A few days ago, after another sleepless night worrying about his in-laws trapped in Gaza, Scotland’s first minister, Humza Yousaf, gave a speech at a synagogue in Giffnock, a small town outside Glasgow. Yousaf, the first Muslim to lead the territory, hugged the mother of Bernard Cowan, a Scot who lived in Israel and was killed in Hamas attacks. As on other visits to the Jewish community, Yousaf wore a kippah, the traditional Hebrew skullcap.
“Your pain is my pain,” said the leader of Scotland and the Scottish national party, the pro-independence SNP. “I want you to know that this prime minister, who is proudly Muslim, shares the pain of our Jewish communities. Your broken heart is my broken heart. Your loss is my loss. Your tears are my tears. No one should ever be attacked for their faith. No child should be killed because of his or her citizenship, or for any other reason,” he told the congregation of more than 150 people. He also cited the Quran and its exhortation not to kill.
He then explained that Bernard Cowan’s mother and the rest of his family had gone to great lengths to tell him that they would pray for their Palestinian relatives who are now suffering in Gaza, referring to the prime minister’s in-laws. “We hugged each other, we cried, and we promised to dedicate ourselves even more to peace,” he wrote in X. “No man, woman or child should pay the price for the actions of others.”
Yousaf says he is overwhelmed and grateful for the personal support received for his family. The politician has become an unexpected symbol when he was bogged down in much more local debates and after a difficult six months for Scotland and his party.
He came to power at the end of March, after the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon, who is now facing a police investigation for alleged irregularities in her party’s accounts. The economic context is not favorable. The deterioration of public services affects Scotland especially within the panorama of decline of the United Kingdom. And right in the middle of his party’s annual congress, the Scottish leader has found himself grappling with a personal crisis as well.
The Dundee Nurse
Yousaf’s in-laws, a Scottish woman and a Scottish-Palestinian man, are in Gaza because they were visiting relatives there. Yousaf’s wife, Nadia El-Nakla, was born in Scotland, but her brother, a doctor, and his nonagenarian grandmother still live in the Gaza Strip as do other relatives. She has recounted several times the vulnerable situation of her Gazan relatives, and her parents only undertook this last risky trip because her grandmother was sick.
The Scottish first minister shared a video of his mother-in-law, Elizabeth, whom he introduced as “a retired nurse from Dundee.” The woman denounces the situation of civilians bombed in Gaza and with nowhere to go. “Where is humanity? Where is the heart of the people to let this happen in our days?,” she says in the video. Elizabeth has told her daughter several times that she believes they will die there, and she has said goodbye to her relatives who are at constant risk. They barely have water and food, according to what they have said.
Yousaf has insisted on the need to open humanitarian corridors and protect civilians in Gaza. He was one of the first political leaders to support the Jewish community following the Hamas attacks, but says Israel is going “too far.” In a tearful interview on Sky News television, he acknowledges that despite his position as prime minister he feels “powerless and useless” to alleviate the suffering of his own family.
At his party congress, he thanked them for their support and insisted that the pain that both Israelis and Palestinians are experiencing. “Imagine waking up on a Saturday morning, during religious celebrations, and discovering, as happened to families across Israel last week, that your loved ones have been murdered or kidnapped by Hamas terrorists. “It goes beyond what you can say in words and must be condemned in the strongest terms,” he said Tuesday in his speech in Aberdeen. “Or imagine living in the Gaza Strip under constant bombardment right now. No water, no food, no electricity… Unfortunately, we don’t have to imagine it. “It is the reality for Israeli and Palestinian families alike.”
The Scottish leader has no powers over foreign policy or British humanitarian aid, and most of his speech focused on local issues, such as the Scottish independence debate, council tax freezes, new anti-violence programmes. sexism and plans to alleviate waits in health centers.
But Yousaf also took advantage of the Aberdeen setting and the global attention to his personal story to call for the hostages to be released and humanitarian corridors to be established. “No form of collective punishment can be accepted,” he stressed. “The life of a Palestinian is worth the same as the life of an Israeli.” He called on Rishi Sunak’s government to help create a program hosting refugees from Gaza and said Scotland would welcome them as a safe haven.
A new generation
Yousaf, whose parents emigrated to Scotland from Pakistan and Kenya, is at 38 the country’s youngest party leader and insists he represents a more committed and diverse new generation. At 26, he was the youngest MP in the Scottish Parliament. His rise to being Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s right-hand man was equally dazzling.
His family origins are an exception in the north of the country, a territory much less diverse than England and Wales. The latest available data shows that minorities in Scotland are about 4% of the population compared to 14% in those other two regions. Glasgow, where Yousaf is from, has the highest percentage of minorities in Scotland – more than 12% – but it is still far behind, for example, London, where around 40% of the population defines themselves as belonging to minorities.
In any case, the Scottish First Minister reflects a new generation in Scotland, progressive, European and connected to the rest of the world, according to his own experience.
As a teenager, he helped raise aid for Bosnian refugees and became involved in activism as a volunteer at Radio Ramadan, a community radio station. His first political activity, according to him, consisted of participating in demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq alongside his father, an accountant and also a member of the Scottish National Party.
“I cannot not be aware of my race, I cannot not be aware of my religion,” Yousaf said a few weeks ago in an interview on LBC radio. He also insisted that it is not what defines him most and that his interest is “doing as much as possible for marginalized people, not just people of color.” Among the examples he gave are transgender people and others from the LGTBI community who suffer discrimination.
The role of Nadia El-Nakla
Yousaf has told anecdotes of the daily racism that he has suffered in his life and that he continues to suffer on social networks, which he tries to avoid. But the most active in the complaints has been his wife, Nadia El-Nakla, who is an SNP councilor in Dundee. Before Yousaf became prime minister, El-Nakla filed a formal discrimination complaint against a daycare center for not admitting her daughter while she received other children with Anglo-Saxon-sounding surnames.
She has been explaining the plight of her brother and cousins in Gaza for years. This Sunday, at the start of the Scottish National Party Congress, she recounted the experience of her relatives being afraid of her, and she criticized Rishi Sunak’s Government. “The UK is helping Israel’s behavior, and gaslighting us at the same time,” she said. “The United Kingdom should not be sending spy planes, but supplies. “This is not a natural disaster, we can stop it.”
It was an unexpected start to the Scottish National Party’s congress, the first with Yousaf as leader after Sturgeon’s resignation in February. The big issue that divides the country and the party is Scottish independence and how to open the conversation after Sturgeon’s latest failed attempts stopped by the Government and the courts.
Yousaf now links the issue to the next elections, but with a high threshold that, according to polls, is difficult to reach: if his party wins the majority of Scottish seats in Parliament, it will be taken as a mandate to open talks with the central government on independence and a possible consultation, in any case far from the attempt to advance unilaterally of her predecessor.
Now polls show that the majority of the population opposes Scottish independence, although by a narrow margin and with around 10% undecided. In the 2014 referendum, the “no” to independence won by 55% of the votes, but calls for a new consultation have continued since Brexit, which Scotland clearly opposed in the 2016 vote.
The party’s new declaration of principles promises to work for independence, as Yousaf stated in his speech this Tuesday: “Vote for the SNP so that Scotland is an independent country.” In his speech, he used the Brexit argument: “It has been an unmitigated disaster. With independence, we can escape the failed economy of Brexit and take our place, for the first time, as a full member state of the European Union,” he said in one of the most applauded phrases of the speech.
“European countries that look like Scotland are fairer and richer than the UK. Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Austria, Finland and other comparable countries have a higher per capita income than the UK. They have higher productivity. A lower inequality. Less poverty… Why not Scotland?”
The Conservative Government has rejected the latest attempts to hold a consultation and the courts have reminded Scotland that it needs their permission for any vote. According to polls, Labor’s Keir Starmer may be the next prime minister after the general election, but he has given no sign that he will accept a referendum on Scottish independence like the one authorized by the conservative David Cameron in 2014. The first minister Scottish also suggests that the negotiation with London may seek more skills in employment and other areas.