STEPPING into the shoes of Scotland’s longest-serving first minister, who was highly respected across the world, was never going to be a simple task Humza Yousaf.

But there are a few who could have envisaged the rollercoaster first year the man who put himself forward as the “continuity candidate” in the SNP leadership contest has had.

From Operation Branchform to the Michael Matheson saga, Yousaf’s introduction to the top job has been far from plain sailing, but just how well has he managed to surf the waves?

The Sunday National spoke to political experts Professor Murray Leith, Dr Paul Anderson and Dr Coree Brown Swan about the ups and downs of Yousaf’s premiership so far and what the big questions are going forward.

Big shoes to fill

MUCH of the talk in the early days of Yousaf’s tenure was the question of how he would follow Nicola Sturgeon, a figure who was widely heralded as a formidable politician whether you agreed with her or not.

Dr Anderson, who is a politics lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, said despite the fact Yousaf presented himself as the “continuity candidate”, there have been ways in which he has begun to distance himself from his predecessor.

“He has shelved some Sturgeon policy like the ban on alcohol advertising, not challenging the Gender Recognition Reform Bill decision,” he told the Sunday National.

“I think it’s quite difficult to rate [how well he has followed her] because his first ministership is still in its infancy, but there’s been elements of continuity and change.”

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Leith, a politics lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland, added: “I think he’s stepped into a very significant gap in terms of leadership and he’s done it at a time when the world stage has some major issues going on and we’ve had this muscular Unionism from the UK Government.

“He’s faced up to these challenges in a balanced manner and there’s been no huge gaffs.”

Dr Swan, a politics lecturer at the University of Stirling, said Yousaf had faced a tricky first year because of factors beyond his control. 

"I think the new First Minister had a profoundly difficult first year, often due to factors beyond his control. However, I'm not sure the public makes a meaningful distinction between factors within and outwith the control of the First Minister and suspect the laundry list of issues has negatively impacted his perception by the public," she said. 

Operation Branchform, defections and a big iPad row

IN the first few months of Yousaf’s time as First Minister, senior SNP figures including former chief executive Peter Murrell, ex-treasurer Colin Beattie and Sturgeon were all arrested and released without charge as part of the investigation into the party’s finances.

Since then, ex-SNP MP Lisa Cameron has defected to the Tories, Yousaf’s SNP leadership rival Ash Regan has become Alba’s first MSP, while SNP veterans Fergus Ewing and Angus MacNeil have faced suspension and expulsion respectively.

That was all before Matheson – a minister Yousaf has consistently backed - was forced to step down as Yousaf’s health secretary in disgrace after racking up a £11,000 data bill on his parliamentary iPad while on holiday.

Anderson said on Operation Branchform, the First Minister had dealt well with something largely out of his control, but did not come out so well from the Matheson saga.

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He said: “I think Yousaf was quite positive about Sturgeon and I think that possibly made the [Operation Branchform response] more difficult for him, but from that he promised reform, to make the party and government more accountable and that’s one to watch.

“The investigation hasn't concluded yet and I think, depending on the findings, that’s where he will be tested most.

“I think the biggest issue for Humza Yousaf has been the Matheson affair because he gave his support to the health secretary, which I can understand from a pragmatic point of view, but I think as more details came out, it damaged him to a certain extent.”

Leith added: “I don’t think Operation Branchform has really resonated with the Scottish public. Who’s talking about it now?

“The SNP are no doubt going to lose seats but I don’t think this issue is troubling people much.”

‘Muscular Unionism’

SOME key Scottish Government policies including the Gender Recognition Reform Bill and the Deposit Return Scheme have fallen by the wayside under Yousaf because of controversial interventions by the UK Government.

Meanwhile, the First Minister faced having to fend off more constitutional wrangling when Foreign Secretary David Cameron accused Yousaf of having breached protocols when he met the Turkish president without a UK official present at COP28.

Dr Anderson and Leith both agreed the idea of “muscular unionism” had come to define much of Yousaf’s early days as First Minister. 

Leith said: “It may not be what he thinks his year has been defined by because he’s introduced a range of policies and his government has released papers on what independence may look like, but I think what stands out is this battle of what is and is not devolved, what the Scottish Government can and cannot do, according to the UK Government.”

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Asked whether he felt "muscular Unionism" had come to define Yousaf’s first year, Dr Anderson said: “I agree with that 100%. Since Boris Johnson’s government, muscular unionism has become the strategy to deal with devolved governments. It’s something Mark Drakeford has had to deal with in Wales and Humza Yousaf has had to deal a lot with it.

“What’s interesting is muscular Unionism has so far not rescued the Union. Support for the SNP has declined but support for independence has not.”

Solidarity with Palestine

PLENTY of external factors have clearly made the year challenging for Yousaf, but Leith and Dr Anderson agree the way in which the Council Tax freeze announcement was handled was a “misstep”, particularly as it may spell problems going forward for the Scottish Government’s relationship with councils.

But there is a belief Yousaf has set out his stall as a caring and genuine politician with clear principles on tackling poverty, while his human approach in speaking about the crisis in Gaza – including his own family being trapped there - earned him widespread admiration.

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Dr Anderson said: “I think there have been some successes [on policy] in terms of commitments to tackling poverty and expanding childcare, we’ve seen this scrapping of peak-time rail fares so there’s been this awareness of the cost of living and though the Scottish Government are quite limited in terms of what they can do with finances, there has been clear policies to try and mitigate the cost of living crisis. 

“On Gaza, he’s handled it very well and he’s come across as a caring and courageous politician in calling for a ceasefire.  I think the most important thing is the First Minister has reached out to both the Jewish and Muslim communities in Scotland.

“He’s shown himself to be this genuine politician who has principles and is vocal about them and I think that’s important.”

Dr Swan added: "This was an unimaginable ordeal [his family being trapped], on top of a personally and politically very difficult year, and I think the First Minister's response was a strong one."

Leith said the fact Yousaf stood for a ceasefire early on, a policy now being mirrored globally, has earned him huge respect.

“He made his position very clear and it’s stance people now agree with, so I think that does reflect well on him,” he said.

What’s the vision?

IN a world where politics has become about aiming for the next election, referendum or major event, Dr Anderson said what may come to define Yousaf in the future is how well he sets out his long-term vision for Scotland.

He said: “I think there’s a challenge for the First Minister in that, he’s had big shoes to fill, but what is the Humza Yousaf vision for Scotland? That needs to come through and is something that perhaps needs a bit more work and airtime.”