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How Scotland's incoming prime minister is making history

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A Muslim of Pakistani descent is now the leader of the Scottish government. Humza Yousaf, currently Scotland's health secretary, is the person making British history. For more, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who is following the story from London. Frank, help put this in perspective for us by telling us a little bit about Yousaf.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: You know, A, in addition to being health secretary, A, he also served as transport minister. And Yousaf's grandparents - they came here to the U.K. in the 1960s. His grandfather used to work at this Singer sewing machine factory outside of Glasgow. Now, you know, Yousaf is now 37. And he's become the youngest person, the first ethnic minority to run the Scottish government, which - of course, Scotland is about 96% white. And there was this striking line yesterday from an analyst that I know who said, you know, when King Charles holds his coronation in May, he's going to be inviting a British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who is of Indian descent, and a Scottish first minister of Pakistani descent. And when you think about the colonial history, when you also think about the racism that South Asians have faced here over the years, it really is a milestone.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. So I imagine the British press is giving Yousaf's identity a lot of coverage.

LANGFITT: No, it's not. That's what's really interesting, A. It's actually not. Most of the coverage is really about Scottish and national politics. Scottish politics are fascinating. And this is true also to some extent - when Sunak, who's a Hindu - when he became prime minister, the coverage was much of the same. And I think this is - while it is a milestone, this is not out of the blue. People of South Asian descent have been in positions of power for quite some time here. And so this seems kind of pretty normal and kind of evolutionary.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So let's get into the politics then. What's on his agenda?

LANGFITT: Yeah. So Yousaf - he's leader of the Scottish National Party, which has dominated politics in Scotland for a really long time. And their biggest priority is Scottish independence. And this is how Yousaf put it yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUMZA YOUSAF: We want to return to the European Union and play our part in building a continent that's based on human rights, on peace, prosperity and social justice. We will be the generation that delivers independence for Scotland.

LANGFITT: Now, that's what Yousaf says, but that's going to be a big challenge, A. The U.K. government has refused to allow Scotland to hold an independence referendum. Polls show that more Scots are actually against leaving the U.K. than are for it. And there are a number of reasons for that. They've seen how difficult it's been for the U.K. to leave the EU. You know, the whole Brexit process has been incredibly fraught. And there are also concerns that Scotland, which has a population, A, of, like, 5 1/2 million - that they financially just wouldn't be able to afford to go it alone outside the United Kingdom.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Yousaf is replacing Nicola Sturgeon, who had dominated Scottish politics. Does he have her popularity or even her presence?

LANGFITT: No, he really doesn't. And almost nobody does. I mean, Sturgeon - I followed her on the stump over the years. She is one of the most - was, as she's now retiring from that job - she's one of the most skilled politicians in the entire country. And Yousaf - this is really interesting. He only won the Scottish National Party's top job with 52% of the vote. And there were quite a few attacks from his rivals, which is unusual because the Scottish National Party's famously disciplined. But they had ammunition. You know, when Yousaf was health minister, there were record waiting times here, which, in fairness, you see around the U.K. But as head of transport, there were also troubles with ageing ferries on the western islands. So also, last year, membership plunged about 30%. So Yousaf has a lot of work, I think, ahead to unify and energize the party and try to maintain its dominance up in Scotland with the next elections, which - they're coming about 2024.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, thank you.

LANGFITT: Hey, happy to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "SOLITARY BEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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