Inevitably journalists were curious about the new SNP leader’s early years. Was he a juvenile smoothie in high school or is it learned confidence? Did he pick up his party allegiance and social outlook early, or has he been – as the cliché has it – on a personal and political journey?
While any high-profile minister attracts a degree of media interest in their personal lives, one price politicians pay for reaching the top is that this curiosity about their origin stories only intensifies. But I was honestly surprised when the phone went several times over the last three weeks: “Did you know Humza at school? What was he like?”
Because as it happens, I’m a year younger than the new First Minister and was in the year below him at Hutchesons’ Grammar School during his formative years. I’ve racked my brain. For the life of me, I can’t remember crossing paths with Humza until years later. So I can’t tell you what young Humza was really like – but I can tell you something about the educational atmosphere in which he was educated.
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The British press has a storied history of inducing politicians’ ex-schoolteachers, lecturers and contemporaries to slag them off in print. So far, the papers have been remarkably unsuccessful in digging up indiscreet former classmates prepared to spill the beans on teenage Humza – beyond one modern studies teacher who described him as an “earnest, sincere, hard-working young person,” who “tended to be a little reserved in class”.
In some of the weekend papers, Hutchesons’ Grammar has been described as “Glasgow’s Eton”, suggesting the institution was some kind of Victorian boarding school, splicing Tom Brown’s Schooldays with Hogwarts on the banks of the Clyde. This is a diverting cliché, but it misses the cultural mark.
There were blazers – but no straw boaters and certainly no boarders. There was, I regret to confirm, improving team sports – but the school was a world away from the wind-blasted penal colonies like Gordonstoun where the upper classes send their kids.
This being Glasgow, the school had an altogether weirder class sensibility, largely unconscious of how privileged it was. I remember – shortly after arriving from my tiny primary school in mid-Argyll – getting grief for being “posh” and “speaking with an English accent,” of all things. Only in Glasgow could middle-class teenagers attending a private school conceive of themselves as the salt of the earth.
If – like me – you floated like a butter pat and jogged like manatee, your hirpling certainly became a bit of social punchline – but you still got social credit for being able to rub your braincells together. In Glenalmond they teach the kids to strip down a rifle in 60 seconds and to march around a square in prim military order. In Hutchie they drilled kids into being exam-sitting machines, year on year, until you could reliably fire out five As at Higher.
From the US to the UK, it’s familiar immigrant’s gag that first-generation parents aspirational for their children believe there are only three possible professions: doctors, lawyers and accountants. Hutchesons was tailor-made to cater for this sensibility. In this solidly (and often stolidly) middle-class atmosphere, the institution assumed everyone would go on to university, and if you weren’t interested in pursuing any of these three professions, then it didn’t really know what to do with you.
Individual teachers were open-minded, irreverent, entertaining, thoughtful and encouraging. We got access to amazing educational resources and opportunities. But institutionally? In the early 2000s, the school’s social keynote was small-minded conservatism. We got an abstinence-based education on sex and drugs – which as you’d imagine, did little to discourage anyone’s interest in either activity. Gay people might as well not have existed.
For the Christians, the agnostics and the atheists – there was compulsory Christian worship every morning and separate morning assemblies for the school’s substantial Jewish and Muslim communities.
The small stuff was often sweated. There were episodic moral panics – which even hit the press – amongst the pettier teachers and parents about uniforms, the length of girls’ skirts, boys with long hair and – shock horror – facial hair. These were regarded as the marks of problematic indiscipline.
Compliant and more conventional spirits tended to be held in high regard. Being left-field, unpredictable, or lying at a slightly different angle to the universe tended to be met – if not with outright hostility by the school hierarchy – then with pursed lips.
The school’s spiritual heartlands were East Renfrewshire, and the villas of Pollokshields and Newlands. Kids often borrow their politics from their parents – at least initially – and Hutchesons’ Grammar was no exception.
In the early 2000s, it was a bastion of rotary club Conservatism and New Labourism. Politically, the school Humza grew up in was a hostile environment – both towards the SNP, and the idea of Scottish independence more generally. I’d be interested to know if it is still the same way.
SCOTTISH Tory politicians would often drop in. I’ll never forget David McLetchie sitting down to lunch after delivering the James Maxton Memorial lecture – the Red Clydesider was presumably birling in his grave – and explaining to a room full of teenagers that he thought a female colleague on the SSP benches “looked like a pre-Raphaelite fishwife”. Big Jock Carlaw – who was a school governor then – met this misogynistic quip about Carolyn Leckie with a toad’s chorus of deferential laughter, and I updated the first chapter of my book of political grudges.
That is the social context that I remember. But politically? One thing which will not be obvious to the outside observer was just how profoundly politicised the environment in the school became in the wake of September 11, 2001.
Then and now, the school was ethnically and religiously diverse. There were students from second and third -generation families from China, India and Pakistan. Glasgow’s traditional Jewish community was also strongly represented.
In previous interviews, Humza has identified 9/11 as a turning point in his own political consciousness, as he found himself fencing with classmates’ questions about the motivations of the attackers. I was 14 going on 15 when I came home from school to see the Twin Towers in New York falling.
What shaped the new FM? (Image: -)
To this day, I’ve never been in an environment where discussion of the Middle East, religion, terrorism and human rights was more vehement than those schooldays in the early and mid-2000s, as Blair and Bush rolled out their armed quest for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, passing sweeping and often illiberal terrorism legislation at home, and the public discussion of the Islamic faith operated at the intensity of contemporary debates on gender recognition reform.
I can still vividly recall the school day in September 2002 when the news broke that a bus bomb had exploded in Tel Aviv. Among the victims was a young Glaswegian – Yoni Jesner. Just 19, Jesner – due to take up a medical degree at UCL – had been on a gap year in Israel. And while I’d never met him, all you had to do walk down the corridor to realise every single Jewish pupil in the whole institution knew him well, and grieved, and angered at his passing.
In the years that followed, a number of my high school contemporaries moved to Israel, and even joined their armed forces. Compared to most schools in Glasgow, my impression is that geopolitical and religious tensions were particularly profound in modern studies classrooms in Hutchesons’ Grammar at this time.
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This leadership election has been hailed – and bewailed – in some circles as a generational change in the SNP. But I’m beginning to understand what John Le Carré was getting at when he wrote “power sits uneasily on those one has grown up with”.
Talk to an older generation of SNP activists about their experience of Scottish politics, and they’ll tell you a story of political endurance and failure. Today’s ambitious young things haven’t been tempered by 15 years of failure but by 16 years of election victories, the collapse of Scottish Labour, and SNP domination of the Scottish political scene.
Within a couple of years of first being elected, Kate Forbes was junior minister for public finance. Humza Yousaf first entered Holyrood in May 2011 – and by September 2021 was minister for external affairs and international development.
Both front runners’ formative experience of party politics has involved riding the crest of a wave they did not create.
It is unclear, having learned the habits of victory, whether the new regime is intellectually or emotionally prepared for the challenges awaiting them and the party.