“Those who honour me I will honour”
1 Samuel 2:30
On 20 February Kate Forbes announced she wanted to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the SNP, and therefore as first minister of Scotland. She was considered perhaps the brightest talent in the Scottish Parliament and presented as a pragmatic, reform-minded, pro-business candidate. She believed she could unify the fractious SNP and the wider independence movement, which had fragmented across three parties. She is personable, quick-witted and, as a Cambridge-educated former accountant, formidably numerate. She had impressed through the mastery of her brief since becoming economy and finance secretary in February 2020: she took on the role after her predecessor had resigned in disgrace, on the day he had been due to deliver the Scottish Budget. Forbes, a junior finance minister at the time, had to deliver the Budget speech with a few hours’ notice, and was then promoted.
But Kate Forbes had a problem: as a convert to the evangelical Free Church of Scotland she is an ardent Calvinist and a social and religious conservative (though she identifies as being politically on the left). What matters most to her, it was asked: politics or God? We would find out soon enough.
Forbes is a Highlander, the daughter of Scottish missionaries who worked among the rural poor of northern India and sent Kate and her siblings to local schools in the Punjab and Himalayas. She is a politician because of her religious conviction. Her calling is to serve and honour Christ.
“The primary calling is to be in the dirt of reality,” she told me during a series of conversations which began when we met for lunch in early November at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. “Where do you see Christ historically? You see Him, not in some sort of cathedral or some elevated ivory tower; you see Him in the midst of vulnerable, under-represented, underprivileged people. That’s what politics is, theoretically. So therefore, there is a natural home in the midst of the underprivileged, under-represented, voiceless people. You then go from there into parliament, to try and make good law that serves those people, and that’s where, quite rightly, there’s a democratic debate.”
Let’s go back to the morning of 21 February 2023 when Forbes, who is 33, conducted her first round of media interviews at the start of her leadership campaign. Six days earlier Sturgeon had unexpectedly announced her resignation and Forbes, responding to fast-moving events, was the self-declared “unifier” and a “fresh face”. But the immediate focus of attention was on her religious and personal beliefs. She answered questions about equal marriage (she would have voted against), pre-marital sex (she was opposed), trans rights (“a trans woman is a biological male who identifies as a woman”) and the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill (she would not seek to challenge the decision by the Sunak government to block it) as directly and honestly as she could.
What followed was a public shaming. Forbes was denounced and abused on social media. Senior SNP politicians, notably those closest to Sturgeon such as John Swinney, a former party leader and the then deputy first minister, said that Forbes’ views disqualified her from leading a modern political party. “Love is love,” tweeted Stephen Flynn, the leader of the SNP at Westminster. A Times columnist mocked her as a candidate “for the 19th century”. The ultra-liberal Scottish Greens, who had entered a power-sharing arrangement with the Sturgeon government after signing the Bute House Agreement in August 2021, said they would withdraw support for the SNP if Forbes became first minister.
As the day progressed, it got even worse for Forbes as some of her MSP allies publicly disowned her. “Kate’s phone was red hot with people telling her to quit the contest,” a close aide told me.
Forbes had only just returned from maternity leave following the birth of her daughter in August 2022; she also has three stepdaughters from her marriage to Alasdair MacLennan, whose first wife died suddenly in 2014. Forbes had been suffering from post-natal depression – she endured night terrors, complete insomnia – and some political friends thought she had misspoken because she was unprepared for the media inquisition. She was not. “I had prepared! I basically thought that there was only one way of doing it, which was to have the guts and the bravery to just answer and see how it landed. I knew that it would be the first and perhaps the most critical test.
“If I had answered dishonestly, it would have haunted me throughout not just the leadership contest, but it would have haunted me throughout my tenure. You would never have been able to move beyond it, had you not been honest… There’s something quite liberating about being truthful when going for the job, because you know if you win it, you’ve won it on the basis of people fully knowing who you are.”
Then she looked at me directly and said: “I hate cowardice in myself more than anything else.”
As the abuse intensified through that February day and the demands on her to quit became more strident, even from political allies, Forbes returned home to Dingwall, north-west of Inverness. She declined all further interviews. There followed only silence for 24 hours. It was widely assumed that it was all over for her.
Then, on Thursday 23 February, she posted a statement on Twitter and Facebook: “I feel greatly burdened that some of my responses to questions in the media have caused hurt, which was never my intention as I sought to answer questions clearly. I will defend to the hilt the right of everybody in Scotland, particularly minorities, to live and to love without fear or harassment in a pluralistic and tolerant society. I will uphold the laws that have been won, as a servant of democracy, and seek to enhance the rights of everybody to live in a way which enables them to flourish. I firmly believe in the inherent dignity of each human being – that underpins all ethical and political decisions I make.”
The statement was unequivocal: she had been greatly burdened but would carry on. She was not quitting. She would not be defeated by the abuse. Nor would she retract what she had said as some friends were urging. More than that, she believed she could still win, even though her principal rival, Humza Yousaf, had the full support of Sturgeon, the SNP establishment, and the Scottish Greens. She believed she was still the unity candidate who could connect with No voters as well as those who had voted for independence in 2014.
What was it like being Kate Forbes for those 24 hours after she’d returned home to the Highlands from Edinburgh? And what happened?
“What happened,” said one of her aides, “was that a lot of people wanted her to give up. But there was never a question that she would. Kate is incredibly strong, one of the bravest people I know. So tough.”
It is a four-hour drive from Edinburgh to Dingwall, which meant, as the fires of outrage burned out of control, Forbes had a lot of time to think about what had happened and what she should do next. She was most concerned about how the abuse was affecting the family, especially her school-age stepdaughters. The weeks after the birth of her daughter had been traumatic. There had been a murder in the constituency, and, for a period, she was overwhelmed by existential terror. “I was scared about being left in the house alone with the baby. I was terrified when someone knocked on the door. I was terrified that harm would come to me and the baby. I was eventually diagnosed with some form of post-natal depression, characterised by insomnia, fear and a very low mood. It passed, and it’s very much a distant memory.”
She had recovered her peace of mind but now, after the round of interviews, she was being publicly vilified when she had intended no harm. The “backlash”, as she calls it, had not surprised her – she knew the questions would be asked, and she knew she must answer them truthfully – but she was “taken aback by the scale of it”.
She felt she had disappointed those who had put their faith in her to perform well in the contest, even win it. “I felt I had let them down. And then, on top of that, of course, many people had contacted me to say that they had been hurt… And other people were going out to defend me and being absolutely traduced for doing it. Was it fair for me to continue to inflict that on them? The thought of cowardly quitting because it was all getting a bit too hard is not where my mind was at. But my mind was at, ‘Am I, in continuing, literally destroying everybody I love?’”
Once back at home, she avoided social media (“Why would you voluntarily go and seek out the vitriol?”) but not the constant phone calls. She says her family – “my husband and stepkids” – were more in shock than she was. “Everybody else was more in the trenches than I was at that point. It was almost like watching yourself work. You know, an out of body experience. I had to distance myself from the emotional element of it – completely – because I needed a way through this. There was no scope to curl up under the duvet!”
She was also surprised by the behaviour of some of her political friends. “I was surprised because there were many people who knew intimately what my views were and who then publicly felt like they had to distance themselves or to condemn. They must have feared the public backlash more than the content of my views.”
She mentioned an associate whose business was threatened with a boycott because she had provided the venue for a campaign event. “That is unbelievable, that an innocent individual who probably doesn’t share any of my views would be threatened with boycott for even just association. That’s how the illiberal mafia operate. They don’t just go for the primary suspect; they try and damage the primary suspect by going after every single form of support, and they try and cut you off at the legs by cutting everything that is supporting you.”
By the start of the next day, Wednesday 22 February, she had reached a settled position. “Which is, until you had a really clear indication that you should quit, you keep going.”
Private polling suggested that support for her was not diminishing but increasing. “There was no question that the private poll, in terms of people voting to nominate you, had shot up. That made me think, ‘Well, you can’t quit now. There’s a lot of people out there that want you to keep going.’ And so, I kept going, because I had no other plan. Basically, it was the absence of any alternative that made me keep going.”
In the event, Forbes lost narrowly to Humza Yousaf. She then rejected his offer to become rural affairs secretary because “there’s no way I could have been seen as the face of implementing policies that were so at odds with my constituents’ interests”. Had he offered her the Treasury brief, however, she says she “would have found it hard to turn it down”.
She is now viewed with suspicion by the First Minister and his closest allies but also, by some MSPs, as a likely future first minister. She relishes the freedom of the back benches “to throw in some radical ideas and see how they land and be a bit more edgy”. She laughs. Sounding like an early Blairite, she champions aspiration, ambition, education, public service reform, reduced taxation. “You saw in the leadership contest, where people wanted to immediately dismiss these ideas as right-wing to shut you down. Somebody has got to be not scared of at least starting a conversation.”
What most concerns Forbes is that the SNP, internally divided, has “lost momentum”. She is particularly critical of the influence of the Scottish Green Party. Now, she goes even further and says that the Bute House Agreement “should be repealed and that the SNP should operate again as a one-party minority government”, as it did from 2007 to 2011, under Alex Salmond, now exiled as leader of Alba – the party whose position Forbes describes as “independence tomorrow”.
“The momentum of the SNP has stalled in the last year, even if support for independence has remained strong,” Forbes said. “We have lost the perception of being a broad movement moving together towards something bigger – independence. People have left the party. We keep having to ditch or rework major policies, for good reason but not without political or financial cost.”
The Scottish Green Party is a different party, with its own distinctive progressivist priorities.
“We were elected on a SNP manifesto, not a Scottish Green Party manifesto or the Bute House Agreement. Nearly all the issues that have lost us support in the last year are found in the Bute House Agreement and not in the SNP manifesto. I see it particularly acutely with the economy and in rural Scotland, as the Greens appear to want to over-regulate rural communities out of existence and hike taxes to a rate that will ultimately reduce public revenue. That is despite the cost-of-living crisis hitting our economy and the rural sector particularly hard.
“The SNP have consistently won elections because the Scottish people felt we were on their side. During any crisis – from the 2008 crash to the present cost of living – the SNP prioritised efforts to fire up the economy and support households, right across Scotland. The SNP wins votes from the north to the south of Scotland when the people trust us to focus more on their needs than on empty ideology. Consensus politics is absolutely right – but it still needs to be representative. The Scottish Greens have a handful of politicians, all of whom rightly stay true to their own ideological convictions, and their influence should be proportional to the public’s support for their policies. And, unfortunately, right now, a lot of Green policies do not chime with the public’s priorities during a cost-of-living crisis.”
The SNP needs to recapture its lost purpose and escape the iron cage of empty ideological conformity.
“We need to take charge of the narrative and rebuild momentum – as we’ve been able to do before. There’s a perception among members and voters, rightly or wrongly, that the SNP isn’t the same party as the one that was first elected in 2007, and then with a massive vote in 2011, with a strategy for an independence referendum. And yet, we absolutely can once again gain the trust of voters and a reputation for competent government. The SNP governments of 2007, 2011 and 2016 knew how to get things done. They believed in fundamental reforms that delivered better outcomes for the public. They were clever at building consensus across parties. They were willing to be creative. They managed to speak for the fisherman in Buchan as well as the working mum in Glasgow. We need to get back to that approach. It’s in our DNA.”
On Friday 17 November, Forbes and I spent a long, cold, bright day travelling around her constituency of Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch on the open roads of the north of Scotland. It takes five hours to drive from east to west across her rural constituency.
We began early in the morning at a hotel in Inverness, at a Highland renewables workshop (with coffee and pastries served), then drove south to meet some National Farmers Union members in the high, snow-flecked hills around Laggan, where the local primary school had recently closed after a long public consultation. Out on the hills, under a brilliant blue sky, we were surrounded by the private estates of absentee landlords and multinational companies “who don’t understand the land”, as one farmer put it. We had lunch in the kitchen of a farmhouse. Outside woodpeckers, chaffinches and blue and great tits pecked at seeds on the frost-hardened ground. Soon our lunch became a kind of informal focus group, with pro and indy-sceptic factions at the table. Labour was not popular. “Keir Starmer doesn’t care about Scotland other than hoping it can deliver some seats for him at the general election,” one farmer said.
But all the farmers, no matter their view on the constitution, were united in their condemnation of SNP blundering and incompetence. “Everything the SNP touches – health, schools, the ferries – turns to sh…,” said one farmer, failing to complete the final word of the sentence. Forbes listened patiently and, as she does, asked sympathetic questions.
Later we visited a children’s nursery in Inverdruie, where Forbes chatted in Gaelic with one of the boys, and then, as darkness fell, we stopped for a cup of tea in Aviemore in the Cairngorms, with its mountain trails and ski runs (though the funicular is shut down). I asked her about the eight years she had spent in India and what had motivated her father.
Forbes calls herself a “rooted nomad”. She is rooted because she’s a proud, even romantic Highlander. “You are Highlander first before you are Scottish and British,” she said. “Identity matters to people here” – earlier she had pointed at a sign for Culloden, where the Jacobite uprising was defeated in 1746 – “and that identity is shaped by memories of emigration and of remote, rural, deprived communities. There’s a strong sense of community, of togetherness – the cèilidh, the church, the Gaelic language.”
She is a nomad because of her itinerant childhood and worldliness. “The more you live and work elsewhere, the more you align yourself with a characteristic identity,” she told me. “As a family we embraced Gaelic, we listened to Runrig on repeat, we read [Robert] Burns. We were so proud of our Highland heritage. But when we came home [to Scotland] everyone else thought we were weirdos. People thought we were foreign – I spoke with an Indian or perhaps American accent. We were not completely of the culture we were from.”
Forbes approaches politics at Holyrood as an insider-outsider: she is not urban but a Highlander, unyielding in her beliefs, and yet she is open-minded and wants to reach out across cultural, political and religious differences, to build bridges. On the question of Scottish independence, she insists unionists must be addressed with courtesy.
“You have to respect the other side: you can’t move forward without it.” The United Kingdom’s constitutional settlement is unsustainable, she says, but nor does she believe independence is inevitable.What independence means remains open to interpretation.
During the 2014 referendum campaign Salmond advocated a form of unionist-nationalism, or independence lite. He campaigned for a monarchical, currency, social and military union between England and Scotland, as well as joint membership of the European Union and Nato. Today, estranged from his former SNP colleagues, Salmond is more uncompromising: an impatient independence fundamentalist.
I asked Forbes about her father’s work in India. Was he too getting down in the dirt of reality? “One hundred per cent,” she said. “This notion that you sacrifice your comfort, your stability, your peace, your finances, and your primary calling is to serve those who are completely voiceless, so that is absolutely the sort of call of duty I saw play out in his life, and interestingly, my parents were even willing to sacrifice their kids’ education, comfort, safety, security, health, in order to serve others. They certainly modelled for me the fact that you cannot be selfish when you’ve been given quite a lot.”
Does Kate Forbes still want to lead the SNP? She’s enjoying motherhood and family life and, at Holyrood, has been reaching out to those colleagues who might otherwise have cause to avoid her, such as Nicola Sturgeon (“I’ve had good gossiping sessions with her”), or who have publicly slighted her, such as John Swinney (“It may come as a surprise but I’m a massive fan of John”). She likes Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader. “I notice how people warm to him when he is in a room,” she said. Humza Yousaf is a “good man” but trapped by the failed Bute House Agreement.
She says she will not seek out the leadership. “I’ve always said it is unlikely I would stand again as I’m a democrat and I’m content with the result of the last contest. Anyway, it is an irrelevant question as there is no vacancy.”
But what if the leadership comes looking for her? “If that changes, then I would only consider standing if I felt like I was the right kind of leader for the party and the country at that point in time, and that would be clearly subject to events and advice. I feel the weight of expectation from many quarters in the country not to just pack in my political career.”
To translate: she is going nowhere, and she intends to shape SNP policy, as her comments on the Bute House Agreement demonstrate.
“Kate is our best shot at independence,” one ally said, “because she’s willing to do business with anyone. She’s not interested in grievance politics.”
In Charlotte Brontë’s great novel Jane Eyre a joyless Christian clergyman named St John Rivers is preparing to emigrate to India to become a missionary and wants to take Jane, who is 11 years younger, with him as his wife. St John is austere and demanding. For him, to serve Christ is also to suffer. He too is digging in the dirt.
“A year ago I was myself intensely miserable,” he tells Jane, whose vitality and piety impress him, “because I thought I had made a mistake in entering the ministry: its uniform duties wearied me to death… After a season of darkness and struggling, light broke and relief fell: my cramped existence all at once spread out to a plain without bounds; my powers heard a call from heaven to rise, gather their full strength, spread their wings, and mount beyond ken. God had an errand for me… A missionary I resolved to be.”
I thought of Jane Eyre and her intense, theologically charged conversations with St John Rivers when I first read Forbes’ statement after she announced her intention to carry on in the leadership contest. There was something antique, indeed high Victorian, in her choice of the phrase “greatly burdened” and the dilemmas with which she was grappling. This was a political moment of unusual interest and complexity.
“Rejecting Forbes would ensure that sexual and gender minorities in Scotland feel safe and included under a leader who does not think any less of them because of who they are or who they love,” wrote Chrissy Stroop, co-editor of the book Leaving the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church, in an essay on the Open Democracy website. “This is a more tolerant outcome than putting a bigot in charge because ‘tolerance’ dictates she not be judged for her religious views.”
But Forbes was being judged for her religious views. And she was not prepared to renounce, qualify or adapt them – and yet, she would serve without prejudice and “defend to the hilt the right of everybody in Scotland, particularly minorities, to live and to live without fear or harassment”.
Is her position contradictory? It’s certainly paradoxical.
She is an ultra-religious social conservative in her private life and a liberal who defends the rights of all sexual and gender minorities in her public role. If she ran for the leadership again would the contradictions become too great? Does she simply love God too much to do politics well? Will it ultimately be a case of either/or, of a choice between God and politics – the binary choice she has so far resisted?
There is a compelling scene in Hugh Hudson’s reimagination of the story of the rivalry between British sprinters Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell in the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. Liddell (played by Ian Charleson) is a fervent Scottish Presbyterian who, at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, in the film’s recasting of events, excites press attention when he refuses to compete in the 100m heats on the Sabbath. To do so would be to betray his faith, to violate all that he believes. In the end, a compromise is reached and Liddell switches to the 400m. Before the final, he is approached by the US athlete Jackson Scholz, who slips him a handwritten note: “It says in the old Book, ‘He who honours me I will honour.’ Good luck.”
The race begins and Liddell, a “flyer”, more used to the shorter sprints, pushes out in front. The camera intently tracks his pale, agonised face and we hear Liddell’s inner voice: “So where does the power come from to see the race to its end – from within!” The voice-over continues as Liddell, throwing his head back and opening his mouth wide in characteristic style, closes in on the gold medal: “I believe God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast! And when I run, I feel his pleasure!”
When I travelled with Gordon Brown to Newcastle and Sunderland, in the last days of the 2010 general election campaign, he told me he was inspired by Liddell, who later worked as a missionary in China, where he died in a civilian Japanese internment camp aged 43. Brown quoted a line from the Olympian: “The first half of the race requires outer strength, the second half inner strength.”
Brown felt profoundly misunderstood and knew power was slipping away from him and New Labour. A new era of Conservative rule was upon us. He had absorbed more blows during the campaign than would have broken most men, and yet, inspired by Liddell, Brown had carried on and said that through suffering and adversity he had “grown” spiritually.
Was it something similar for Kate Forbes? Had the experience of the leadership campaign and her public vilification deepened her self-understanding? Unlike Liddell at the Paris Games, she did not win the race. Humza Yousaf did. But she achieved something else: she told the truth about who she is and what she believes. She did not give up as some political friends urged her to do, or cynically adapt her personal views to appease her disparagers, or to win favour with the selectorate. But nor did she seek to condemn the moral choices of others.
“I draw so many conclusions from what happened,” she said. “The first is that I have met so many people who’ve told me – and this is like secular feminists – that they feel braver to be honest in the public square at a time where cancel culture and the illiberal creep is dominating. I’m not saying my views are popular, by the way: I’m not suggesting that they’re mainstream views, anything but. But I knew that you can’t, even as a politician, you can’t in any way show empathy or sympathy for someone who’s come to you in fear for their views, if you’re not willing to be robust.”
Since February she has been pondering the question of honesty in politics. What are its limits? How truthful can one reasonably be about the human heart, about what lies within? What is the appropriate balance between one’s personal ethical codes and public positions and utterances?
She describes what happened to her as an “acid test” for democracy. “We live in a liberal democracy, and therefore we often hear about the importance of various freedoms that underpin that. But the real test comes when those freedoms are tested. What was interesting in my experience is that in the first few days, there was all this unanimous concern, with how I had responded, and then that started to shift, as people said, ‘Wait a minute, actually, we believe in our senior politicians’ right to honestly answer a question’… I don’t think that I was indulging culture wars or appealing to a particular base: I was genuinely answering honestly, and that isn’t as neatly characterised as perhaps a politician that is trying to be nasty for nastiness’s sake.”
What fascinated Forbes, in retrospect, was that a lot of colleagues were comfortable with knowing her views so long as they were not publicly articulated.
“That says to me there is a greater concern about appearance than there is about substance. There’s just widespread fear right now in the public square. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a secularist, a feminist, if you’re on the left, if you’re on the right, you’re on either side of the constitutional questions, there is widespread fear about being cancelled or deplatformed or receiving huge amounts of abuse. That fear lends itself to senior figures – not just in politics but elsewhere – distorting the truth in order to come across as more acceptable and on the right side of whatever the norms are, which, ironically, is extraordinarily puritanical and absolutist!”
But the thought of living with a “damaged conscience”, for her, would be intolerable. “In politics, over the years, there are things that you sometimes have to compromise on. I have always found this extremely difficult to deal with, they cut me up massively. And the thought of getting the job on false pretences…” Her voice fades.
For Kate Forbes, as she told me, “politics will pass but my core identity won’t, my core belief won’t. So, in that sense, it’s permanent in a transitory world.”
Politics or God? Perhaps we know the answer to that question now.
This piece is published in the Christmas issue of the New Statesman, out now
[See also: How long can Humza Yousaf last?]
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special