With Roots in Pakistan, Humza Yousaf Becomes Scottish First Minister: Who Is He?

The son of first-generation immigrants, Yousaf was born in Glasgow with roots in Mian Channu, in Pakistan’s Punjab.

South Asians
4 min read
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Pakistani-origin politician Humza Yousaf won the Scottish National Party leadership contest on Monday, 27 March and is poised to become the First Minister of Scotland, replacing Nicola Sturgeon

The first leader of the SNP from an ethnic minority and the son of Asian immigrants, Yousaf is on track to become the first person of colour to serve as Scotland’s first minister and will lead age SNP after Sturgeon unexpectedly stepped down last month after eight years as leader. 

The First Minister of Scotland is the head of the Scottish Government and is a role similar to that of a prime minister in other countries. 

In his acceptance speech, Yousaf said, “I will be a First Minister for all of Scotland. I will work every minute of every day to earn and to re-earn your respect and your trust.” 

The incumbent health secretary, Yousaf edged out competition from his closest rival, Kate Forbes and against Ash Regan, and will be formally nominated to be First Minister by Scotland’s parliament in a vote on Tuesday, 28 March, followed by an official swearing at Scotland’s supreme civil court on Wednesday.

However, the contest also exposed striking policy differences between the three candidates – Yousaf, who is widely seen as Sturgeon’s preferred successor, Forbes, a rising star who’s boat sunk due to her views against same-sex marriage, and Ash Regan, who quit the government in protest to Sturgeon’s proposed changes to gender recognition. 

The development comes less than six months after Rishi Sunak became the first British Prime Minister of Indian origin.  It was a bruising and bitter contest, and Yousaf, like Sunak, inherits a divided party and country.

Early Life 

Yousaf was born in Scotland’s Glasgow in the mid-1980s, but his roots stretch Mian Channu in Pakistan’s Punjab, where his grandparents moved to Scotland in the 1960s. The son of first-generation immigrants, Yousaf was a private educator at Gaslgow’s Hutchensons’ Grammar School and went on to study politics at the University of Glasgow. 


His father, Muzaffar, was born in Mian Channu, while his mother, Shaaista, was born in Kenya and later moved to Scotland, where she met Muzaffar. During the announcement of the election results, Shaaista, who wore a hijab, was visibly emotional and shed a tear.

“They could not have imagined in their wildest dreams that their grandson would one day be on the cusp of being the next first minister of Scotland. Today we have sent a clear message that the colour of your skin or faith is not a barrier to leading the country we call home. From Punjab to our Parliament, this is a journey over generations that reminds us we should always celebrate the migrants who contribute so much to our country.” 

After his education, the 37-year-old had a short stint in a call centre before he became a parliamentary assistant to Scotland's first Muslim Member of Scottish Parliament (MSP) Bashir Ahmad, until the latter’s death in 2007. Subsequently, he moved on to become a parliamentary assistant for several MSPs, including Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond and Anne MacLaughlin.  


A few weeks after his 25th birthday, in 2011, Yousaf became the youngest MSP in history – the first step in his ladder of success, which would see him climb to the highest levels of government.  


During his swearing-in ceremony, Yousaf took the oath in English and Urdu, as a tribute to his Scottish-Pakistani identity and was dressed in a traditional sherwani with a tartan draped over his shoulder. 

In 2012, he became the first Scottish-Asian and first Muslim to become a minister in the Scottish Government after then-First Minister Alex Salmond appointed him as the Minister for External Affairs and International Development. He continued his junior ministership after Sturgeon took over from Salmond as well. 

In 2016, he made history by becoming the first person of an ethnic minority background to secure a constituency seat in the Scottish Parliament, representing Glasgow Pollok. He subsequently assumed the position of transport minister. However, just six months into his tenure, Mr Yousaf found himself facing a fine of £300 and six penalty points on his license for driving his friend's car without adequate insurance. 

But without a hitch, his ascent continued, and Yousaf was appointed justice secretary in 2018, where he introduced the controversial Hate Crime and Public Order Bill. It proposed the addition of protections to persecuted minorities while maintaining rights to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Essentially, it made “stirring up hatred” on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, age, gender identities and disabilities a punishable offense. 

At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had caused devastation across Scotland, Sturgeon appointed Humza Yousaf as the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care.

He faced severe criticism for “missing the action” after it was revealed that Sturgeon, Yousaf and Deputy First Minister John Swinney were all “on holiday.”  Moreover, he was criticised for extremely long hospital waiting times, but he swiftly defended himself and said that the problem was not unique to Scotland. 

Yousaf’s views on issues of gender and immigration have remained fairly liberal, and he was one of the main proponents of an act which legalised same-sex marriage in Scotland. He has also supported Sturgeon’s gender recognition bill, which currently remains blocked by the Rishi Sunak government.

He is also a staunch advocate of Scottish independence but has vowed not to follow his predecessor’s path towards independence, a case for independence instead of endlessly debating the process. 

His progressive social views should preserve a deal with the Green Party to support the SNP government.

But the road for Yousaf will be full of hurdles and slippery slopes as he stands in the face of a massive task of uniting a party driven to peeves by a bitter and brutal leadership vote.

Some within the SNP itself question whether Yousaf is up to the job, given his close proximity to negative headlines in the past. However, he now joins fellow South Asian-origin heads of state – British PM Rishi Sunak and Irish Leo Varadkar.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Scotland 

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