Scottish Muslim leader’s rise underlines ‘new norm’ in UK

Published in Pakistan Today on March 28, 2023

LONDON: The jury is out on whether Humza Yousaf can deliver independence for Scotland.

But history’s verdict will be clear on the 37-year-old’s breakthrough as the first Muslim Pakistan-origin leader of a western European democracy.

The newly-elected head of the Scottish National Party (SNP) joins the growing ranks of leaders from Britain’s old imperial possessions who are remaking the face of UK politics.

Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is the Hindu son of parents whose familial roots lie in Pakistan and India.

One of the new SNP leader’s chief adversaries in the Edinburgh parliament will be Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, who is also of Pakistani heritage.

The evolution confirms “how far ethnic and faith diversity at the top has become a new norm across British politics,” said Sunder Katwala, director of the demographics think tank British Future.

King Charles III will now be inviting a Hindu prime minister of Britain and a Muslim first minister of Scotland to his coronation in May, he noted in the Eastern Eye newspaper.

That sends “a powerful message to the world about how much public life in Britain has changed, to an extent unparalleled in comparable democracies.”

Among Sunak’s most senior cabinet lieutenants, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Home Secretary Suella Braverman are also people of colour.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt is now the only white holder of one of the four “great offices of state” in British politics.

Ironically, given the cabinet’s multi-ethnic profile and his own centrist politics, Hunt counts 1930s fascist leader Oswald Mosley as a distant relative.

Mosley’s political descendants were vocal on social media with racist attacks on the likes of Yousaf and London mayor Sadiq Khan, who congratulated the new Scottish leader.

But the far right remains on the marginal fringes of UK politics.

Long wait over

One of Braverman’s predecessors, Sajid Javid, was the first British Asian to hold one of the four great offices when he became home secretary in 2018.

Javid’s ascent prompted a joke from mayor Khan, of the opposition Labour party, in a riff on London’s long-suffering commuters.

“Typical — you wait for ages for a Pakistani bus driver’s son to come along (in UK politics). Then two come along at once,” Khan joked.

Unlike Khan and Javid’s working-class fathers, Yousaf’s is firmly middle class, a successful accountant who could afford to send his son to one of Glasgow’s most exclusive private schools.

Scottish Labour’s Sarwar attended the same school.

But as Muslims, they were a rarity at Hutchesons’ Grammar, and Yousaf has spoken of the Islamophobic insults he endured from white classmates after the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

In his victory speech on Monday, Yousaf said his father’s parents would not have imagined “in their wildest dreams” that their future grandson would become Scotland’s leader when they arrived in Glasgow in the 1960s, barely speaking English.

“We should all take pride in the fact that today we have sent a clear message: that your colour of skin or indeed your faith is not a barrier to leading the country that we all call home,” he said.

Christianity in decline

Katwala noted that the SNP leadership battle saw a socially liberal Muslim candidate defeat a devout Presbyterian in Kate Forbes, who opposes abortion and gay marriage.

Christians are now a minority in England and Wales, while still ranking as the biggest faith overall, according to 10-yearly census findings released last year.

People listing “no religion” were the next biggest group identified in the census, followed in order by Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews.

Whatever their faith, or lack of it, the UK’s leading politicians all worship in the church of disputation.

Sunak’s spokesman, while stressing the prime minister looked forward to working with Yousaf, said there was no question of permitting another referendum on Scottish independence.

Sarwar put aside any old-school fraternity to warn Yousaf that Labour was gunning for the SNP, whose critics say has neglected public services to push its faltering campaign for separation.

Labour is targeting a revival in its old Scottish fiefdoms, including Glasgow, with a view to retaking power UK-wide from the Conservatives.

But the Scottish Labour leader added: “While I question his mandate and the SNP’s record, it is important to reflect on the election of what will be the first ‘first minister’ from an ethnic minority background.”

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