It’s a Tuesday afternoon in late summer. The end of a school day. In the quiet suburbs of the city’s southside a 16 year-old Glaswegian takes the bus home from school. From the radio he hears details of some vast and terrible event unfold. At home, a nervous evening gathered around the TV with family, follows.
The next day at registration class, in place of the usual chat about football or girls, he finds himself confronted with a myriad of questions about the events that took place on the other side of the ocean the day before.
9/11 changed countless lives in the space of a few hours. Everywhere a generation realised that this moment would define the world that they were destined to grow up in.
The 16 year-old in question is now 32 and talking to me in the Scottish Parliament. He recounts this formative memory in a manner that is still visceral, alive, potent:
‘The difference between you and I when that event happened,’ he tells me, ‘is that you probably didn’t get questioned about why it had happened or what it was all about. Somebody of my colour, of my faith, had to answer a lot of questions.’
He would have to make a choice – either to seek out answers or retreat from such questioning. He chose the former. This is why Humza Yousaf, frequently touted as Scotland’s most promising young politician, is where he is today.
‘That was definitely the moment where I knew I had to either get involved and be pro-active or just bury my head in the sand. I was being bombarded by these questions, to which, as a 16 year-old boy, I had no more the answer than the two people that were sitting to my left and my right.’
‘So that was the moment where, if not consciously or overtly, then certainly subconsciously I realised I’d better get clued up…that was where it went on from,’ he says.
Listening to the MSP relate this key moment, there is an intensity that I’m not expecting. Few journeys into Scottish politics start out with such a stark choice. As our conversation moves on, it’s clear that a sense of urgency informs a great deal of Yousaf’s work.
He still charges at every question as though his future depends upon it.
When I’m ushered into Yousaf’s brand new ministerial office he’s on the phone, a folder of notes lies open on the table.
In an instant, without missing a beat, his focus is exclusively upon the person in front of him. If I’m honest I find this a bit disconcerting — he asks frequently about my own age, background, identity.
‘People think of politicians as stereotypical – bloodthirsty, ruthless, ambitious and particularly the younger you are the more they think you fit that stereotype,’ notes Yousaf.
Despite also being a typically self-effacing Scot, at two years my senior Yousaf has blazed a trail in Scottish national politics that is arguably unrivalled.
Behind these achievements, as Yousaf is quick to point out, lies a lot of hard graft. Youthful charisma and energy can only take a politician so far. Looking around his still sparse office (he’s clearly had no time to unpack yet) it’s clear that the glamour of success brings with it multiple demands.
I meet the newly elected MSP for Glasgow Pollok after he’s had less than a week in his new job as Minister for Transport and the Islands. On top of that, he’s also heading up the SNP’s campaign for an ‘In’ vote in the forthcoming EU referendum.
The pace, he tells me, has scarcely slowed down since the election.
‘We walked an average of about 7 or 8 miles a day on the campaign trail – you do that over a prolonged period of time, it’s pretty exhausting, I’ve lost about nine pounds. My mum in particular is deeply worried about me!’ he jests.
‘Then of course you’re into government and I’ve got this huge portfolio, something that’s not my area of expertise which I’m having to learn and grapple with very, very, quickly. It’s a funny thing being a minister, nobody really gives you a handbook on how it’s done,’ he adds.
Yousaf maintains that the work ethic goes with the territory, ‘95 per cent of politicians are hard working,’ he claims, without, I must add, revealing to me who the other five per cent are.
‘You work weekends and you work late nights. But I don’t expect anyone to play a small violin for me, I mean I get paid well for it and I get profile for it.’
‘It’s a great job to do but it is absolutely hectic,’ Shona, his Office Manager, nods in exhausted agreement.
Described by the Herald as a ‘poster boy for the new Scotland’, there is a consensus amongst Scotland’s chattering classes that Yousaf will go far, ‘everybody speculates, minus me,’ he reflects. It’s not hard to see why. In 2011, at 25 years old, he become the youngest MSP in parliament. In 2012 he was appointed to the post of Minister for External Affairs and International Development, becoming the youngest politician in Scotland to have held ministerial office.
When I ask whether being branded a rising star can become something of a burden, his response is light-hearted:
‘Well, let’s just say I was really pleased when Mhairi Black got elected. It’s funny because Derek Mackay said the same thing to me, he said it’s great –you can be the rising star now!’
‘Does it add pressure? Yes of course it does. People place more expectation on you than you have on yourself, but I try not to take too much notice.’
At the start of this frenetic second term in government, it seems the MSP has learned to filter out the speculation, for good reason:
‘Look people will build you up in the press only to knock you down at the first opportunity they get. So I don’t take it particularly seriously,’ he says.
The meteoric rise of Yousaf within the SNP was boosted by an early, close and fruitful relationship with Alex Salmond. The former leader and First Minister undoubtedly saw significant promise in the young activist when he was still in his early twenties:
‘Alex gave me an internship when nobody else did in 2006 and he kept me on because he must have seen something in me. He placed a huge amount of trust in me,’ recalls Yousaf.
A deep gratitude for the major opportunities Salmond offered to his new protégé is still palpable, as is the ongoing bond between the two men.
‘You’ve got to have some level of trust in somebody, even if you think they’re bloody good – you’re taking a bit of a gamble appointing a 27 year old as a minister in a national government, who’s only be elected for a year,’ says Yousaf.
‘We still keep in touch on a fairly regular basis on the Europe stuff. But he’s the first to say “I’ve given you all the guidance you need and the rest of it is up to you.” But I’m as close to Alex as I am to Nicola and I couldn’t have asked for two better mentors.’
If there is a certain mettle that has always marked Humza Yousaf out as destined for a leading role in politics, it’s worth remembering that this has been forged by pressures that would easily deter a less resilient figure from involvement in politics.
Last year, when UKIP MEP David Coburn likened Yousaf to convicted terrorist Abu Hamza, a media spotlight was shone on the extensive abuse Muslims in the public eye still face. In another incident later that year, during a stint as a Big Issue vendor outside Queen Street Station, Yousaf was racially abused by a member of the public.
However most of the insults, threats, diatribes and slurs leveled against Yousaf take place on social media, ‘I get it on a daily basis, not a weekly basis, on a daily basis,’ he explains.
I ask about the efficacy of his decision to occasionally highlight some of the more moronic examples of the abuse he gets on Twitter. He insists that those tweets are just the tip of the iceberg:
‘I have had easily over 200 Islamophobic tweets in the last year alone…at the absolute most I’ve given you a snippet of 10 per cent. Sometimes it’s important to call out these things,’ he says.
The combative approach that Yousaf takes harks back to debates within the Glasgow Muslim community after 9/11. At the time, he received an invitation to participate in a meeting called by local elders. This was to have a big impact – ‘I was invited because I was known for being a bit of loudmouth’ he jokes. The meeting dramatised how attitudes towards multiculturalism were changing within the community itself:
‘I remember very vividly, there was a complete generational split in the Glasgow Muslim community,’ he recalls.
A clear desire from the younger voices in the room to move beyond the instinctive response of the community – to keep a low profile, was key.
‘The young guys were saying…“we want to make sure our faith isn’t used by these terrorists, isn’t twisted, isn’t manipulated, we have to be pro-active in our engagement. This is our country, no ifs no buts, this is not a host country for us, we’re born and bred and raised here — this is our country.”’
A conviction that multiculturalism was something to be vociferous about has been a constant feature of Yousaf’s career.
His recent role chairing the Scottish Government’s refugee task force, set up to coordinate the national response to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, saw these values applied in practice.
In symbolic terms, a video of Yousaf taking the parliamentary oath in Urdu, while wearing a kilt, went viral and received global media coverage. I ask why he thinks the oath generated so much interest:
‘I think it’s because people see it in themselves. It’s very hard to find somebody who is just completely one dimensional in terms of their identity. No person is one-dimensional…I think it’s about celebrating that.’
‘“Multiculturalism” is practically spat out in some parts of these islands when it’s actually something that we should be celebrating.’
I ask if he thinks Scotland has done well in terms of integrating people of different faiths and cultures. He points to the tradition of ‘civic nationalism’ championed, but not owned by, the SNP as a very important factor. But there is also a note of caution:
‘I think the danger is if we assume somehow that Scots are inherently more open minded or multicultural — I don’t think that’s the case. I think there’s been an effort by people and it’s been a hard effort, to show people how integration can work and can work well. But we’ve also learned from some very difficult mistakes we’ve made,’ he says.
Yousaf was elected as an MSP on the Glasgow regional list in 2011. At this year’s election he managed to win the constituency of Glasgow Pollok, ousting former Labour leader Johann Lamont on a 10 per cent swing.
This represents a new kind of task for the politician, who now has to represent the concerns of a specific part of the city.
‘I suppose politics has always been about service for me and it feels remarkably different, which I didn’t’ think it would. You work just as hard as a list MSP, but coming back in as a constituency MSP is a very weird feeling – once you drive over the boundary thinking, well, I’m actually directly responsible for these very people.’
Glasgow, as is often noted, contains notorious divides in terms of income, life expectancy, health and educational attainment. I ask how Yousaf squares his own relatively privileged and privately educated background with the deprivation that many of his new constituents experience.
Characteristically, he refers to his own upbringing and values to explore the issue:
‘I never claimed to be somebody who came from a particularly deprived background… But bear in mind though, my father was an immigrant who came to this country with not very much money…He came from a very difficult background. But the way he brought us up was that your purpose in life is to ensure that you serve other people,’ he says.
‘Do I have an exact understanding of how someone who has grown up in poverty in Govan feels? Of course not – I’ve not lived that life. But how do I learn it? Well I go in and I speak to the people, I go into their houses, I go into the tenements and I look them in the whites of their eyes.’
‘The greatest quality a politician can have, bar none, is the ability to listen and the ability to care,’ he concludes.
There are other, obvious, qualities that the MSP posseses. Whether it’s charisma, a gift for repartee or a cultivated persona, certain politicians possess abilities that can seem a bit uncanny when you witness them up close, and Humza Yousaf is no exception.
‘The great lesson I was given by Alex Salmond when I first got involved was “never forget your purpose”. That is a mantra that has just stayed in my head. Never confuse power for purpose.’
Whether he’s picked up any dark arts along the way or not, there is nothing stereotypical about Humza Yousaf’s journey towards the forefront politics. For starters, the vast majority of Scottish politicians do not have to reassert, on a regular basis, that this is their country too.
With the SNP’s Deputy Leadership becoming vacant later in the year, speculation about Yousaf’s political future continues and is starting to gather pace once again.
‘I’m neither ruling myself in or out,’ he says, ‘I’ve had a lot of people asking. There’s a bit of time before anyone really has to make a call on these things so I’ve not really had the time to reflect on it if I’m very honest with you,’ he adds.
But if there is one factor that could act as a ceiling to Yousaf’s ambitions, it’s the way in which the demands of politics can crowd out personal and family life:
‘Your relationships suffer, I’m very family oriented, I don’t have kids or anything, but I have an extended family of over a hundred….We’ve had a difficult couple of years, we’ve had bereavements as well, and I’ve not always been there for people when they needed that support.’ He makes this last point with a marked tone of regret.
Time, which has proved so benevolent to Yousaf thus far, might end up limiting his prospects. He is unequivocal about not emulating his mentors on one important point:
‘I couldn’t imagine doing this for as long as Nicola or Alex have done it. I take my hat off to them for doing it, it’s certainly not a criticism, because it’s an incredible sacrifice on your personal life. If you’re interviewing me in ten years time you have permssion to tell me to quit and to step down.’
With the election of Sadiq Khan, also the son of a Pakistani immigrant, London now has a Muslim Mayor. Could Scotland one day elect a Muslim First Minister?
Given that we’re still in the early years of Nicola Sturgeon’s hugely popular leadership, the query may not seem particularly relevant.
Yet when the time comes, I think it will be another question – like those he had to find answers to as a 16 year-old – that Humza Yousaf will refuse to shy away from.