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Interview: Humza Yousaf MSP

I catch Humza outside the Grand Hall of the Stand Comedy Club at the Fringe, where he has just made an appearance to discuss Scottish politics, in a light-hearted manner, with a fairly sympathetic crowd. Not long before the show began, the Scottish Justice Secretary had left one of the government’s confidential government Cobra meetings, and was guarded about what was discussed. Humza’s capacity to make such a quick yet smooth transition from serious top-secret government meeting to having a laugh at the comedy club could be seen as exemplary of an astute, dexterous politician. But as far as Humza is concerned, the real clowning around is in Number 10.   “Far from avoiding a no deal which would be catastrophic, no deal Brexit has become a real policy choice for the government. No deal Brexit is now being looked at as an opportunity, which is beyond my comprehension. I’m more concerned now than I was previously.”

Yousaf has been asked by Westminster whether the police forces in Scotland might be pooled as a last resort in the event of any consequences from a no-deal Brexit. “The resilience of the police force is much greater in Scotland. There is a potential to pool resources from Scotland if necessary. However, if there is a belief that Scottish forces are going to be used simply to plug the gap in an under resourced police in England and Wales, then the government are misguided.”

Yousaf has recently decided to suspend use of his Twitter account, following a spate of online abuse. “My decision to give up Twitter was a bit of a slow burn. It would start with tens of abusive comments a day, which would become hundreds if I put out a particular tweet or there was some particular news about me.

“I drew the line when these abusive comments were directed at my newborn baby daughter. I had put up a picture of the new baby box I’d bought for her, and it was after reading some of the appalling comments below that I decided I’d had enough.

“I may return to Twitter later, but for the moment, I think there are more important things in life.”

Next we discuss drug addiction in Scotland. According to the National Records of Scotland, drug-related deaths in Scotland are the highest per capita in the EU, and show no signs of declining: the rate is up 27% on last year’s figures. Is the Scottish government taking the matter seriously?

“That figure is a stain on the collective conscience of the Scottish government,” Humza tells me. “It is not something where we can simply shrug our shoulders and accept it. We must do everything we can to prevent further deaths.” 

As justice secretary, does Humza share any responsibility in this drugs crisis? “Decriminalisation is a reserved power so it’s not something that I as justice secretary in Scotland can change. However, I would be keen to see the introduction of drug treatment centres across Scotland, following their relative success in other parts of Europe.

“Our approach to this issue is fundamentally as a public health rather than as a policing and crime issue. But from a policing perspective we have had successes in tackling serious organised crime and bringing to justice the criminals responsible for the proliferation of drugs among deprived communities.”

Just three days before we meet, the Scottish government paid out half a million pounds in legal fees to Alex Salmond after admitting it failed to meet its own guidelines in investigating him over sexual harassment claims. This admission was a serious victory for Alex Salmond, who had called the investigation “grossly unfair” and has undermined the credibility and rigor of the government’s sexual complaints investigative procedure. Perhaps understandably, Humza was not keen to discuss this for very long. “I used to know Alex Salmond well and work closely with him.

“As Justice Secretary I’m not in a position to comment on what remains an ongoing case. In terms of the costs involved, clearly, the government did not want to be in that position.”

Last week, Jeremy Corbyn put forward plans to lead a temporary unity government in Westminster – a coalition of pro-remain parties to avoid a no-deal Brexit. With Jo Swinson, leader of the Lib Dems, expressing a reluctance to support the proposal, instead touting the 79-year-old Conservative MP Ken Clarke as preferable interim prime minister, eyes had turned to the SNP’s 35-strong Westminster presence for an offer of support. Could Jeremy’s idea fly?

“The SNP are not the biggest fans of Jeremy Corbyn, not least because we don’t think his position on Brexit have been firm enough. But the consequences of a no deal Brexit would be utterly catastrophic.” Humza tells me. 

“If the remain parties in Westminster get together to form a pact, then as leader of the opposition, Jeremy would have a mandate to lead it.”

But how long would such a mandate last? For a fixed term, or until some prearranged milestone had been reached?

“The first thing that government would have to do is to remove the threat of no deal. Once that has been achieved, it would be my preference that we hold a people’s vote, to give people a chance to revaluate their decision given the complexities involved which we now know.”

Brexit has presented itself as quite the quandary for the SNP. On the one hand, given that three in five Scottish votes supported remain, it’s easier to make the case to this pro-remain base that it’s in Scotland’s interest to leave the UK. On the other hand, following three years of turmoil in Westminster over Brexit and without a clear resolution in sight, even the most dyed in the wool indy ref 2 supporters might be thinking to themselves, “could I go through all of this again? Could I stomach another three years of this?” How do the SNP quell these concerns? The answer it would appear, is to frame the handling of Brexit as a question of competence.

“It would be foolish of the SNP not to learn from Theresa May: she has written the manual for how not to negotiate a withdrawal agreement.” Humza says. 

“We need to make the case for a Scottish independence that would bring all points of view together, rather than a version of independence that appeals only to the fringes and the extremes, in the way that Theresa May had done with Brexit.” A soft Scottish exit seems to be the way forward.

Just recently Humza had been on paternity leave following the birth of his first child. He makes no secret about the effect that becoming a father has had on him: “Being a dad is the best thing in the world.

“In the same way that the lyrics of love songs seem hackneyed and clichéd until you first experience true love, the things people often say about becoming a parent really are true: I do feel I have a whole new perspective on life.

“My first day after paternity leave – being away from my daughter for a whole day – was especially tough. Most nights I get home late from work so I don’t get the chance to cuddle her as much as I’d like.”

Before we part company, and before I dash across Princes Street to catch the 3pm Oxford Revue performance, I wonder whether Humza will also be paying a visit to some shows at the Fringe (while he’s not starring in them).  “I’ve got family coming over from London and Saudi Arabia, and we’ll be going to a few shows together.” Will he be seeing any politics shows, like the one he just hosted? “I’ve got enough politics in my life.”

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