As Holyrood returns, can Humza Yousaf move on from a bruising recess?

The First Minister faced a flood of terrible front pages over his controversial hate crime law

When one of the world’s most famous authors accuses you of “bumbling incompetence” in front of her 14.1 million social media followers, it’s got to hurt a bit.

The attacks by JK Rowling on Humza Yousaf’s controversial hate crime legislation dominated headlines during the first few days of Holyrood’s Easter break.

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As Police Scotland dealt with a deluge of complaints under the new law, the First Minister faced a flood of terrible front pages.

First Minister Humza Yousaf. Picture: Fraser Bremner - Pool/Getty ImagesFirst Minister Humza Yousaf. Picture: Fraser Bremner - Pool/Getty Images
First Minister Humza Yousaf. Picture: Fraser Bremner - Pool/Getty Images

The scale of the backlash seemed to take the Scottish Government by surprise. Just a few days earlier, Mr Yousaf had been dismissing criticism of the Hate Crime Act as a “Holyrood bubble story”, telling journalists: “I don’t think it really is permeating much more than that.”

Ms Rowling was far from alone in lambasting the new law. Lord Hope of Craighead, one of Scotland’s most senior legal figures, called it “unworkable”. Former first minister Jack McConnell said he had “watched events in Scotland over recent days with my head in my hands”, and drew comparisons with the doomed Offensive Behaviour at Football Act.

The Scottish Police Federation, meanwhile, said the force may have to reduce services or make cuts due to the burden of dealing with the legislation. "That will have an impact later on in the year, there's no doubt about it,” David Threadgold, its chair, told The Scotsman.

Political journalists usually dread the two-week Easter recess because it can be hard to find anything to write about. Not so this year.

On Wednesday, the Tories will launch a bid to repeal the Hate Crime Act by forcing a vote in Holyrood. It won’t succeed, but it will keep the legislation firmly in the media spotlight.

As the Scottish Parliament returns, Mr Yousaf will hope the row dies down as the torrent of hate crime complaints starts to slow. But his opponents are unlikely to let the matter rest – not least because there are questions that remain unanswered. The policy around so-called “non-crime hate incidents”, for example, is still unclear.

There are plenty of other issues his Government will need to grapple with, too. Ministers in Scotland have so far avoided saying anything substantial about the Cass Review, a landmark report into child gender services. This was commissioned by NHS England, but its impact extends far beyond such borders.

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The Scottish Government has said it will consider its findings. It will come under pressure to take action sooner rather than later.

Then there’s the upcoming general election. A recent poll showed Mr Yousaf’s popularity has plummeted, including among SNP voters. Perhaps significantly, the research was carried out in the wake of the hate crime row.

It’s been a bruising recess, but the First Minister has little time to sit and lick his wounds. He will need to turn things around in the coming weeks and months. Most of all, he will hope the Scottish public do not share Ms Rowling’s withering assessment of his abilities.



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