All but one of Scotland’s
cabinet ministers have been white

Nasar Meer

Who is going to win the campaign to replace Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the Scottish National party (SNP) and first minister of Scotland? There are various facts and qualities we can look to. For instance, the Scottish health secretary, Humza Yousaf – recently tipped as the frontrunner – has won more elections and held more ministerial posts than the finance secretary, Kate Forbes, and the former community safety minister, Ash Regan.
Evidence suggests that this kind of ministerial track record can both help and hinder prospective candidates in party leadership elections. But Yousaf also enters the contest being the only cabinet minister in the entire 24 years of Scottish devolution who is not white – the impact of which is harder to quantify. There are already clues to how this may play out – in distortions of a speech that Yousaf made while the cabinet secretary for justice, in which he lamented how “for 99% of the meetings I go to, I’m the only non-white person in the room”. Social-media users, many of them seemingly not Scottish, have spun the speech as though he were “anti-white”, rather than describing social realities during a parliamentary debate about antiracism.
Over the years, Yousaf has not been afraid to publicly call attention to structural racism in Scotland. The evidence supports him: across different levels of government in Scotland, minority representation is well below the broader ethnic and racial minority share of the population. What’s more, ethnic and racial minorities in Scotland are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty, and there is a substantial employment gap and, for those in work, a pay gap – white Scottish workers earn, on average, 10% more. It might look paradoxical from England to see Yousaf talk about racism in Scotland given that he’s a “nationalist”, but in Scotland it makes perfect sense.
Take this anecdote that Yousaf has shared about his father. “My dad just assumed that Scotland was independent,” he says, “and it was only when he was told that we’re not, he thought, ‘Well, that’s not right’, and so decided to join [the SNP].” As far as origin stories go, especially for someone with an ambition to lead a nationalist party, it is conspicuously free of flag-waving love-of-country sentiment, but appeals to a sense of responsibility all the same. It is less “nationalist” in the exclusionary sense when contrasted with similar stories from ethnic and racial minority ministers in the UK government. Suella Braverman, for example, has often used her family’s story of arrival to the UK to justify keeping others from doing the same. Or note that Yousaf launched his campaign last week in Clydebank, somewhere synonymous with the heyday of heavy industries (especially shipbuilding) and characteristic of the good and ill of regeneration efforts. These are not markers of ethnicity or ways of reassuring Scottish voters that he will be “tough” on migrants. They hint at what the sociologist David McCrone has long argued is the role of “space”, not merely the role of “tribe”, in contemporary Scottish nationhood.
This is not to say symbolism is unimportant. When in 2011 Yousaf was first elected an MSP, he made his oath of allegiance in Urdu wearing traditional Pakistani clothes, and a band of Partick Thistle FC tartan pinned to his lapel. His arrival in Holyrood more broadly corresponded with a certain confidence in the SNP about its appeal to ethnic and racial minorities in Scotland, and the wider project of national identity that it wanted to cultivate. In research I conducted at the time, one SNP MSP told me they had “captured nationalism and made it something positive, and made it civic”. The implication was clear: as it formed its very first government, the SNP would pursue a broadly inclusive “big tent” nationhood that did not anchor itself in ideas of blood and soil associated with other minority nationalist parties.
True to the vision, the SNP in office has broadly maintained its aversion to the drive for assimilation found in other comparable parties, such as in the Parti Québécois, with its controversial charter of values. Hence the white paper Scotland’s Future, which set out the case for independence, insisted that “a commitment to multicultural Scotland will be a cornerstone of the nation on independence”. We always need, however, to distinguish between the identities of political parties and people’s national identities. Academics such as McCrone have long shown that national identities in Scotland don’t mobilise people in a purely party political fashion, and repeatedly established that there is no straightforward relationship between feeling Scottish and an aspiration for greater national self-determination (either in terms of greater devolution or indeed independence).
Yet Yousaf’s trajectory into nationalist politics does chime with the phenomenon of Scottish ethnic and racial minorities consistently identifying themselves in surveys with the Scottish nation (either as Scottish only, or Scottish-British, or Scottish plus something else). Scottish-Pakistanis, in particular, are twice as likely to identify themselves as Scottish than their counterparts in England are likely to identify as English. Though, as my university colleague Ross Bond has shown, this does not prevent them identifying as British too. This last point is the first to be made by Labour’s leader in Scotland, Anas Sarwar, who is buoyed by the prospect of a resurgent Labour party in Westminster. Should Yousaf win the SNP leadership contest, it would see the case for Scottish independence being made and contested by two different kinds of nationalists (one favouring independence, the other the union) who have a shared record of antiracism. As the SNP leadership contest picks up and the racism that each has encountered in public life becomes even more febrile, we may well come to remember this election as a defining moment for race in Scotland too.
The Guardian