The headache-inducing in-tray facing Scotland’s new leader Humza Yousaf
POLITICO runs through the intimidating set of policy and party political challenges facing the incoming Scottish first minister.
LONDON — Elected leader of the Scottish National Party on Monday, Humza Yousaf will formally replace Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland’s first minister Wednesday. It won’t be an easy ride.
The 37-year-old becomes the youngest and only Muslim first minister in the short history of Scottish devolution. He faces a number of lingering policy sores left by the departing Sturgeon — as well as the task of repairing his party after a bitter leadership contest.
POLITICO runs through the in-tray that greets Yousaf as he takes on the seat of power in Scotland.
Bringing the family back together
Yousaf will have to balance his responsibilities as first minister with those he holds as SNP leader. He has spoken of the need to “heal” divisions exposed during the contest, when the leadership candidates and their supporters traded personal attacks.
His narrow victory added to the need to unify his party and convince those who backed his fellow leadership contenders. On Tuesday he offered his closest rival Kate Forbes a role in his cabinet, which according to reports would have been a demotion from her current role as finance secretary.
In a blow to Yousaf’s efforts at unity, she turned him down and will return to the backbenches.
Stalled gender reforms
Yousaf has promised to push ahead with the Scottish government’s stalled gender reforms — which proved contentious within the SNP — despite the U.K. government blocking them over concerns they were incompatible with wider British law.
He was the only candidate in the leadership race to back the Sturgeon administration’s promise to challenge this in the courts. But to do so, he’ll have to act quickly. The deadline for any judicial review is mid-April.
Another looming constitution bust-up
The new SNP leader has also committed to pushing ahead with introducing, with some tweaks, a deposit return scheme — which would see a fee added to some single-use containers, to be returned when the item is recycled.
The aim of the scheme is to boost recycling. But it has come under fire, amid business concerns that it would add substantial costs and burdens at a time when they are already struggling.
Pointing to claims the scheme could fuel inflation, the U.K. government has indicated it would block the legislation — setting up another constitutional clash between Westminster and Holyrood.
Delivering … somewhere
Sturgeon left office a relatively popular politician. The same can’t be said for the government that Yousaf inherits.
Polling from Ipsos found that across five different key policy areas, “more people think that the Scottish government is doing a bad job than think they’re doing a good job,” the pollster’s Rachel Ormston said.
The government’s handling of the NHS — Yousaf’s previous portfolio — is “rated particularly poorly,” Ormston added.
One of Yousaf’s first responsibilities will be to find a new SNP chief executive, after the long-serving Peter Murrell — Sturgeon’s husband — was forced out amid a row over the release of the party’s membership figures, which have sharply declined.
He has also promised to look into the party’s financial “health,” amid a police probe into the party’s accounts that will lurk in the background of his early months in office.
That Police Scotland investigation centers around complaints that £600,000 of funds raised by the SNP for a referendum campaign were spent elsewhere. The probe is ongoing.
Drug deaths crisis
Scotland is Europe’s drug death capital. As they have for years, the most recently released annual figures show that its death rate from drug misuse is almost four times higher than the nearest European competitor.
Sturgeon herself admitted in 2020 that her government had “taken its eye off the ball” on drug deaths. Campaigners cautiously welcomed additional funding to tackle the issue in 2021 — while calling for more to be done and for the government to roll out so-called safe consumption rooms.
Yousaf has pledged more action. He will be judged on the annual death figures, which are released every summer.
The Scottish government’s failure to maintain and adequately replace the aging fleet of ferries connecting its islands to the mainland was a persistent source of trouble for Sturgeon.
In a decision sharply criticized by Scotland’s independent auditor, the government awarded the contract for two crucial new vessels to a now-nationalized shipyard in 2015. Those ferries are five years late.
In the meantime, Scotland’s island communities suffer thanks to persistent disruption in the creaking ferry networks. Yousaf will come under pressure to act on an issue Sturgeon failed to resolve.
That whole Scottish independence thing
At least for the SNP’s staunchest supporters, Yousaf’s time in office will be measured by one thing — whether he achieves the party’s goal of Scottish independence.
Despite issuing a doomed — and immediately rejected — request to Westminster in his first hours in office for the powers to hold a referendum, Yousaf has acknowledged that the only path to independence is to build majority support for it among Scots.
Yet just 41 percent of Scots currently back the break-up of the U.K. according to POLITICO’s poll of polls aggregator. Yousaf has work to do.