Humza Yousaf confirmed as new Scottish leader
March 29, 2023 09:59 AM
Scotland's parliament on Tuesday confirmed Humza Yousaf will replace Nicola Sturgeon as first minister, the devolved nation's youngest and the first Muslim leader of a government in western Europe.
Yousaf, 37, narrowly won a Scottish National Party (SNP) leadership battle on Monday to clinch the party's top job, vowing to rejuvenate the stalled pursuit of independence for Scotland.
He then secured the nominations of a majority of lawmakers in the early afternoon vote Tuesday to become the new first minister, and will be formally sworn in at a ceremony on Wednesday.
Ahead of the confirmatory vote, Yousaf acknowledged he had "some very big shoes to fill" succeeding Sturgeon, but vowed to "continue to ensure that Scotland is a positive, progressive voice on the world stage".
"I will stand up unequivocally for this parliament and against any attempts to undermine devolution," he said, referring to the UK government reforms that handed Scotland a host of powers over domestic policy in 1999.
"I will work every hour of every day to harness the potential of Scotland and every single person," the new SNP leader added.
In the hours before the vote, Sturgeon sent her formal letter of resignation to King Charles III, and left the first minister's official residence in Edinburgh for the last time.
Yousaf will be sworn into the role Wednesday following formal approval from the king -- whom he wants to dislodge in favour of an elected head of state for Scotland.
SNP leaders took pride in Scotland becoming the first democracy in western Europe to appoint a Muslim as leader.
"I think what it says about the UK is that we are a welcoming group of nations, and Scotland in particular," Stephen Flynn, the party's leader in the UK parliament, told AFP.
He contrasted that with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Conservative government seeking "to outlaw asylum seekers" through new legislation to tackle boatloads of migrants crossing the Channel.
The seismic shift in Scottish politics follows Sturgeon's surprise resignation announcement last month after more than eight years at the helm.
It followed a stormy period for her government, during which support for independence has slipped.
Recent surveys show around 45 percent of Scots back Scotland leaving the United Kingdom -- the same tally recorded in a 2014 referendum which London insists settled the matter for a generation.
Yousaf pledged Monday to be "the generation that delivers independence for Scotland," promising to "kickstart" a civic movement to achieve it and to ask London again to allow another vote.
But Sunak's spokesman promptly told reporters that he should focus on economic and policy issues "that matter" to Scottish voters.
Yousaf, who was health minister in Sturgeon's last cabinet, narrowly topped the SNP contest with 52 percent of members' preferentially ranked votes.
He attracted criticism over his record in several roles in government.
He now faces a bigger challenge to win over the wider Scottish electorate, with a UK general election expected within the next 18 months.
An Ipsos poll conducted shortly before he was announced as SNP leader showed that half of Scots feel that the country is heading in the wrong direction, while just a quarter feel it is heading in the right direction.
Despite winning a succession of elections under Sturgeon, the SNP also faces bitter divisions following the three-way leadership battle.
Sturgeon's last months in power were overshadowed by the backlash against a new Scottish law allowing anyone over 16 to change their gender without a medical diagnosis.
As debate raged, the UK government used an unprecedented veto to block the legislation.
The UK Supreme Court last year also ruled that Sturgeon's government could not hold a new referendum on Scottish independence without London's approval.
The twin setbacks prompted rare criticism of Sturgeon's leadership and tactics.