John Harris

Journalist & Author

SNP’s Humza Yousaf: ‘You have to keep being radical with your ideas’

How does an ‘alternative’ party that finds itself in power preserve its credentials?

On the wall of Humza Yousaf’s office in central Glasgow there’s a recent spread from the Scottish edition of the Sun. “I’m just as comfortable with a chapati in my hand as a bag of chips,” says the characteristically subdued headline, leading into text that celebrates Yousaf as “the motorbike-riding, kilt-wearing nationalist who also cooks a mean curry”, and gets in a lather about his “‘united colours of Benetton’ family home”.

In England and Wales, talk about politics being in the midst of serious change is somewhat speculative, whereas in Scotland, it’s a matter of hard fact. Alex Salmond and the SNP remain almost ludicrously dominant. Labour can feel borderline irrelevant, even in its traditional heartlands: the party has already lost its once-immovable majority on Glasgow city council, and come 3 May, there are serious predications that control will be won by the nationalists. The Tories are a negligible Scottish presence, and the fate of the Lib Dems was pointedly illustrated by last year’s Inverclyde byelection, where they managed just 2% of the vote. There is, moreover, the looming referendum on independence. Compared with the reality of 10 years ago, everything has changed; and Yousaf himself is a reminder of huge shifts within Scottish nationalism itself – specifically, the way that it has slipped free of any identification with any particular section of Scottish society, and found itself able to speak to the whole country.

An MSP since last year, Yousaf – who is 27 – is an assured, articulate presence, tipped for great things. His father, who owns a successful Glasgow accountancy firm, joined the SNP in 1974, when one of his teachers at night school convinced him that the party was more worthy of his commitment than Labour. As with Salma Yaqoob, Yousaf’s own political epiphany came in the wake of 9/11. Within weeks, having split off from a protest against the invasion of Afghanistan, he found himself in a human blockade of the nearby Charing Cross exit of the M8: “We had our two hours, freezing our arses off. And that was it: I was hooked.”

He recalls 25 coaches going from Glasgow’s Central Mosque to the huge London march against the Iraq war, and how Salmond’s opposition to the invasion decisively pulled him towards the SNP – before dispensing his account of why Scotland has been so radically transformed. The story takes in Tony Blair’s toxic effects on the reputation of the Labour party, the credit crunch and subsequent economic crash, and now the arrival of the Westminster coalition – all of which, he says, has fed into the SNP successfully turning old orthodoxies on their head. But even in England, he senses that the usual rules of politics are under threat.

“People are just looking for that alternative: there’s no doubt about it. The Liberal Democrats, I think, would have been the ones who would have benefited from it, but they no longer can. As much as I really don’t like George Galloway at times, I have to tip my hat to him when he says things like: ‘If a backside had three cheeks, they’d be those parties.’”

He concedes that in its second term in power, the SNP has to guard its “alternative” credentials very carefully: “You have to keep being radical with your ideas. We’re lucky: we have a completely distinct policy on independence, which helps us a lot.” The next bit is put beautifully: “But there’s always a danger of being one of one of those butt cheeks.”

On this point, I wonder: though he gives me the usual assurances that his party is a pretty radical, left-of-centre force, aren’t such claims at least slightly undermined by those SNP-ers whose views often seem to put them rather closer to free-market Tories? I’ve met a few. “We’ve now got 22,000 members,” he says. “And not all of them are left of centre … not everybody sings from exactly the same hymn sheet. But generally there’s a consensus in the party that we’re comfortable with being a left-of- centre, social democratic party. To the left of Labour? The current Labour party, sure.”

Not entirely surprisingly, he thinks the independence referendum will go the SNP’s way. But I wonder: what does he think of the idea that if Scotland leaves the union, he and his SNP colleagues will effectively be leaving the English likes of me to eternal Tory government?

“No!” he shoots back, and sketches out one of the most interesting scenarios that might result from the Scots going it alone: an English realignment, whereby leftwing people south of the border might discover the courage of their convictions, whether inside the Labour party or out. “The prospect of an independent Scotland is a challenge for left progressives in England – to wake up, and start being more robust about what they believe in. And if anything, a strong left of centre, independent Scotland would be something to aspire to: ‘If they can do it, why can’t we?’”

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