Scotland’s parliament on Tuesday confirmed Humza Yousaf will replace Nicola Sturgeon as first minister, the devolved nation’s youngest and the first Muslim leader of a government in western Europe.
Yousaf, 37, narrowly won a Scottish National Party (SNP) leadership battle on Monday to clinch the top job, vowing to rejuvenate the stalled pursuit of independence for Scotland.
He then secured the nominations of a majority of lawmakers in a vote Tuesday to become the new first minister and will be formally sworn in on Wednesday.
Ahead of the confirmatory vote, Yousaf acknowledged he had “some very big shoes to fill” succeeding Sturgeon but vowed to “continue to ensure that Scotland is a positive, progressive voice on the world stage”.
“I will also argue vigorously for independence,” he added afterwards, pledging in the meantime “to make the best possible use of this parliament’s existing powers”.
Yousaf promised Monday to be “the generation that delivers independence for Scotland,” and said he would ask London promptly to allow another vote.
But the UK government’s Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said he hoped the new SNP leader would “put his obsession with independence aside”.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak congratulated Yousaf later Tuesday in their first conversation since the latter’s win.
“I’m looking forward to working with him to deliver on the priorities that matter most to people across Scotland,” Sunak tweeted.
Yousaf called the discussion “constructive” but in a thinly veiled reference to holding another referendum, said he “also made clear that I expect the democratic wishes of Scotland’s people and Parliament to be respected”.
Earlier, Sturgeon sent her formal letter of resignation to King Charles III, and left the first minister’s official residence in Edinburgh for the last time.
She later tweeted that she wishes longtime ally Yousaf “every success and will be willing him on every step of the way”.
He will be sworn into the role Wednesday following formal approval from the king — whom he wants to dislodge in favour of an elected head of state for Scotland.
SNP leaders took pride in Scotland becoming the first democracy in western Europe to appoint a Muslim as leader.
“I think what it says about the UK is that we are a welcoming group of nations, and Scotland in particular,” Stephen Flynn, the party’s leader in the UK parliament, told AFP.
– Criticism –
He contrasted that with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government seeking “to outlaw asylum seekers” through new legislation to tackle boatloads of migrants crossing the Channel.
The seismic shift in Scottish politics follows Sturgeon’s surprise resignation announcement last month after more than eight years at the helm.
It came after a stormy period for her government, during which support for independence has slipped.
Recent surveys show around 45 percent of Scots back Scotland leaving the United Kingdom — the same tally recorded in a 2014 referendum which London insists settled the matter for a generation.
Yousaf, who was health minister in Sturgeon’s last cabinet, narrowly topped the SNP contest with 52 percent of members’ preferentially ranked votes.
He attracted criticism over his record in several roles in government.
– Divisions –
He now faces a bigger challenge to win over the wider Scottish electorate, with a UK general election expected within the next 18 months.
An Ipsos poll conducted shortly before he was announced as SNP leader showed that half of Scots feel that the country is heading in the wrong direction, while just a quarter feel it is heading in the right direction.
Despite winning a succession of elections under Sturgeon, the SNP also faces bitter divisions following the three-way leadership battle.
Sturgeon’s last months in power were overshadowed by the backlash against a new Scottish law allowing anyone over 16 to change their gender without a medical diagnosis.
As debate raged, the UK government used an unprecedented veto to block the legislation.
The UK Supreme Court last year also ruled that Sturgeon’s government could not hold a new referendum on Scottish independence without London’s approval.
The twin setbacks prompted somewhat rare criticism of her leadership and tactics.