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16 February

Will Kate Forbes’s religion stop her leading the SNP?

Her conservative beliefs on abortion and gender put her at odds with her party’s image.

By Michael Coren

Kate Forbes is a very impressive politician indeed, and it’s no surprise that she’s considered perhaps the most likely successor to Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the SNP. She’s extremely intelligent, educated at Cambridge and Edinburgh, and a fluent Gaelic speaker, having attended a Scottish Gaelic school. She’s young (32) and spent three years as a child in India. She’s been an MSP for seven years and the finance and economy secretary since 2020. There’s no scandal around her. She is well liked and would give the party a new, fresh look.

She’s also an active member of the Free Church of Scotland (FCS) – and beyond the sectarian division that still exists in some parts of the country, albeit a mere shadow of what it once was, this could present a problem. Forbes has said that she would never hide her faith, that it’s “essential to my being”, as she told the BBC. And the FCS, often known as the Wee Frees, is a hardline church with views firmly on the right of the religious spectrum.

The church is strongly Calvinist and Presbyterian, and outside of mainstream Presbyterianism, which many – perhaps most – of its adherents see as too liberal and compromising. It takes a conservative position on women’s reproductive choice and on sexuality, and claims that “everything from our patterns of worship to our church structures seeks to reflect clear Biblical teaching”. That’s theological code for traditional and strict. Indeed, the former church moderator (leader) David Robertson once said that people would look back on the “evil” of abortion in the same way that they now regard slavery.

Politicians can, of course, belong to a church and not share all of its teachings. Joe Biden is a Roman Catholic and a strong supporter of reproductive rights. Paul Martin, the former prime minister of Canada, is also Catholic and introduced same-sex marriage legislation in his country.

The Free Church is, however, a little different. Many other churches have more of a cultural and passive quality, but not the FCS. Membership requires participation and affiliation. And Forbes does not seem to be an exception. In 2018 she said at a prayer breakfast that the treatment of unborn children was a “measure of true progress”. A year later she was one of 15 SNP politicians who signed a letter asking the Scottish government to delay reform of the Gender Recognition Act. Last year she reiterated her beliefs, insisting that there should be no rush to change the “definition of male and female” and thus “risk creating bad law”.

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These types of conservative religious positions are navigable for most politicians, even ministers, but far less so for a party leader – especially of a party that most consider towards to the progressive end of the political spectrum. Forbes has said that she will represent all people, irrespective of their views, but ideas of separation of church and state, and governing according to policy rather than conscience, will all come into sharp focus. Rightly so. Profound and difficult questions will be asked in the coming days, and they’ll place Forbes in a very difficult position indeed. Difficult, but surely crucial for any modern and viable democracy.

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