Humza Yousaf was sworn in as Scotland’s new First Minister on Wednesday to become the first ever racial minority and Muslim to lead the country. He takes over from Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first female leader and the country’s longest-serving one yet.
“As immigrants of this country who knew barely a word of English, 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,” Yousaf said of his grandparents at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Stadium on Monday, after winning a leadership contest. “We should all take pride in the fact that today we have sent a clear message that your color of skin or indeed your faith is not a barrier to leading the country that we all call home.”
Yousaf was announced the Scottish National Party’s sixth leader in Edinburgh on Monday, marking the end of what had become an acrimonious and unpredictable leadership contest. Of the three candidates, which included the Scottish finance secretary Kate Forbes and former junior minister Ash Regan, Yousaf was widely seen as the continuity candidate and the favorite of the SNP leadership (save for Sturgeon, who declined to endorse a successor). In the end, he secured the backing of 52.1% of the SNP’s card-carrying members, who were the only ones eligible to vote in the leadership contest.
Yousaf’s victory isn’t historic for Scotland alone. He is the first Muslim politician elected to be a national leader in a Western democracy, according to Sunder Katwala, the director of the British Future think tank. Yousaf is also the first ever ethnic-minority leader of a devolved U.K. government. That his victory comes so soon after the election of Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last year and Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar returning to power in December 2022 means that, for the first time in history, the British, Scottish, and Irish leaders are all of South Asian origin.
While Yousaf is expected to build on Sturgeon’s progressive policies—including supporting the Scottish government’s reforms to make it easier for people to legally change their gender, which were ultimately blocked by the British government in Westminster—his backers say Yousaf will nonetheless carve out his own leadership style. “There’s more to Humza than perhaps people recognize,” Ian Blackford, the SNP’s former Westminster leader, previously told TIME, adding: “He will be very much a team player. He will show leadership, but he will have people around the table with him.”
But perhaps the most immediate challenge facing Yousaf will be to unite his party. The leadership contest—the first the nationalist party has held in nearly two decades, because Sturgeon ran for the top post in 2014 unopposed—exposed deep divisions within the SNP, prompting some of the party’s senior members to even speculate about the possibility of a potential split. Such an outcome would be a major boon for the Scottish Labour and Conservative parties, both of which have struggled to best the SNP in recent elections. The most immediate electoral test for Yousaf will be the next U.K. general election, due to take place by January 2025.
“That doesn’t give them very much time,” says Nicola McEwen, a professor of territorial politics at the University of Edinburgh, noting that if the SNP loses seats in that contest, Yousaf “might not have the tenure that Nicola Sturgeon or her predecessor had.”
By Yasmeen Serhan