged that Murrell had loaned over £100k to his party, whilst Sturgeon stated that constant rumours about her marriage and sexuality played a role in her return to the backbenches. As I write, reports are suggesting that Sturgeon may face police action over her misleading of the covid review. 

Consequently, it is not surprising that Sturgeon broke down in tears this month as she sat in front of the panel, admitting that she wished she had not been First Minister during the pandemic. Whilst some decried her ‘crocodile tears’, and pointed to her inability to stay in step with Westminster’s Covid rules as part of the problem, Sturgeon has evidently been wounded by attacks on her character and the repercussions of the party’s opacity. But her own burnout paled in comparison to recent claims that Sturgeon “absolutely failed” young people in Scotland, despite the SNP’s efforts to reduce child poverty and promote equality through universal baby boxes and free school meals. It is amidst these swirling rumours and vicious debates that Humza Yousaf has stepped up.

Yousaf himself remains less popular and less well-known than Sturgeon

Appearing on a recent episode of ‘Pod Save the UK’, Yousaf’s jokey banter and shared cultural references with hosts Ash Sakar and Nish Kumar gave the impression that everything in his party was under control. The First Minister’s goal of achieving a “Tory-free Scotland” was a far cry from the personal and professional priorities which dogged his first year in office. The SNP are slipping down the polls as the first UK-wide general election since 2019 looms, and Yousaf himself remains less popular and less well-known than Sturgeon. 

Humza ‘Useless’, as he has been dubbed by The Spectator, has been unable to escape the trail of problems left behind by his predecessor, from an incessant focus on another Scottish Independence referendum (despite widespread concerns about the current cost of living crisis), to former health secretary Michael Matheson’s apparent misuse of parliamentary funds and subsequent resignation. 

And Yousaf has faced personal heartache too. Despite being one of the most powerful people in Scotland, he could do nothing to ensure the safe passage of his wife’s parents, who were trapped in Gaza following Hamas’s 7th October attacks. He called for an independent Palestinian state, and for humanitarian aid to be allowed into Gaza, at a time when many Labour politicians were remaining on the fence about the conflict. Yousaf also wrote to all UK political leaders urging for an immediate ceasefire. Behind the scenes, he was facing racist abuse not only from constituents, but from X (formerly Twitter) owner Elon Musk too. He now carries a panic alarm, and there is no doubt that Yousaf’s Muslim Pakistani heritage has branded him as a target.

But he has also been applauded for his progressive stances. Whilst fellow SNP politician Kate Forbes’ religious views may have put her on the back foot with voters, and Ash Reagan quit Holyrood over the gender recognition reform bill, Yousaf has been a strong advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. But in recent days Yousaf’s commitment to gender and sexual equality has been called into question as it emerged that the First Minister met with Sir Brian Souter – a conservative known to fund evangelical organisations accused of discrimination, widespread sexual harassment, and forced adoptions. Although it appears that Yousaf was naive to Souter’s influence and direct opposition to many SNP policies enacted under Nicola Sturgeon – such as abortion clinic buffer zones – the debacle will do no favours for the FM’s public image. 

So, where does all this leave Scottish politics? It is hard to tell which way the vote will swing – particularly as Rishi Sunak is yet to set a date for the general election – but significant Labour gains are predicted across the UK. By the end of the year Yousaf may well be voted out, and a Labour majority in Scotland could be on the cards, especially after the party’s repeated by-election wins. At only 38 years old, Yousaf should have a long political career ahead, but his rift with political heavyweight Alex Salmond and previous mental health struggles may prove limiting factors. Halted building projects and staff strikes are also plaguing NHS Scotland and doubts have been raised about the SNP’s commitment to funding. Whatever happens, 2024 will be a decisive year for the SNP, as Scots turn to the polls to decide who they trust with the nation’s future. 

Image credit: New Scottish Cabinet appointed by Scottish Government, licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0, cropped from original.

Image description: Nicola Sturgeon with John Swinney and Humza Yousaf outside Bute House.