SNP's Kate Forbes could be party leader sooner than you might think – Susan Dalgety

Susan Dalgety disagrees with Kate Forbes on many issues and would never vote for her, but is impressed by the SNP politician's intellect and quiet self-confidence

If you asked AI to design a new model leader for the nationalist movement, someone to represent the future rather than the past, I doubt very much if it would generate Kate Forbes. The MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch is barely in her 30s. She is the mother of a toddler and step-mum to three teenage daughters.

She has been an MSP since 2016, and stepped up into the Finance Secretary role when Derek Mackay, one of Nicola Sturgeon’s close allies, disgraced himself. But even given her two-year stint in the finance role, she is still very young in political terms. She only graduated from Cambridge University 12 years ago.

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And she is a person of faith. A devout Christian, she’s an active member of the theologically conservative, evangelical Free Church of Scotland. She is also – unsurprisingly, given her religious beliefs – a social conservative. Hardly the traditional person spec for the leader of a 21st-century society which celebrates diversity and personal freedom.

SNP politician Kate Forbes is a serious politician at the relatively young age of 33 (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)SNP politician Kate Forbes is a serious politician at the relatively young age of 33 (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
SNP politician Kate Forbes is a serious politician at the relatively young age of 33 (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Forbes: ‘I am not a dictator’

Indeed, her leadership bid in the wake of Nicola Sturgeon’s shock resignation almost ended before it had properly begun when she said she was against same-sex marriage. On the day her campaign launched, she told this newspaper that, “…I would have voted, as a matter of conscience, along the lines of mainstream teaching in most major religions that marriage is between a man and a woman. But I would have respected and defended the democratic choice that was made. It is a legal right now and I am a servant of democracy, I am not a dictator.”

Once urban Scotland had got its breath back at the audacity of a young woman expressing views that were straight out of the 1950s, her campaign picked up momentum, and she came close to beating Humza Yousaf, with 48 per cent of the members’ vote to his 52 per cent.

She refused a demotion from the finance post and took herself off to the backbenches. Conventional political wisdom suggests that here endeth her leadership ambitions. A charismatic, able backbench MSP, someone with huge potential, but whose personal faith – and openness about her beliefs – would prevent her from ever getting the top job. One senior commentator, who has studied Scottish political life for more than 30 years, dismissed her only this week as “the MSP for the 19th century”, and he is far from alone in that view.

But there is something about Forbes. Watching her interview with Sancta Familia – a small Roman Catholic media organisation – earlier this week only reinforced my view that she is destined for the top job. Perhaps sooner than we all think.

I disagreed vehemently with her defence of those people who haunt abortion clinics, standing outside in “silent prayer” intimidating women on their arrival for reproductive health treatment. Forbes argued that “silent prayer” as a form of protest is a freedom that must be upheld. She did not go as far as to say she would vote against the bill that seeks to introduce buffer zones around clinics, preferring instead to argue for proper scrutiny of the proposed legislation, “to ensure that it is a product of a liberal society and not an illiberal one”. An interesting philosophical position for a social conservative.

But while I think her stance on abortion is wrong, as are her views on same-sex marriage and babies “born out of wedlock”, and I find her core political belief – that Scotland should leave the UK – anathema to everything I believe in, I still find myself drawn to her.

Serious conversations

Watching her earlier this year in conversation with broadcaster Iain Dale and former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith at the Edinburgh Fringe was a revelation. She spent a good part of the hour-long event debating whether a politician with strong religious beliefs such as hers can properly govern a secular nation such as ours. It was fascinating, and I have to say encouraging, to listen to a politician engage in a serious conversation about the nature of belief, governance and social policy.

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She argued, and continues to assert now, that politicians have a right to freedom of belief, telling Sancta Familia that “a liberal democracy can only operate when we stand by those freedoms – freedom of speech, of religious practice”. A former politician pointed out to me recently that Forbes’ views resonate in many island and Highland communities, where the Free Church of Scotland has its spiritual home. “Scotland is not the square mile around Holyrood,” she said. Another senior politician describes her as “a breath of fresh air, she is comfortable in her own skin, a very impressive woman”.

And therein lies Forbes’ unique selling point. At only 33, she is already a serious politician, with the intellectual capacity and quiet self-confidence to have a grown-up policy discussion about everything from free speech to post-natal depression. In an era where our politics is largely dominated by lightweight personalities whose ambition far outstrips their abilities, it is refreshing to listen to someone who thinks, rather than simply parrots a line crafted by a special adviser or junior press officer.

I would never vote for a party led by Forbes, but I do know that Scotland, like the rest of the UK, needs grown-ups in charge. Whether a politician believes in God, Allah or Buddha, or has no belief at all, is a matter for them. What matters is their ability to govern well, and for all. The SNP under Yousaf is falling apart, so I wouldn’t rule out that, in the coming months, there will be another opportunity for the young woman from Dingwall to contest the SNP leadership. And this time she will win.



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