Humza Yousaf: Scotland gets a Muslim leader in a moment of extraordinary change for British politics
Humza Yousaf’s appointment as first minister of Scotland is a historic moment for the UK. It means that, for the first time in history, the country has a Hindu prime minister in Westminster (Rishi Sunak) and a Muslim first minister in Scotland.
In his victory speech, Yousaf said:
We should all take pride in the fact that today we have sent a clear message, that your colour of skin, your faith, is not a barrier to leading the country we all call home.
On the face of it, these two men, whose families came to the UK as immigrants looking for a better life, embody the dream that, through hard work, immigrants and their children can make it to the top of society.
Similar stories are playing out elsewhere at the top level of British politics, too. Scotland’s main opposition party Labour is led by Anas Sawar, a man who is also of Pakistani Muslim heritage, as is Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London. The Westminster cabinet also has unprecedented ethnic diversity.
Many of these politicians are the children and grandchildren of immigrants who came to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s, economic migrants from former colonies like India, Pakistan and the nations of east Africa and the Caribbean, who came with little money and limited English language. This first wave of postcolonial migrants often worked in the great British industries, in factories and in mills, settling in large town and cities.
Scotland is the only western European nation to have a Muslim leader and the UK the only democracy where the children of formerly colonised people are running the country that colonised their parents’ and grandparents’ nations. The moment is monumental. UK, Scotland and indeed Ireland are all led by people from the south Asian diaspora.
It matters that Rishi Sunak has become the UK’s first prime minister of Indian descent
Both Yousaf and Sunak have credited their grandparents and parents for their work ethic, which they say has enabled them to move up Britain’s social and political hierarchy. It’s an inspiring story but perhaps one they should both reflect on now they are in power. It is perhaps harder for arrivals in today’s Britain to replicate this journey.
The ultimate stress test awaits
Though Yousaf has stated he is a practising Muslim, he is also clear that he does not believe that legislators should be led by faith in their decision-making. That said, at an event we organised at the Scottish Parliament on Muslims and the political process in Scotland when Yousaf first became an MSP, he revealed that his faith had been part of his motivation for getting into politics in the first place.
His political awakening had taken place a decade earlier in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. As he sat watching the images of the Twin Towers with classmates, they turned to ask him why Muslims hated America. That, he states, is when he realised politics mattered.
Yousaf’s faith and ethnicity had previously been rarely commented on in Scottish politics. Indeed, it is rare to hear him described as a “Muslim minister” or “British Asian MSP”. The same applies to others who have preceded or followed him and is a measure of how far the UK has come with regards to minorities in public life.
During the SNP leadership contest, however, Yousaf’s absence from a vote on equal marriage for same-sex couples was questioned and linked to his faith and standing in the Glasgow Pakistani community. The allegation was that he did not want to vote in favour of this legislation for fear of alienating that community.
A spokesperson for Yousaf’s campaign responded by saying that he “unequivocally supports equal marriage” and that his absence from the vote was due to “an extremely important engagement which involved trying to secure the release of a Scottish national sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan”.
It is important to note that neither Yousaf or Sunak have yet faced the real stress test. They both became leaders on the back of a closed party selection process so have not yet had to stand as a leader in a public election.
That will be the real measure of how accepting the wider British public is of the changing face of national politics. It remains to be seen whether their ethnicity becomes a factor in the public debate around their politics.
Both Yousaf and Sunak seem keen to keep their faith in the private sphere, which is expected in British politics. Former prime minister Tony Blair’s team famously lived by the mantra “We don’t do God” when it came to avoiding discussions about his Christianity.
The class caveat
Yousaf’s politics couldn’t be more different from Sunak’s. He is firmly left of centre on immigration, welfare and taxation. This reminds us that the ethnic minority political identity is not uniform, although for years parties on the left took the minority vote for granted.
Today ethnic, religious and cultural diversity is reflected across the political spectrum. It is possible to reach the top whatever your political identity.
But it should be noted that less has changed when it comes to educational and social background. Yousaf’s father was an accountant. Sunak the son of a doctor and a pharmacist. Both men went to private school. They were part of a generation of immigrants who were able to come to the UK and make a better life for themselves.
Politics continues to be dominated by the privately educated. Class is the true divide in British politics, whatever colour rosette a candidate wears.