SNP leadership election: who is winning candidate Humza Yousaf? Political views and career explained

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Humza Yousaf beat Kate Forbes and Ash Regan to become the next leader of the SNP.

Humza Yousaf has been announced as the winner of the SNP leadership election and is set to replace Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister of Scotland.

The former Health Secretary beat his main rival Kate Forbes with 52.1% of first and second preference votes compared to her 47.9%, while outlying candidate Ash Regan secured 5,599 first preference votes. Tomorrow (28 March), he will face a vote at Holyrood before being formally confirmed as First Minister.

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After the results were announced, he told the audience in Edinburgh: “It is hard for me to find the words to describe just how honoured I am to be entrusted by our membership of the SNP to be the party’s next leader and to be on the cusp of being our country’s next first minister.”

He also said that his grandparents, who arrived in Scotland in the 1960s barely able to speak a word of English, would not have believed “in their wildest dreams” that their grandson would one day be set to become First Minister of Scotland. Yousaf said his victory - in becoming the first Muslim leader of one of the UK’s devolved nations - was a reminder to “celebrate the contribution of migrants”.

The 37-year-old was the bookies’ favourite to win throughout the majority of the contest, seen by many as the most experienced candidate having held various high-profile positions in the Scottish Government. He faced criticism over NHS Scotland's performance during his tenure as Health Secretary, as well as over his support for Scotland’s controversial gender reforms - but these concerns did not stop voters from ensuring he came out on top in the contest.

So how did Yousaf get his start in politics, and how did he rise up the ranks in the SNP? Here’s everything you need to know about Humza Yousaf and his political career. 

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Humza Yousaf is competing to replace Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and First Minster of Scotland. (Credit: Mark Hall/NationalWorld)Humza Yousaf is competing to replace Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and First Minster of Scotland. (Credit: Mark Hall/NationalWorld)
Humza Yousaf is competing to replace Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and First Minster of Scotland. (Credit: Mark Hall/NationalWorld) | NationalWorld

Early life

Yousaf was born in Glasgow, 1985. His father immigrated to Scotland in the 1960s from Pakistan, with his mother, who is of South Asian descent, moving to the country from Kenya. He said during a press conference in February that it “speaks to us as a nation that anyone, regardless of race, can aim for the highest office in our country and not be judged by the colour of their skin”.

Scotland, he added, “should be proud that a grandson of an immigrant can seek to become the next First Minister”.

He was educated at an independent school in Glasgow, Hutchesons’ Grammar School. Yousaf has spoken previously about how his interest in politics grew during his time at the school. 

Yousaf got his start in politics at the University of Glasgow. He thrived in student politics, leading the university’s Muslim Students Association, and becoming involved in the Student’ Representative Council. 

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He joined the SNP in 2005 during his time at university and became an independence supporter when he was inspired by speeches given by former leader Alex Salmond. Prior to running as a candidate himself, Yousaf campaigned for the party, including during the SNP's first successful Holyrood election in 2007. 

He went on to work as a parliamentary assistant for prominent figures in the party, including Salmond and later Sturgeon. He also held the role of the SNP’s communications officer.

Youngest minister in Scottish Government history

In 2011, at the age of 26, Yousaf became the youngest MSP elected to office representing the Glasgow Pollok constituency. As a Scottish-Pakistani man, he notably took his oath in English and Urdu. His first term in office would see him take up junior ministerial positions, the first for a Scottish Asian man and follower of the Islamic faith in the Scottish parliament. 

Salmond appointed him as minister for external affairs and international development during his time in power. Yousaf was later appointed minister for Europe and international development by Sturgeon in 2014, and again moved to the position of transport minister as Sturgeon formed her second government. 

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Humza Yousaf became a prominent figure in the SNP during after his first election win. (Credit: Getty Images)Humza Yousaf became a prominent figure in the SNP during after his first election win. (Credit: Getty Images)
Humza Yousaf became a prominent figure in the SNP during after his first election win. (Credit: Getty Images) | Getty Images

Justice Secretary

Yousaf remained a close ally of Sturgeon throughout her premiership. He was rewarded with the position of Justice Secretary in 2018. 

However, his time in the role was criticised by some opponents who called out certain policies Yousaf was responsible for implementing. This included the highly-publicised Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill. 

The bill, which would eventually be accepted by MSPs, was criticised for a clamp down on freedom of speech. Among the opponents included the Catholic Church, which voiced concerns that opposition to same-sex marriage or other gender views. 

The bill was parallel with the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, which would be eventually repealed in 2018. Initially tabled to crackdown on sectarianism in Scottish football, some MSPs argued that football fans were being unfairly targeted and failed to actually tackle the problem due to the interpretation of vaguely-worded term “offensive behaviour”. 

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Health and Social Care Secretary

In the midst of the Covid pandemic, Sturgeon moved Yousaf into the position of Health Secretary after he was re-elected at the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. He succeeded Jeane Freeman, who had stepped down as an MSP at the 2021 election. 

Yousaf battled with rising Covid rates in Scotland, with the World Health Organisation stating that six areas in the country ranked within Europe’s hotspots for Covid infections in July 2021. However, he also oversaw the ongoing and widespread rollout of the successful vaccine campaign in Scotland. 

NHS waiting times have also been a sticking point for Yousaf. Ambulance waiting times hit a reported average of six hours in Scotland under his tenure as Health Secretary. 

Yousaf and Sturgeon have been close political allies for much of his time in parliament. (Credit: Getty Images)Yousaf and Sturgeon have been close political allies for much of his time in parliament. (Credit: Getty Images)
Yousaf and Sturgeon have been close political allies for much of his time in parliament. (Credit: Getty Images) | Getty Images

Political views

Yousaf was widely considered to be the continuity candidate in the 2023 SNP leadership election, as he has remained close to Sturgeon and aligned with her politics for many years. 

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While his opponents Forbes and Regan both voiced concerns over proposed gender reforms in Scotland, Yousaf remained in favour of the legislation which would make changing gender easier for trans people. 

He also vocally supported same-sex marriage, calling out his rival Forbes amid a spotlight being shone on her views on the topic. However, he later came under scrutiny after it was revealed that he was absent for the final vote on same-sex marriage being legalised in Scotland (although he voted in favour of it in earlier readings). 

Yousaf has remained a staunch supporter of independence throughout his political career, however voiced that he did not agree with Sturgeon's plans to use the next general election as a ‘de facto’ referendum on the topic after the Scottish Government was blocked by the Supreme Court in their plans to hold a legal referendum without the consent of Westminster. 

The former Health Secretary has said that he would be in favour of another referendum. However he believes that public support should be high for this, saying: “It isn't good enough to have polls that put support for independence at 50 per cent or 51%."

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SNP leader

After he was announced the new leader of the SNP, Yousaf said he will aim to lead Scotland “in the interest of all of our citizens” whatever their political allegiance. He continued: “If elected as your First Minister in Parliament tomorrow, know that I will be a first minister for all of Scotland.

“I will work every minute of every day to earn and re-earn your respect and your trust. I will do that by treating you, the people of Scotland, with respect. There will be no empty promises or easy soundbites when the issues in front of us are difficult and complex, because government is not easy and I won’t pretend it is.”

The former Health Secretary also spoke personally about his upbringing and experience as the grandson of immigrants. He said: “We should all take pride in the fact that your colour of skin or indeed your faith is not a barrier to leading the country that we all call home.

“From the Punjab to our Parliament, this is a journey over generations - reminding us that we should be celebrating, and always celebrate, the migrants that contribute so much to this country.”

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