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2 February 2022

Will Kate Forbes be Scotland’s next leader?

At 31, the SNP finance minister is tipped to succeed Nicola Sturgeon. But will her social conservatism and evangelical Christianity be an obstacle?

By Chris Deerin

Perhaps there is something in the whisky, but modern Scotland has developed a canny habit of producing outstanding female leaders. Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister since 2014, dominates the nation’s political scene and has governed during the Covid pandemic with authority and integrity. Her toughest competitor has been Ruth Davidson, who resurrected the Scottish Tories, played a central role in keeping the Union together in 2014, and is now a prominent critic of Boris Johnson from her seat in the Lords.

Potentially, though, the best may be yet to come. It’s an open secret that Kate Forbes is the rising power in the land, the Erling Haaland of Holyrood, a prodigy of extravagant gifts and appeal. At 31, she is already powerful: as the SNP’s Economy and Finance Secretary, the devolved equivalent of chancellor, she controls an annual budget of £41bn. Sturgeon sees Forbes as her most likely successor, perhaps in time for the next Scottish parliament election in 2026. Globally, the barriers to being young, female and the boss have fallen away: Finland’s Sanna Marin became prime minister at 34; New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern at 37.

Forbes, who was first elected to Holyrood in 2016, has undoubtedly benefited from the SNP’s hegemony north of the border, and her progress has so far been friction-free. She is, however, anything but a production-line politician. In SNP terms, Forbes is positively – perhaps even dangerously – exotic.

She is more likely to reference William Wilberforce than William Wallace, and admits to being politically centrist – a somewhat radical position in nationalist circles. She is also, intriguingly, a member of the evangelical Free Church of Scotland, often better known by its nickname, the Wee Frees – a culturally conservative institution that is opposed to same-sex marriage and abortion and other liberal reforms. This poses perhaps the greatest challenge to any aspirations Forbes entertains to Sturgeon’s job. But more of that later.

Forbes admits to an “unusual backstory, a very different world from my peers”. Born in Dingwall, in the Highlands, she spent much of her childhood in India, where her father taught the Bible and managed the finances of a group of mission hospitals, trying to ensure the poor had access to free healthcare. She studied history at Cambridge and Edinburgh universities, before training as an accountant.

A peripatetic upbringing made it difficult for her to form lasting relationships. “I feel I never managed to build roots that were deep enough with people beyond our family,” she tells me from her Scottish parliament office when we speak via Zoom. “The first question [in interviews] is often ‘Where are you from?’, and I can give you whatever answer you want. If you want me to be from the Highlands, I’m from the Highlands. If you want me to have an international background, I can tell you about growing up in India. If you want me to talk to my finance and accounting credentials, I can be a really dull accountant. But if you want me to be a little bit more lively, I can talk about studying history, and loving to understand people’s motivations and why they do what they do.”

Her constituency – she is MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, representing the Loch Ness Monster and the UK’s highest mountain – is sparsely populated and largely rural. “It’s a minimum of two hours on a good day to get anywhere,” Forbes says. Throw in weekly trips to parliament in Edinburgh and, pre-pandemic, she would spend her week “either travelling or working – that had quite a significant toll”. As an existence it sounds close to that of an Australian flying doctor. Lockdown changed that: now she is more likely to meet constituents on Zoom.

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[see also: Could the Scottish Conservatives split from the Tory party?]

Forbes was always likely to join the SNP. Her father is a lifelong believer in Scottish independence, and two of her uncles set up party branches in the 1970s “when the SNP was beyond the fringe”. Her family were disputatious in a Miliband-ish way, with nightly dinner table debates.

Her politics were also shaped by the extremes of wealth and poverty witnessed in India. When I ask who her role models are, Forbes reaches back to her time there. “We were surrounded by people whose names you will never have heard of, who had sacrificed everything in order to serve. If you’d trained as a medical professional, there were opportunities to go and work in the West, for significant sums of money. For someone like that to choose to live on almost nothing in order to serve locally… they have been a series of hugely influential people in my life.”

It is customary for SNP politicians, when asked about their idols, to reach for a long-dead Scottish freedom fighter. Instead Forbes opts for the great anti-slavery campaigner Wilberforce. “[The end of slavery] took decades to achieve. But it’s the sense that you could achieve a fundamental, seismic shift in what the country believed was right and what was wrong – achieve something that we would look back on and think, how on Earth as a country did we tolerate such misuse and abuse of human beings?”

She doesn’t say it – and it would be crass to make the comparison – but that sustained, passionate campaign in pursuit of a political goal could also be taken as a template for the SNP’s approach to independence. Forbes’s elders, including Sturgeon, Alex Salmond and the Deputy First Minister John Swinney, spent decades as a small, tight guerrilla unit, with few parliamentarians and tiny budgets. Without mainstream appeal among the electorate, they were often the butt of media scorn. Little wonder that, even today, after 15 years in power and with the break-up of the UK a live prospect, this generation can still exhibit a wounded punchiness and chippy suspicion in its dealings with the media.

Passing the torch?: Kate Forbes and the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Photo by Russell Cheyne / Reuters

Forbes’s generation is slicker and calmer, having come to the SNP in its modern, elevated period. The nationalists had been in power for nearly a decade by the time she arrived in parliament, and showed little sign of being shifted anytime soon. Psychologically and practically, the demands on the party’s elected tribunes have changed. Forbes acknowledges this. “We have come to it on the backs of people who have normalised the concept [of independence]. They had to fight for the right to be heard. We get heard, and the question now is whether our arguments are strong enough. So, in a sense, a lot of the hard work has been done.”

A ministerial colleague grumbles to me that Forbes can be “a bit right-wing” around the cabinet table. This might be the fate of finance ministers everywhere, but some point out that her dizzying ascent has given her little time to build alliances. “She’ll need people to fight for her when times get tough, but who are her people?” a parliamentarian asks. Forbes insists her natural instincts are “on the left, which probably does surprise people. Society without a left-leaning government nearly always forgets the most vulnerable. Alongside that, though, the primary way of equipping government with the resources [it needs] is through a thriving economy.”

The SNP has recently taken the Scottish Greens – a Corbynite party that does not believe in economic growth – into government. Forbes gives the impression of having little time for her coalition partners. “I do believe in economic growth, as an end to achieve something,” she says. I put it to her that she sounds thoroughly Blairite, and she doesn’t demur. “It’s a centrist position, isn’t it?”

These leanings have been noticed by the Scottish business community, which has been complaining for years that the nationalist administration shows little empathy for, or understanding of, the private sector and the necessities of wealth creation. One senior banker tells me Forbes is the first SNP minister since Salmond to display an affinity with business and a strong grasp of economics: “I’ve met her a few times and have always been impressed, and I’m not alone. She seems like the real deal.”

Kezia Dugdale, a former MSP who had a tough time after becoming Scottish Labour leader at 33, is an admirer. “It takes an unusually high level of skill, strength and steel to reach the high office Kate has, for her age and gender. The 24/7 media environment, especially in the current populist context, is particularly demanding and hostile, but she glides through it.”

Forbes says she has watched with awe how Sturgeon has governed through the pandemic. “There have been so many times where I’ve looked at a difficult decision we’ve got to take, and she was brave enough to do it, and in hindsight it’s been right. That’s not to say there haven’t been wrong decisions along the way, but I can think of lots of times where we were under immense pressure to do something, and did something else because of her leadership – which ended up being the right thing in the long term. I remember her once saying that, during a pandemic, you needed to make decisions not in light of the consequences tomorrow, but in light of the consequences in a month’s time.”

It has become a common critique, however, that over the last 15 years the SNP has swerved the kind of long-term public service reforms that Scotland needs. Sturgeon is seen as cautious, even conservative, and reluctant to take risks, and instead stores up political capital for a second referendum. Vested interests (for instance, the education and health trade unions) remain unchallenged.

Forbes is perhaps a more technocratic politician than her leader, which is where a hint of that Blairite steel shows through. “Reform requires difficult decisions, but difficult decisions offend people. I know in my own role that with every decision, the more radical it is, the more people you offend. It is a tension. You’ve got to decide what you’re about, where your strengths are, then absolutely back them. Do you lag behind the rest of the world, or do you lead the rest of the world? You can’t do both, and rhetoric won’t get you leading.”

She “certainly hopes” there will be a referendum next year, as Sturgeon insists there will be, and believes the party has answered many of the economic questions that undermined its campaign in 2014. “I think we have robust and conclusive answers now on currency. We have answers in areas such as what Scotland’s economic strengths would be.”

Anyway, she says, the terms of the debate on independence have changed. The polls show support now sits around 50 per cent, higher than the 45 per cent who voted Yes in 2014. “We were [then] persuading people of a choice between the status quo, which seemed relatively safe, stable and assured, and something new and different. I think it’s now a question of two different futures, ‘cos there ain’t no status quo. In light of that, I think people are far more open to change, so long as they have confidence that you have a plan.”

The loss of oil revenues, she says, can be shored up by investing in renewables, where Scotland potentially has a competitive advantage. Shy of full independence, she would like to see Holyrood given broader control over tax; it controls income tax bands and rates, but Forbes believes it should manage incentives such as Gift Aid, and the way income tax engages with pensions and National Insurance contributions. Wealth taxes such as capital gains tax hold an appeal too, which she has discussed with the UK government.

Full of passion and ideas, Forbes can switch between wonkish intensity and youthful charm, and is a good speaker. She delivered her first Budget in 2020, with a few hours’ notice after her predecessor, Derek Mackay, was brought down by scandal. Her public recognition levels are high compared with the rest of the cabinet’s. “She has a great brain,” says a senior SNP source. “She takes advice but knows her own mind. When she first got the economy job, grizzled businessmen dismissed her as ‘a wee lassie’, but you don’t hear that any more.”

The pandemic period marked an adjustment for Forbes in more ways than one: she was able to pause her epic commute, but, more significantly, she got married, to 41-year-old widower Alasdair MacLennan, becoming stepmother to his three teenage children. MacLennan, she tells me, is a “chimney sweep” (in fact, he owns the company). She has gone from “footloose and fancy-free, having been able to eat when I want, decide whether I was hungry or not, [to] doing the ironing and the dishes and trying to figure out what’s on for dinner, having to think about five people instead of one. It’s been an adjustment for the children, but there’s just been a great warmth, which is remarkable because blended families are never straightforward or simple.”

As a politician, she has been willing to show her independence on issues that matter to her. For example, she takes a different position on the gender debate to Sturgeon, who has enraged gender-critical women’s rights groups with her uncompromising support for simplified trans self-identification. “There need to be adequate and consistent protections to ensure that women in particular feel that their rights are not being eroded,” Forbes tells me. “On the other hand, if you look at the [gender recognition] process right now, it’s extremely invasive and extremely onerous. I think that there is a way forward here that respects people’s fears and respects people’s right to be heard, and that comes to an agreed position.” In this way she seems aligned with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which on 26 January raised concerns about “the polarised debate” in Scotland, asking the devolved government to pause the plans to simplify the legal requirements for gender recognition to allow time for “more detailed consideration”.

Whether Forbes’s smooth rise can continue is a matter for debate. There are colleagues in the SNP who worry that her faith could prove a barrier to achieving the highest office, especially in an age of social media outrage at those who dissent from liberal orthodoxy. “At some point Kate will have to choose between God and independence, and I think God will win,” one party figure tells me.

Forbes’s Christianity is central to her identity, even if she is “a bit of a nomad” – having started out in the Church of Scotland, attended services in India and Anglican services while at Cambridge, before becoming a member of the Free Church. The latter is reactionary and can be outspoken, as it was when it campaigned against same-sex marriage a decade ago. As was shown when the former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron quit over his faith, these views can prove difficult to square with national political leadership. Forbes has avoided saying whether she agrees with the Free Church’s teaching on these “conscience” issues, but insists: “I’ve never tried to hide that faith. You’ve got to judge me on what I do, and I would hope that in a democracy we can have space for lots of different views, lots of different backgrounds, lots of different lifestyles, lots of different choices. But there’s space for debate.

“I think Christians need to be as much a part of that debate as anybody else. These are fine lines to walk, but everybody’s got their own equivalent where they have a particular background or particular views. It is such a risk now in Scottish politics, where we deem some people as beyond the pale, that we just can’t tolerate people with particular views anywhere near the decision-making table. I think Scotland would be far poorer for that.”

Forbes could be first minister in a few years. Equally, it wouldn’t be a surprise if she walked away from parliament rather than compromise her faith. She is unusually open and honest for someone in public life, and laughs that she might even be a bit soft for the long-term cut and thrust of Holyrood. If she chose a different path, one has a feeling this most unusual of politicians would be just fine. But it would be Scotland’s loss.

[see also: Nicola Sturgeon is dividing Scotland over trans rights, not uniting it]

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This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under