Now that Angus Robertson, the Scottish National Party’s former Westminster leader, has pulled out of the race, it looks as if Kate Forbes, the Scottish Government’s Finance Minister, is firming up as the favourite to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland.
Her challenge, and the response to it, pose an interesting question: can someone with such conservative convictions plausibly occupy such a prominent role in public life today?
Lest we be accused of trying to taint Forbes by association, note the small c. She is certainly not a Tory. Nor is she a conservative in every sense: dissolving a centuries-old union is radical, if nothing else.
But she is a devout member of the Free Church of Scotland, and comes armed with some of the social views that implies – and now that she’s running for leader, they can no longer be tucked away under the rubric of collective responsibility and the Nationalists’ famous internal disciple.
Forbes has said she would have “struggled to vote for” the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR Bill) had Alister Jack not vetoed it; she would have voted against gay marriage “as a matter of conscience” had she been an MSP when it was enacted; and at a prayer breakfast in 2018, she asked of God:
“May our politicians recognise that the way we treat the most vulnerable – whether the unborn or the terminally ill – is a measure of true progress.”
Such has been the backlash that even Ash Regan, a fellow Nationalist MSP and rival for the leadership, has spoken out against those attacking Forbes for her faith.
Yet it doesn’t make sense to treat it as a purely personal affair either. A religious politician has as much right to vote according to their principles as an irreligious one. (And even if for whatever reason you don’t concede that, you might suspect that they will do so anyway.)
Much as with Lee Anderson and the death penalty (another comparison she won’t thank us for), Forbes’ candidacy puts the spotlight again on the question of major strands of public opinion which are deeply under-represented in public life.
Even if relatively few voters are likely to share all of her views, stated or suspected, plenty may share one or two of them: a 2017 poll for Savanta ComRes, for example, reported 60 per cent support – 70 per cent amongst women – for lowering the abortion limit from 24 weeks to 20.
(As it happens, Forbes has not so far shown any sign at all of a pro-active social conservative agenda: she has said she won’t proceed with a legal challenge to Jack’s s35 veto, but also “committed to ensuring women are free from harassment and fear around abortion clinics”, according to the Independent. Blood-curdling reaction, that is not.)
If we’re honest, however, such lofty considerations are probably not going to be what determines the fate of her candidacy. And as a matter of political positioning, the problems are rather more obvious.
Yes, the Scottish Government was out of step with Scottish public opinion about some of the gender reforms, and quietly dropping the GRR Bill could be a way of defusing that.
But a change of course on that policy would be a very difficult sell to the Scottish Greens, upon whom the SNP rely for their Holyrood majority after failing to win one outright in 2021. Indeed, the Herald reports that the smaller party might pull out of its deal with the Nationalists “even if she adopted a pragmatic approach to governing”.
Were the Bute House Agreement to end, the SNP would be left with a minority administration and might have to call an early election in unpropitious circumstances.
Notwithstanding that, the house that Sturgeon built is a progressive one; members attracted to the First Minister’s convictions may recoil from Forbes’. The latter might be on common ground with some of the First Minister’s critics on gender, such as Joanna Cherry, but perhaps not on others – not only other social issues but the fundamental question of independence, as well.
On the other hand, neither of the other two candidates currently in the running have spotless credentials on this front: Regan resigned from the SNP front bench to oppose the GRR Bill; Humza Yousaf somehow missed the vote on gay marriage.
And as Stephen Daisley points out, the local Tories seem to think she is best placed to woo back centre-right and “gently anti-independence” voters who have been alienated by Sturgeon, especially in the sort of rural areas where the Scottish Conservatives have staged their fitful comeback since 2014.
But then, the key to the stranglehold on Scottish political life which the SNP currently enjoys lies in its winning Labour’s former heartland in the central belt. If your priority is holding on to it, an economically centre-right First Minister is not the obvious choice.
Whatever happens, however, Forbes is probably better-equipped to withstand the disappointments of political life – or at least, to put them in perspective – than some politicians. As she told the BBC in 2021:
“Politics will pass – I am a person before I was a politician and that person will continue to believe that I am made in the image of God.”