Kate Forbes is having a year to remember. In February, hours before the Scottish Budget was due to be presented, her predecessor as Finance Secretary Derek Mackay resigned over revelations of inappropriate texts to a 16-year-old boy. A stunned Forbes was left to deliver the statement and justify its measures under opposition interrogation. She somehow pulled it off, and Nicola Sturgeon confirmed her in the job shortly afterwards.
If that was a baptism of fire, it was only a taster of the uncontrollable blaze that would quickly follow. The Covid-19 pandemic has – as with other governments – torched the SNP’s fiscal plans and left Forbes scrambling to support the NHS, keep businesses going and limit the longer-term damage to the Scottish economy. Even critics admit she has gone about this task with poise, energy and courage. In the midst of all this, on 6 April Forbes reached the ripe old age of 30. She celebrated by enjoying a lockdown dinner with family members via Zoom in her Highland home.
The golden girl of Scottish politics can do no wrong, it seems, and regularly finds herself tipped as a likely successor to Sturgeon. That eventuality would surprise few. If the business community remains unsure what to make of the SNP’s economic governance, it likes what it has seen of Forbes so far.
“She is the best young politician in Scotland right now – bright, smart, attractive and learning very fast,” says a senior Scottish businessman who is on the right of politics. “I’m impressed by her self-assuredness,” adds a major player in the financial services community. “She’s impressive, likeable and so stimulating,” says a businesswoman who has had dealings with her.
Much is made of Forbes’s temperament: she appears unflappable, fully across her brief, and rarely anything other than charming and capable. This is intentional. “People don’t want to see weakness or anxiety in someone doing her job, especially at the moment, and especially given her age,” says a friend. “Everything she has been asked to do so far has required her to show confidence. That said, she’ll admit privately there’s a disconnect between what’s on the inside and what people see on the outside.”
The new Finance Secretary has tackled her sudden elevation by working tenaciously – “She’s paddling very hard under the surface,” says an ally. A period as an accountant before entering politics has allowed her to take a structured approach to the job. “She grasps figures quickly and knows what they mean,” adds a friend. She is also one of the more academic members of the Holyrood parliament, having read history at Cambridge and then gained an MSc in diaspora and migration history at Edinburgh.
The Cambridge experience no doubt serves her well in her dealings with Conservative ministers and Whitehall. There are plenty of those at the moment, amid the “four nations” approach to fighting coronavirus.
Forbes believes the pandemic has exposed limitations to the devolution settlement that should be fixed. In particular, the Scottish government needs enhanced economic powers so that in an emergency like this one it is better able to look after the nation’s needs. She is not seeking to make a constitutional or political point, but a technical one, say allies.
First on the list is an extension of Holyrood’s borrowing powers. At present, Sturgeon’s government can borrow £450m per year for capital spending. It can access slightly more than that in resource borrowing, but only in the event of a Scotland-specific economic shock or forecast errors. Coronavirus, of course, does not fall into this latter category.
An extension in annual borrowing powers would have given Edinburgh “more headroom” in coping with the pandemic fallout, say sources close to the Finance Secretary. “Supporting charities, food funding, PPE – it would have removed the uncertainty of whether the UK government would provide funding or not.”
There is also a desire to rethink aspects of the Barnett Formula, which governs changes in spending levels across the four nations of the UK. Barnett consequentials for Scotland are initially based on anticipated UK government spending, but at the end of the financial year are recalibrated to what has actually been spent by Westminster. This can leave the Scottish government facing late paybacks to the Treasury if in-year expenditure in England is lower than had been projected. Indeed, this happened last March.
Forbes would also like to look again at the annual reconciliations Scotland must make to Westminster, based on forecast errors in relation to the block grant.
Though there is very little appetite for such changes from the Treasury, the Welsh government is supportive. The Institute for Fiscal Studies is also on board. Devolved officials are leading on the issue rather than politicians in order to remove politics from the situation. Forbes would like to build a cross-party consensus at Holyrood behind the proposals, including with the Scottish Tories. Usefully, the Fiscal Framework, which governs the relationship between the two parliaments, is due to be reviewed in 2021.
The new Finance Secretary seems set to emerge from this crisis with her reputation considerably enhanced – forged in the fire, one might say. If there are doubts about her, they tend to focus on her personal politics. These remain something of an unknown quantity, even though she serves in a centre-left government. So far, she appears a competent technocrat.
“I don’t know whether she stands on the left or the right,” says a Scottish business leader. “I don’t know whether philosophically she believes in a bigger state going forward or a smaller state.” Another who has had dealings with her admits: “I’m none the wiser as to where she personally sits on the political spectrum from an economic/financial perspective.”
But Forbes has time on her side, a canny brain and bags of potential. This practical, wonky, likeable, open-minded woman might yet be the person who leads Scotland to independence.