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Humza Yousaf giving his resignation speech.
Alamy/Andrew Milligan

Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s departing first minister, and the art of the resignation speech

Humza Yousaf’s resignation as first minister of Scotland was, in the end, expected, after a chain of events made his position untenable. It was trailed from early in the morning that he would be resigning, so when he finally addressed the media at lunchtime, there was no sense of shock in the room.

The departure speeches of government leaders are of course as varied as the reasons for which they are given. But there are consistencies across the genre, too.

Such speeches are usually between about 12 and 20 minutes long and follow what is crudely called the “turd sandwich” approach. They begin with a justification of the politician’s record in office, focusing on key successes and innovations. They then make comments about the future of politics – perhaps swiping at certain opponents or even members of their own party – and encourage public vigilance around certain issues. The speech will then conclude with broad comments about what the resigning leader may do in the future, observations that it has been an honour and pleasure to serve the public of “this great nation” and thanks to those who have helped in their career, including family and friends. Often a wife, husband or partner will stand dutifully at their side while the speech is made.

Yousaf spoke for just under 10 minutes, which may be a reflection of his short tenure of just over one year. He also largely resisted the urge to take swipes at others. He “genuinely” wished his party and the opposition well and said he had no ill feeling towards anyone. This may be a reflection of his own culpability in his downfall, but also his age (39) and his thoughts about what may be to come.

Yousaf welled up somewhat when he talked about the support of his wife and family, and this is a common occurrence in departure speeches. Gordon Brown was visibly upset as he spoke for the last time as prime minister in 2010, as was Theresa May in 2019. There are famous photographs of Margaret Thatcher in tears in the back of the car as she left Downing Street in 1990.

Staying humble

Few politicians are afforded the luxury of a departure on their own terms or even under the relatively steady circumstances of a regular turnover of democratic power. Many leave amid the chaos of governmental collapse or being stabbed in the back by rivals. Some leave in light of accusations of wrongdoing or mismanagement.

The context of the departure is important. However, it is often the character of the leader that matters more when it comes to the content and tone of the speech. Some leaders are simply more gracious and eloquent than others and Yousaf managed to convey a sense of humbleness, despite the frustrating circumstances.

Humza Yousaf standing at a podium between two Scottish flags and with a BSL interpreter to his right. Some members of the press are visible.
Yousaf’s speech had been heavily trailed on the day. EPA

This is in contrast to Kevin Rudd who gave one of the most compelling departure speeches at the end of his first stint as prime minister of Australia in 2010. Rudd was unable to speak at times due to his level of emotion, but was also clearly furious at being forced out by his deputy, and then successor, Julia Gillard. His jaw clenched and his words almost hissed at times.

Kevin Rudd’s resignation.

Lost to history?

Few departure speeches are memorable. This is because they tend to have little bearing on policy and contain no profound political message. They also rarely contain any revealing or helpful information about the circumstances that underpin the departure. But there are some exceptions.

Japanese politician Ryutaro Nonomura’s memorable resignation speech went viral in 2014 when he sobbed incoherently and banged his fist on the desk after he had been accused of abusing his expenses.

Ryutaro Nonomura’s tearful resignation.

In terms of importance of content though, the standout departure speech was probably made by US President Dwight Eisenhower when he left the White House in 1961 after two terms in office. Historical records tell us that Eisenhower put a lot of time into drafting his speech and wrote most of it himself. In it he made a profound critique of American politics and society and its direction of travel. He also coined a new term that remains in regular use today: the “military-industrial complex”.

Eisenhower: a resignation to remember.

In terms of fundamental issues, facing his country, Yousaf did mention Scottish independence and Scotland’s soft power overseas. But he refrained from discussing climate change and the debate about gender – which were key areas of disagreement with the Green party and Alba party and contributed to his demise. This was not a speech that is likely to be remembered – but perhaps, given the circumstances of his departure, and his own role in it, Yousaf would prefer it that way.

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