The campaign of Kate Forbes to become Scotland’s next first minister should be over by now. Such is the received wisdom among the nation’s progressive activists and the current SNP leadership, which is doing everything it can to thwart her.
There’s been something quite shameful and shabby in the way Nicola Sturgeon – who only a week ago said she would stay out of the succession contest – and her deputy, John Swinney, have treated Forbes this week. Sturgeon said the views of the candidates “matter”, and that “Scotland is a socially progressive country and I believe that is majority opinion”. A bright, young cabinet minister and new mother, who has been the outstanding performer in the Sturgeon administration, has been thrown to the wolves by her elders.
That’s not to say Forbes hasn’t made it easy for them. Her comments on her personal opposition to equal marriage and having children outside of wedlock were clumsily expressed. She’s known for a few years that her conservative religious views would come under close scrutiny in any leadership campaign, so it’s baffling she hadn’t prepared a more crafted and inclusive way of talking about her beliefs.
It appears, however, that the beleaguered finance secretary may still be in with a shout. She’s still going, for one. This says something about her resilience after a week of horrendous headlines and colleagues withdrawing their support – and resilience is one of the most important qualities in a politician and a leader.
Further, a poll has shown that she remains the favoured candidate of SNP voters: although 31 per cent say they are undecided, Forbes is backed by 28 per cent, followed by Sturgeon and Swinney’s continuity candidate, Humza Yousaf, on 20 per cent, and Ash Regan on 7 per cent. (Though it is SNP members, not voters, who will ultimately determine the outcome.)
There’s still a month to go in the race, during which a lot can happen. A report by Audit Scotland on the health service, published yesterday, found that increasing financial strains and big gaps in recruiting and retaining staff mean the devolved government is unlikely to meet its targets for NHS recovery following the Covid-19 pandemic. Yousaf is health secretary and there are many in the medical profession who have not been impressed by his tenure. He has also faced questions over his competence in his previous jobs as transport minister and justice secretary.
Forbes, meanwhile, in an attempt to right her campaign, has apologised for the wording she used and for any offence caused, which is a necessary if not sufficient step. She is attempting to move the discussion on to areas where she is by far the strongest contender. In an article for the Times today she writes of her desire to create “a strong growing economy that expands the tax base… I believe in economic prosperity; all our work to tackle poverty and invest in public services relies on a growing economy.” This kind of sentiment, its support for wealth creation, hasn’t often been heard from the Sturgeon government.
Every Scot is entitled to make up their own mind about Forbes’s religious beliefs and whether they should disqualify her from running the nation in 2023. But not everyone takes the hardline views of the progressives who run her party and their coalition partners, the Scottish Greens.
Scotland may be a more secular country than it once was, but many Scots were raised in a religious background. Some at least – and they might be lapsed, or atheist, and disagree with Forbes’s views – will display a sight more tolerance than the SNP leadership has shown. In fact, they might react badly to what now effectively looks like bullying.
Much of the case against Forbes is based on issues that are long settled and that she would not attempt to reopen. Most Scots are more worried about the cost-of-living crisis and the ragged state of the NHS. If given a fair hearing on those matters and others, she may yet show her class and thwart the party machine that is trying so hard to steamroll her.