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The nightmare apparent

Has Sturgeon doomed the SNP to mediocre leadership?

Artillery Row

As the SNP leadership election implodes amid allegations of vote-rigging, and the party’s Chief Executive, Peter Murrell, resigns — ostensibly over a dispute about membership numbers — front-runner Humza Yousaf keeps smiling, but for how much longer?  

Only two weeks ago, the 37-year-old was anointed as Nicola Sturgeon’s successor by his party’s elite. Even those senior figures who had until very recently harboured ambitions to become First Minister, such as Angus Robertson, lined up to sing his praises.  

“Humza Yousaf is the SNP leadership candidate with the strongest commitment to progressive values, the strongest membership backing from all levels of the SNP and is a committed team player. It has to be Humza,” declared Robertson, no doubt through gritted teeth. Robertson was once the coming man, so it must hurt to watch a much younger colleague trample his ambitions into the dirt.  

But she who must be obeyed had sent out an edict from Bute House. Humza Yousaf was the “continuity candidate”, the man trusted to take forward Sturgeon’s “progressive” agenda and complete the journey to independence.  

While Sturgeon refused to endorse Yousaf publicly, her mother was less reticent. During a campaign stop in Irvine, Sturgeon’s home town, Yousaf just happened to bump into Joan Sturgeon, who gave him a big hug for the benefit of the waiting cameras. The Sturgeons had spoken, without saying a single word.  

But who is Humza Yousaf, the grinning man-boy of a politician whose rise to the top of Scottish politics has been as effortless as his grin? 

To understand Yousaf, you have to understand Anas Sarwar, leader of Scottish Labour. It is easy to point out the similarities between the two men. They went to the same school, the fee-paying Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow, where they learned the art of debating. Both are alumni of Glasgow University where Yousaf studied politics. Sarwar, whose father Mohammed was the UK’s first Muslim MP, trod a different path and took a degree in dentistry. 

Both are sons of Muslim families who came to Scotland in the second half of the 20th century with very little and built very successful lives. And both have a surfeit of charisma, or as seasoned political commentator Kenny Farquharson wrote recently, Both have that warm twinkle that makes them particularly popular with old ladies.” 

Sarwar and Yousaf may disagree on the constitutional question, but they are remarkably alike

On paper, Sarwar and Yousaf are almost interchangeable. Brothers in arms. They may disagree on the constitutional question, but they are remarkably alike. Up to a point. There is one significant difference in their political careers which separates the man from the boy. 

Anas Sarwar may be the youngest son of a significant political figure — after a ten-year spell as a Labour MP, Sarwar senior returned to Pakistan where he was governor of the Punjab for two terms — but his political career has not been smooth sailing.  

It started well. After four years as a dentist, Sarwar replaced his father as MP for Glasgow Central in 2010 and looked set for a glittering career, only to be one of the many casualties of the 2015 general election that left Scotland with a lone Labour MP. 

Sarwar bounced back a year later when he was elected to the Scottish Parliament, and in 2017 took on left-winger Richard Leonard in a bitter leadership battle for the soul of Scottish Labour. Sarwar — once seen as the future of his party — was roundly beaten. The golden child had failed. “That is when I grew up,” he later told friends. 

Yousaf by contrast has enjoyed a seamless journey to the top of Scottish politics. Apart from a short spell working in a call centre after leaving university, he has been at the heart of the SNP his entire professional life. Initially as a parliamentary aide to Scotland’s first Muslim MSP, Bashir Amhad, then in the offices of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. In 2011, at only 26, he was elected to the Scottish Parliament. Within a year he was in government as Minister for External Affairs and International Development. Today he is a week away from becoming Scotland’s First Minister.  

During his decade-long ministerial career, he has batted away even the most trenchant criticism with his impossibly long eyelashes and a sheepish grin. Policy failures and personal gaffes alike are treated with a privileged shrug. As the SNP’s golden child and living symbol of Sturgeon’s progressive Scotland, he appears untouchable. His critics — in the nationalist movement as well as those in opposition parties — may have dubbed him Humza Useless, but the party elite are determined their boy will be First Minister.  

But does he have what it takes to lead a government burdened with deep-rooted policy challenges, from a failing health service to the highest drug deaths in Europe, while rebuilding a party that is tearing itself apart as I write? 

One former senior Scottish government minister is very clear. “If he wins, he will be an even worse First Minister than Henry McLeish,” he laughs, referring to the Labour leader who resigned in 2001 after only 13 months in office over an expenses row. “He doesn’t have the resilience or maturity required for the job.  

“Sarwar learned a hard lesson after losing to Richard Leonard. It made him a much better politician. He’s a grown up, while Humza is like a spoiled child. Everything has been handed to him on a plate.” 

Since late 2014, Nicola Sturgeon has controlled every aspect of her party and government, from policy development to campaign strategies. While her husband, Peter Murrell, was in charge of the SNP’s internal organisation, she dominated Scotland in a way no other politician has in living memory.  

In typical fashion, she has tried to control her succession by foisting Humza Yousaf on Scotland as First Minister. We are about to find out how flawed her judgement really is, because if Yousaf loses on 27 March, her legacy, already fraying, will be in tatters. If he wins, Scotland will be at the mercy of a mediocre man-child.  

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