Sunak and Yousaf: Two ‘sons of Empire’ call the shots for Scotland’s independence

While Yousaf is committed to Scottish independence, Sunak has vowed to ‘fight very hard’ to keep UK together 

Rishi Sunak and Hamza Yousaf.
British PM Rishi Sunak and Humza Yousaf, head of SNP, in file photos.

Ever since Humza Yousaf was elected the head of the Scottish National Party (SNP) with the expectation that he will take over as the First Minister of Scotland, social media — particularly among the South Asian diaspora in the UK as well as in India and Pakistan —has been going crazy about how the Empire has struck back.

Jokes relish the fact that Yousaf, a Pakistani-origin ‘First Minister’, and Rishi Sunak, an Indian-origin British Prime Minister, could be negotiating a secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom. The possibility that 75 years after the British partitioned the sub-continent, two sons of India and Pakistan will now preside over the division of the UK, has tickled South Asia’s excitement.

The irony has been lost on the majority of the indigenous British population, which is not taught about the history of the erstwhile colonies in schools. It has probably not touched the second and third-generation immigrants from South Asia either as they too are far removed from the countries of their origin. They see the election of Yousaf as another example of a successful multi-racial and inclusive Britain.

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Yousaf joins Sunak, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Scottish Labour Party leader Anas Sarwar as children of immigrants, the first generation of their families to be born in Britain, now holding leadership positions in the wheels of power. Their success can be seen as a triumph of social mobility and the emergence of a new political landscape in the modern-day UK.

Yousaf and Sunak

Yousaf shares a lot more than just his South Asian heritage with Sunak, but there are also important differences. While both leaders’ ancestors hailed from Punjab, Sunak’s grandparents left Gujranwala, now in Pakistan, for Nairobi in 1935; his father Yashveer moved to Liverpool in the UK in 1966. Yashveer studied medicine at the University of Liverpool and married Usha in 1977. Usha, Sunak’s mother, was born in Tanzania and migrated to Leicester in England in the 1970s.

Yousaf’s paternal grandparents, on the other hand, were economic migrants who moved from Mian Channu in Pakistan’s Punjab in the 1960s to the industrial town of Clydebank, Scotland, bringing their 10-year-old son Mian Muzaffar Yousaf with them. Yousaf’s grandfather Mohammed Yousaf worked at a Singer sewing machine factory in Clydebank, while his father studied, moved to Glasgow and went on to become an accountant.

Yousaf’s mother Shaaista Bhutta, also originally from Pakistan, moved from Kenya to Scotland in the 1960s with her family. Yousaf’s maternal grandfather Rehmat Ali Bhutta stamped tickets on Glasgow buses. Yousaf paid tribute to his family’s humble origins by announcing his intention to run for First Minister from Clydebank Town Hall and said “Scotland should be proud that a grandson of an immigrant can seek to become the next First Minister”.

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Sunak was born in Southampton, considered part of the affluent, Tory-supporting South of England, while Yousaf was born at the other end of the country, in working-class Labour supporting Glasgow. Sunak is a hardcore Conservative. Yousaf is Left of Centre.

Youngest leaders

Sunak became Britain’s prime minister at age 42, the youngest to hold that post in 200 years. Yousaf is even younger and, at 37, he too has become the youngest to hold the post of First Minister of Scotland. Yousaf is Scotland’s sixth First Minister since the devolved parliament was convened in 1999.

Both Sunak and Yousaf were privately educated, the latter at Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow. But unlike Sunak who followed a successful career in finance first and then came into politics, Yousaf became interested in politics from a young age. He studied politics at the University of Glasgow, graduating with an MA in 2007. At the university he joined the SNP, like his father Muzaffer and aunt Zahida, and believed strongly that the only way forward for Scotland was independence.

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After graduating Yousaf became a parliamentary assistant to the first South Asian Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP), Bashir Ahmad. He went on to become a parliamentary aide to former First Minister Alex Salmond. In 2011, Yousaf was elected as a MSP from Glasgow region when he took his oath in Urdu wearing a sherwani. At age 26, he was then the youngest MSP.

In 2012, Salmond elevated him to a minister for Europe and international development. When Nicola Sturgeon took over as First Minister from Salmond, Yousaf continued to serve as a minister, including holding the important health portfolio.

Hindu and Muslim

Sunak is a practising Hindu who took his House of Commons oath on the Bhagavad Gita and lit ‘diyas’ outside 10 Downing Street, his new home, on Diwali last year. Yousaf, the first Muslim to head a country in Western Europe, led his family in reading the namaz after breaking his Ramadan fast in Bute House, his official residence after taking up his new position.

Though they belong to parties diametrically opposed in the political spectrum, Yousaf and Sunak face similar circumstances within their own parties. Yousaf faces a deeply factionalised SNP after a bruising leadership contest. His first job is to bring his party together, much like Sunak has to do in the Conservative Party. Both leaders have to deal with economic headwinds of rising inflation and energy costs along with tackling the difficult question of mending the crumbling National Health Service.

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Touted as the “continuity candidate” who will step into his predecessor Sturgeon’s shoes and take her Scottish independence agenda forward, Yousaf will now have to work very hard to rebuild support for the independence campaign. A recent poll has shown that support for independence has dropped to 39 per cent among Scots, less than the 44.7 per cent who backed the campaign in the 2014 referendum and much lower than the 58 per cent who supported the proposal in 2020.

While Yousaf is committed to Scottish independence, Sunak has vowed to “fight very hard” to keep the United Kingdom together. Let’s see who wins.

(Sajeda Momin has held senior positions in Indian newspapers and now divides her time between Kolkata and London) 

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)