Humza Yousaf: The new SNP leader who vowed to break up Britain by 'any means necessary'

Humza Yousaf's backers believe he can reunite the SNP - Jane Barlow
Humza Yousaf's backers believe he can reunite the SNP - Jane Barlow

A few months spent working in a call centre during a university summer holiday aside, Humza Yousaf has spent his adult life steeped in Scottish nationalist politics.

He will become Scotland’s new First Minister - the first Muslim and member of an ethnic minority background to hold the role - when he is formally sworn in at the Court of Session in Edinburgh on Wednesday.

Mr Yousaf has pledged to use "any means necessary" to break up the UK if he becomes first minister. He said he would consider a snap Holyrood election to try to demonstrate public support for independence, and that nothing should be "off the table".

The 37-year-old, who will also become the youngest ever First Minister, has been as MSP and a minister for more than a decade.

His backers believe he can reunite a fractious party following a remarkably divisive leadership campaign.

However, opposition parties at Holyrood are jubilant, believing Scottish voters already see Mr Yousaf as a buffoon who has been allowed to "fail upwards".

Mr Yousaf will become the youngest ever First Minister - Andrew Milligan
Mr Yousaf will become the youngest ever First Minister - Andrew Milligan

He held a series of behind the scenes roles for nationalist politicians, including Alex Salmond, and in the SNP press office, after graduating in 2007. He was elected as a regional MSP for Glasgow in 2011.

Then just 26, the privately-educated Mr Yousaf was seen as a rising star within the independence movement. He quickly set about building his profile, and was appointed as a junior minister the following year.

However, his political opponents insist that he has been exposed as he was handed more demanding ministerial roles, in particular Health, which he took over in 2021.

It is an assessment shared by some within the party, who were surprised to see Mr Yousaf emerge as the clear favourite of the party establishment.

“He’s a nice guy, but there was definitely a feeling that the shine had come off over recent years,” one party insider said. “He was ground down by not performing particularly well in the government briefs he held.”

A 'gaffe-prone' 'PR guy'

Mr Yousaf is seen by some as a “PR guy”, with a nose for photo-ops but lacking substance.

While normally a slick communicator, he has at times displayed a thin skin when under pressure.

When he took a notorious tumble from a knee scooter, as he recovered from a sports injury, while speeding along a corridor at Holyrood in September 2021, he chose to attack the journalist who had tweeted the footage rather than try to laugh off the incident.

He also bristled when they questioned him over a gaffe at a campaign event this month, when he asked a group of female Ukrainian refugees where the men were. He had to be reminded that they were protecting their homeland from Putin's invasion.

Humza Yusaf during a meeting with committee members of the Association of Ukrainians on March 16
Humza Yusaf during a meeting with committee members of the Association of Ukrainians on March 16

“The only thing we wondered was what took him so long?” a source in the Kate Forbes camp said at the time. “Humza is gaffe-prone and there will be plenty more incidents like that one to come.”

It was Ms Forbes who memorably castigated his record at the first live TV contest of the hustings, claiming when Mr Yousaf was transport minister the trains were never on time, as justice minister the police were stretched to breaking point, and that in health, he had presided over record waiting times.

A mixed record

However, his supporters see him as a collegiate colleague well-placed to put the SNP back together.

While he has presided over record high waiting times and an NHS crisis as Health Secretary, he has pointed to the lack of strike action in the Scottish health service.

His backers insist he is composed under pressure and keen to find compromise.

He has largely vowed to continue with Ms Sturgeon’s agenda, backing her controversial gender reforms and opening the door to going further on “progressive” taxation.

This would see richer Scots subjected to further raids on their pay packets.

A personal life defined by politics

Mr Yousaf, who studied politics at Glasgow University, has also seen his personal life defined by the SNP.

He married his first wife, Gail Lythgoe, in 2010. Originally from Essex and then converting to Islam, she was a high-profile activist involved in the SNP’s youth wing.

They split in 2016, a fact that only emerged in 2016 after Mr Yousaf, then the transport minister, found himself in court for driving without insurance.

Mr Yousaf, who was fined £300 and had six points added to his licence, said his crime was an “honest mistake” caused by changes to insurance details resulting from the split.

Ms Lythgoe later joined the Scottish Greens and then moved back to England.

He married his second wife, Nadia El-Nakla, in 2019.

Like Ms Lythgoe, Ms El-Nakla is heavily involved with the SNP. She has worked as an aide to Shona Robison, a minister who is close to Nicola Sturgeon, and is an SNP councillor on Dundee Council.

The pair had a daughter, Amal, in 2019 while Ms El-Nakla has a teenage daughter from a previous relationship.

SNP leadership candidate Humza Yousaf with his wife Nadia El-Nakla and daughter Amal - Jane Barlow
SNP leadership candidate Humza Yousaf with his wife Nadia El-Nakla and daughter Amal - Jane Barlow

In a bizarre case, Mr Yousaf complained to watchdogs demanding they investigate whether a local nursery had operated racist admissions policies, following a sting operation by his wife.

Ms El-Nakla claimed she had been told there was no space for Amal at Little Scholars Day Nursery in Broughty Ferry, but that fake enquiries from people with Western-sounding names elicited a more positive response.

She later launched legal action, seeking £30,000 in damages.

Ms El-Nakla dropped their complaint against the nursery, which always denied wrongdoing, last month. The nursery claimed they had been the victims of a “vicious and cynical” smear campaign launched by Mr Yousaf and his wife. He announced his campaign to succeed Nicola Sturgeon just a fortnight later.

His political opponents - and Scottish Labour in particular - are jubilant at the prospect of Mr Yousaf taking over, believing their claim he is incompetent will chime with voters. The Scottish public, they believe, have already made up their minds, a claim which is supported by some polling evidence.

Even some of his own backers insist his time at the top of the SNP could be short-lived, with a tricky general election fast approaching. Mr Yousaf, meanwhile, insists he can change voters' minds and will have Nicola Sturgeon on "speed dial". He may well need her.