In the summer, Kate Forbes, formerly the fast-rising economy and finance secretary in Nicola Sturgeon’s government, backed calls for a “discussion” with SNP members on the Bute House Agreement, the power-sharing arrangement with the Scottish Green Party signed by Sturgeon, then the First Minister, in August 2021.
Now, in a wide-ranging interview in the New Statesman’s Christmas special, Forbes, MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch and former SNP leadership contender, goes further and calls for the agreement to be repealed. The SNP, internally divided, had “lost momentum”, she said, and bold change was necessary.
“The momentum of the SNP has stalled in the last year, even if support for independence has remained strong,” Forbes told the New Statesman. “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The Bute House Agreement “should be repealed and the SNP should operate again as a one-party minority government”, she said, as it did from 2007 to 2011 under Alex Salmond, now exiled as leader of Alba.
The Greens are a different party, with distinctive progressivist priorities. “We were elected on a SNP manifesto not a Green Party manifesto or the Bute House Agreement,” Forbes said. “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 overregulate 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 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, Forbes said.
“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.”
[See also: When will the SNP put itself before the Greens?]
During her several conversations with the New Statesman, which began at the beginning of November and continued until this week, Forbes, a convert to the evangelical Free Church of Scotland, spoke candidly about her struggles with postnatal depression; the traumatic opening to her campaign to succeed Sturgeon as party leader in February, when she was disowned even by close political friends after she answered questions honestly and directly about her conservative social and religious views; why she resisted calls to quit the campaign and even Holyrood; how religion defines her life and work; and her leadership ambitions.
“If I had answered dishonestly,” she said reflecting on the interviews she gave at the start of her leadership campaign in February, “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.”
She added: “I hate cowardice in myself more than anything else.”
In the event, Forbes lost narrowly to Humza Yousaf and then rejected his offer to become rural affairs minister because, she said, “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”.
Since February she has been pondering the question of honesty in public life. Politicians and others are increasingly fearful because of what she calls “cancel culture and illiberal creep”.
She describes what happened to her in February, when she was widely vilified and condemned by some colleagues, 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 not platformed 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!”
Forbes is relishing the freedom of the back benches “to throw in some radical ideas and see how they land and be a bit more edgy”. On the question of her ambitions to be first minister, she pointed out that there is no vacancy for the SNP leadership. “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: Kate Forbes is going nowhere, and she intends to shape SNP policy as her comments on the need to repeal the Bute House Agreement demonstrate.