BOTH Humza Yousaf and I are geriatric millennials, and it’s difficult not to conclude that our politics were profoundly shaped by many of the same events, not least the Iraq war and the so-called ‘war on terror’, or the financial collapse and the resulting slash-and-burn austerity.

But clearly there are profound differences: for a start, he’s running a country, while I’m a lowly writer. As we meet in his Holyrood office, I point out how affronted I am that he’s eight months younger. “You look younger than me!” he flatters me: I point out my grey hairs are just more hidden.

Frankly, I’m surprised Scotland’s First Minister has not been aged more by the job. He’s the first Muslim leader of a Western European nation, and has been subjected to relentless Islamophobic bile. He came to power when Scotland’s independence movement - which for so long seemed to have unassailable momentum - faced challenges, from Nicola Sturgeon’s legacy to a Labour resurgence gifted entirely by Tory self-immolation.

But amidst all that has not only been the challenge of responding to Israel’s onslaught against Gaza - when the lives of his own loved ones were at stake. Here’s where I wanted to start.

Yousaf will never forget waking up on the morning of 7th October and seeing the phone of his wife - Scottish-Palestinian psychotherapist and local SNP councillor - Nadia El-Nakla repeatedly flashing.

They were messages from her mother who - along with her father - was visiting El-Nakla’s then-92 year-old grandmother in Gaza. “And then Nadia read the message and said 'my god, my mum’s telling me that it’s all over the news that Hamas have infiltrated into Israel, that they’ve committed an attack'.”

Yousaf emphasises it was a “terror attack” and “one that just has no justification, of course”: yet knowing Israel’s response in the past, “we knew this one was going to be on a scale which we’ve never seen before.”

Yousaf and El-Nakla managed to get through and urged them to leave immediately: but the Rafah border was closed.

The National: Nadia El-Nakla Humza Yousaf

They were trapped, and in the coming weeks, wandering bombed streets, a grandmother in tow minus a wheelchair. For a month, the First Minister and his wife did not know if they would survive. After his first conference speech as SNP leader, their mother-in-law rang after a nearby missile strike knocked through their windows.

On another occasion, Yousaf had to pause an interview after the neighbourhood El-Nakla used to visit every year was hit, and they couldn’t get through.“I think we went three days once without hearing from them, and just the worst assumptions that they weren’t alive.”

Thankfully, both managed to cross the border to safety in early November. His wife’s cousins and wider family remain. But even for those without family there, Yousaf cannot understand how anyone can support an Israeli onslaught which, when including those buried under rubble, is believed to have killed at least 40,000 Palestinians.

“I do not get how you can see that level of death, destruction of children in particular. And you cannot call for the violence to immediately stop.”

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Yousaf called for a ceasefire and condemned collective punishment within days, when there was a suffocating political and media consensus in favour of Israel’s onslaught - albeit one out of step with public opinion. I wondered if he was warned against taking such a position.

“Truthfully, there was some nervousness because nobody else had put their head above parapet, certainly not in Europe and certainly not in the UK to demand an immediate ceasefire.”

While Starmer has rightly described Russia’s brutal actions in Ukraine as war crimes, he has refused to do so in Gaza. I wonder if Yousaf will use this term. He offers some examples: unarmed men waving the white flag of surrender being shot and killed, refugee camps bombed, and collective punishment continue, describing them as “all breaches of international law”.

But are they war crimes, a term other Western leaders refuse to use. “Well, I think they’re war crimes to me. They’re certainly breaches of international law to me.” On this, he calls for those who break international law “to be held accountable and they must be held to account.”

The National: Keir Starmer

On this, I wonder if he would support an international war crimes tribunal like that which took place in the former Yugoslavia. Crucially, while the large majority of convicted were Serbs, others were prosecuted too: in this case, while Israeli ministers could be tried, the same would apply to Hamas. It’s not something he’s given much consideration, but thinks it is worthy of such.

But Yousaf has thought through other consequences for Israel. This is important, because while Israeli leaders know they can easily ignore politicians’ handwringing, the state depends on Western arms sales and diplomatic and political support.

“That’s why, for example, the SNP has unequivocally called for an end to arms exports to Israel,” he tells me. “How can you export arms, or even components for arms, to a government that we know has killed tens of thousands of civil children, bombed schools, bombed refugee camps, bombed markets, bombed hospitals?”

What, then, of Labour’s successful attempt to sabotage a SNP notion in Westminster charging Israel with collective punishment. “It demonstrates to me that Keir Starmer has completely lost his moral compass again,” he tells me. He says he will never forget Starmer publicly stating Israel has the right to cut off power and water to Gaza’s civilian population, then later claiming he never believed this.

Does that make him unfit for high office, I ask?

“For me, Keir Starmer, really, I do have questions about whether or not, when it comes to international affairs, when, it comes to domestic policy, actually, he’s fit enough to be prime minister given the questions that this issue alone has raised.

Notoriously, the Speaker overturned Parliamentary precedent to wreck the SNP motion, and Labour sources briefed they’d told Sir Lindsey Hoyle he would be removed by Labour when they won an election unless he did so. Was that blackmail?

“Oh, there was definitely, I think, harassment. There was definitely intimidation. I suspect bullying as well. That is certainly the suspicion, that is certainly the worry and the concern that we’ve got.”

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Given subsequently the Speaker refused to call Diane Abbott in a debate centred on racist comments directed at her by main Tory donor Frank Hester, will the SNP continue to seek to remove him from office? Not only does he stick by such a position, he describes the Speaker’s behaviour as indicative of “institutional racism, the fact that a Black female MP is not able to speak for herself, but other people are able to speak for her.”

Yousaf has undoubtedly taken a courageous stance, but the SNP too has questions to ask. Last month, it was revealed that an Israeli military flight departed from state-owned Glasgow Prestwick Airport in November.

Was Yousaf aware of this, and will he be banning such flights? Yousaf emphasises there’s a hands-off approach to the airport and he wasn’t aware in advance: but to be consistent, surely he should take a stand? He says he needs to be careful because there are things he is and isn’t able to do. But since our interview, the Scottish Government has said the airport will no longer do business with the Israeli military.

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There's also the question of the Green Party - the SNP’s ally as per the Bute House Agreement - calling on Israel to ban companies with links to illegal Israeli settlements from receiving public contracts and grants. Yousaf protests he has no power to do so under procurement legislation.

But there’s also the matter of Scottish Enterprise applying human rights checks to companies seeking grants, with every single one being approved, including those accused of links to human rights abuses from Yemen to Gaza.

Here he suggests it’s a question of diversification, and maintaining checks on companies which review grants. But what of the fact that, say, Leonardo, an Italian weapons company, has a huge site in Edinburgh and manufactures arms for Israel. “We should stop arming Israel,” he tells me, “end of. I don’t have the power to do that. If I had the power to do that as First Minister, I would have done it months ago, quite frankly.”

It’s not surprising that a pro-independence leader of Scotland is frustrated by the limitations imposed by mere devolution, and believes forging a new foreign policy would be a priority of an independent nation. Palestinians in particular and Muslims general, he says, “feel their blood is very very cheap”.

That new independent Scotland certainly appeals to –much of my family, who voted Yes a decade ago: my mother, based in Edinburgh, was not one of them. Can he convince her? She fears how a small nation would fare against the great forces of global capitalism.

“First of all, I say to her: the evidence is all around us. We could look at Ireland, Austria, Norway, Denmark. Countries that are similar to the size of Scotland, that, of course, are in Europe. All have higher national income per head, have higher productivity, lower levels of inequality and poverty in their countries. So if Scotland has world class food and drink, world class universities, life sciences, renewable technology, oil and gas industry and everything else, then why not Scotland?”

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She fears, too, being trapped in the worst of all worlds: a formerly independent Scotland which remains locked into sterling, lacking control over its own economic destiny.

“The goal and the destination is to have our own Scottish currency,” he reaffirms.

“But we also take a pragmatic approach to independence. We know that upon independence that we’re going to have transitional phases.”

Although in the interests of stability that would leave, for a time, Scotland “relying more on fiscal than monetary levers”, he believes a new currency would become possible. What, then, of claims made by centrist think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies that austerity may beckon?

Here he emphasises why keeping the pound would be needed for stability, and “there’s not going to be a river of milk and honey and manna falling from the sky”, but they would rely first on fiscal levers before finally securing control over monetary policy.

Here is probably what will remain an anxiety of many undecided Scots, but a protracted period of turmoil within the UK borders - not least because of a Brexit which was rejected by Scotland - has undoubtedly reduced the intensity of those fears. But isn’t Yousaf’s worst fear a Labour government, because Scottish resentment at languishing under a Tory rule they did not vote for would dissipate?

He’s confident a Starmer administration will be an accidental ally. He points to Labour committing to a two-child benefit limit which drives many children into poverty, and how Labour’s Anas Sarwar’s fiery denunciation of the Tory lifting of the bankers’ bonus cap dissipated when Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves committed to not reinstating it.

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“He’s a branch manager!” splutters Yousaf, a well-rehearsed SNP description of Scottish Labour leaders. Clearly the SNP gamble goes like this: that when a Starmer government offers little change from its Tory predecessor, all remaining illusions in the Union will be crushed.

Yousaf is upbeat, to say the least.

“The SNP is winning. The cause of independence is winning.”

If a Westminster government blocks a new referendum, then they will simply build more pressure. At the end of our conversation, we speculate it could be a May election: but with Rishi Sunak staring electoral catastrophe down the barrel of a gun, the prime minister has since ruled it out.

What is clear is that - if Labour, as seems likely, wins a crushing majority, with the Tories decimated - the Scottish First Minister could be something of an opposition leader beyond Scotland’s borders. And whether you agree with him or not, it’s clear Yousaf speaks from conviction - not something Starmer himself could ever be accused of.