A year ago, while preparing for a New Statesman interview with Kate Forbes, I sought views on the young Scottish politician among her SNP colleagues. “At some point Kate will have to choose between God and independence, and I think God will win,” one told me.
Forbes, clearly, doesn’t agree that any such choice is necessary. As she seeks to replace Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and first minister, the 32-year-old finance secretary has done anything but disavow her strict religious beliefs and how they inform her political decision-making. She was and is against equal marriage, abortion and woman church ministers, and has said so plainly. Depending on one’s view, she is showing either martyr-style Christian courage or startling naivety that should disqualify her from the top job.
These conservative positions have attracted a torrent of judgement that might be described as biblical. The outgoing Sturgeon, who said she would stay out of the contest, immediately intervened, stating: “Scotland is a socially progressive country… the people of Scotland look to their first minister to see someone who will stand up for their rights.”
Forbes’s main challenger, the Health Secretary Humza Yousaf, said it would not be acceptable for someone opposed to same-sex marriage to lead the country, and asked what such a person would do if a private members’ bill was introduced seeking to reverse it. One journalist described Forbes on Twitter as “MSP for the 19th century”.
At a recent event for my think tank Reform Scotland, Forbes told me that after seven months on maternity leave and with a new baby, she had initially been “torn” about entering the contest. She added: “It seemed that Twitter and the press were just absolutely consumed with discussing me and my faith, despite the fact that I had not said a word.” Forbes said that she, therefore, “knew what was coming”.
“I needed to answer directly. I suppose I was more focused on how to try and be honest, knowing the avalanche of unhappiness that would cause, perhaps rather than seek to spin or prevaricate,” she said.
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Now, she realised, “as someone who recognises that we should welcome that Scotland is a lot more open and fairer for minorities, it was important that I answered in a way that recognised that progress – but also recognised that this is a question of compassion and not just of honesty.”
Although bruised by events, Forbes has proved impressively resilient. Not only is she still in the race, but early polls suggest the MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch remains the favoured candidate among SNP voters (though the views of actual party members, who will take the final decision, aren’t yet clear) and the wider Scottish public.
This may change before the new leader is elected on 27 March. But a question faces her opponents: if Forbes has survived this criticism and come out ahead, how will anyone now stop her? This is not the only question that arises. The party machine – which is still controlled by Peter Murrell, the chief executive of the SNP and Sturgeon’s husband – appears to support Yousaf. Most MSPs who have declared a preference have said the same. Four who initially backed Forbes have withdrawn their support.
But what if the 104,000-strong membership isn’t listening to its supposed betters? It hasn’t been hard in recent months to find critics of Sturgeon, her clique and her government within the SNP – the First Minister has been seen as controlling and immune to open discussion about policy and the future direction of the party. This has coincided with her unpopular decisions on gender reform and on treating the next general election as a de facto referendum.
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There have been complaints that the SNP has become undemocratic in its internal mechanisms, with members denied a meaningful voice. Some don’t even trust the election process: “Suspicion is rife among the membership that it will be a fix,” one MP told me. In an effort to address this, the party has now called in an independent firm to oversee the election.
Then there is the issue of whether the SNP leadership is simply making one last misjudgement, this time of opinion outside its own bubble. Yousaf is not an obviously outstanding candidate – his ministerial career, which has so far encompassed the transport, justice and health portfolios, has been mediocre, with plenty to criticise. Civil servants say that during the recent NHS crisis Sturgeon would often intervene over his head. He is presenting himself as the continuity candidate for a government that needs to be reset, re-thought and re-energised – a combination that is hard to square. His promotion is seen by some, including Sturgeon loyalists, as an attempt by the old guard to retain an element of control.
The third candidate in the contest, Ash Regan, is a backbencher who resigned from the government as community safety minister over the gender reforms, and whose support falls far short of the leading pair.
While surveys show that most of the Scottish electorate disagrees with the stances taken by Forbes in areas such as equal marriage and abortion, it may be that citizens regard these matters as settled and unlikely to be re-opened. Many agree with her opposition to the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, though contrary to the absolutist views being accorded to her, she told me: “I think that there is a way forward here that respects people’s fears and respects people’s right to be heard.” Hardly fire and brimstone.
It is true that Forbes observes unusually strict adherence to the tenets of her church, the Free Church of Scotland. Ian Blackford, the SNP’s former Westminster leader, is also a member but has spoken in favour of equal marriage and the gender reform proposals without being kicked out of the Kirk. There is, clearly, personal choice involved here.
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Religious affiliation is falling in Scotland, as it is across Europe. The devolved government’s annual survey of household attitudes found in 2019 that 56 per cent of adults reported they didn’t belong to any religion, 4 percentage points higher than in 2018. In 2009, the figure was 40 per cent. However, many Scots were raised in religious households and still retain some psycho-cultural sympathy for the old credos. Forbes’s conservatism may therefore not be a deal-breaker.
It may also be that Scots simply have different priorities to the outgoing regime. In her relatively short ministerial career, Forbes has emerged as something of a star. She had to deliver her first Budget at a few hours’ notice after her predecessor, Derek Mackay, was forced to resign over sending social media messages to a 16-year-old boy, and managed to make it sound like it was her tenth. She has been a voice for fiscal sanity and wealth creation in an administration that has often seemed to have no interest in either, preferring to fire-hose money around while doing little to improve public sector efficiency or grow the economy and support business.
Despite the distraction of the religion row, Forbes is developing a programme that sounds Blairite in its intentions. She has committed to “a strong growing economy that expands the tax base and reinvests in tackling poverty and making our public services sustainable”, and to focusing on boosting small and medium-sized businesses and addressing “the cost-of-living crisis, and the unrealised potential of some of Scotland’s key industries”. This mirrors her efforts in government, and may be welcomed by citizens struggling to pay energy and food bills and worried about the future of the jobs market.
While others in the SNP have resorted to blaming Westminster for every ill that has beset Scotland, UK civil servants speak warmly of the constructive approach Forbes has taken in their dealings. This has particularly applied to negotiations over securing two freeports north of the border and in working towards a new fiscal framework for Holyrood.
Forbes’s obvious intellectual energy suggests she would be most likely to bring a fresh mind to some of the other mainstream policy issues that have appeared rather secondary to Sturgeon. The Scottish education system, once one of the finest in Europe, has declined for want of government attention and ambition. The problems facing NHS Scotland may be deep-rooted and similar to those across the UK, but polls show that few voters feel the SNP has had a grip on the crisis – medics have been particularly critical of the service’s political management in recent months.
When we spoke recently, Forbes showed a willingness to embrace these challenges. She said she was “open” to Scotland re-engaging with the international studies that compare countries’ educational performance in maths, science and English, from which the SNP previously withdrew. She will also look into establishing an independent inquiry into the future of NHS Scotland, with the proviso that the service “remains free at the point of need”. She spoke about the necessity of a changed national conversation on the importance of creating wealth, which is “too often a dirty word”.
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This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission