Humza Yousaf, the Scottish Health Secretary, has been elected the new leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP). The result was announced today (27 March 2023) at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh. There were three candidates and after second-preference transfers, Mr Yousaf won 52.1% of the final vote and Kate Forbes, the Finance Secretary, 47.9%.

Nicola Sturgeon, who became SNP leader in November 2014, will now submit her resignation as First Minister to the King. This follows the practice at Westminster, which ensures that a First Minister is always in place.

This Insight looks at how a First Minister of Scotland is appointed.

Nomination of First Minister

Unlike at Westminster, where a Prime Minister is appointed by the Monarch under the Royal Prerogative, the First Minister of Scotland is nominated for appointment by Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs). This takes place when a First Minister resigns or following an election.

Theoretically, any MSP could become First Minister. In practice, however, they will be the leader of the party with the most MSPs, which is currently the SNP. The parliamentary vote to select Nicola Sturgeon’s successor is due to take place on Tuesday 28 March.

Under section 46 of the Scotland Act 1998, once a First Minister has tendered their resignation to the King, the Scottish Parliament has a period of 28 days in which to nominate one of its members for appointment as their successor.

Section 45(1) of the 1998 Act provides that:

The First Minister shall be appointed by His Majesty from among the members of the Parliament and shall hold office at His Majesty’s pleasure.

A candidate to become the new First Minister must be an MSP. The Presiding Officer will invite each nominee to speak in support of their candidacy (in 2014 there were two: Nicola Sturgeon and the then Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson). Douglas Ross, the current Scottish Conservative leader, has said he will be a candidate this time.

Once nominees have spoken, MSPs are asked to cast their vote for their preferred candidate. A separate vote is held for each one. The results are then verified and announced by the Presiding Officer. The successful candidate is elected by a simple majority (abstentions are not included).

The Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament will then recommend to the King that he appoint the winning candidate as First Minister of Scotland.

Under section 47 of the 1998 Act, and with the agreement of the Scottish Parliament, a new First Minister then appoints ministers from among other MSPs (except for the two Scottish law officers) “with the approval of His Majesty”. These appointments are expected to be made later this week.

Swearing in ceremony

A First Minister is appointed via Royal Warrant, a legal document authorised by the King. On Wednesday 29 March, Humza Yousaf will be sworn in at the Court of Session, Scotland’s senior civil court.

The Lord President of the Court of Session will administer the “official declaration”, or oath of office. Secondly, he will administer another declaration to the First Minister as Keeper of the Scottish Seal (this is sometimes mistakenly called the Great Seal of Scotland). Finally, the Lord President will administer the declaration (or oath) of allegiance to the King.

In response to all three, the new First Minister, with right hand upheld, will silently indicate their assent by bowing their head.

By custom, the First Minister of Scotland becomes a member of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, a body which advises the King on exercising his prerogative powers. It is also likely that Humza Yousaf will soon be invited to a private audience with the King.

About the author: Dr David Torrance is the devolution specialist at the House of Commons Library

Photo by Claudio Divizia on Adobe Stock

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