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Kate Forbes: Same story, two new headlines

Kate Forbes: Same story, two new headlines

Nick Spencer and Hannah Rich share their takes on headlines about Kate Forbes, her faith and potential bid to be Scotland’s First Minister. 01/05/2024

 “Whoever leads Scotland next, it can’t be Kate Forbes”

Ok, I’ll bite. The Kate Forbes Bandwagon is back on the move, the position of Scottish First Minister having unexpectedly become vacant. And that means that the Anyone But Kate Forbes Bandwagon is also on the move. Exhibit A: Kenny Farquharson in the Times, “Whoever leads Scotland next, it can’t be Kate Forbes”.

We have been here so, so many times before. The political allegiance doesn’t really matter. Ruth Kelly, Iain Duncan Smith, Tim Farron, even, in the early days, Tony Blair (before he clammed up on the whole God business). Tolerant progressives don’t “do God”, of course, but nor are they prepared to tolerate anyone else who does. So here we go again.

Farquharson’s case is that Forbes is essentially a moral dinosaur, better suited to Scotland in the “1950s” or “1920s” or the “19th century” (he seems unclear on quite how outdated her views are). It’s not that she doesn’t have talent or ability. According to Farquharson, she has “ideas and energy”, “vision” and “valuable skills”. She might even be good enough to work in the economic ministry which “would make full use of her undoubted talents.” (What a clever girl).

But she can’t lead the party, let alone the country, because she’s a Christian. No, that’s not fair. It’s because she’s the wrong kind of Christian, the kind that believes… ooh, wrong, archaic, bad things.

Farquharson’s argument is not above caricature or cliché (“I want a Scotland where the only weeping and gnashing of teeth is over the performance of the national football team”), and some of his criticisms verge on the absurd. “I want a Scotland that celebrates every child, regardless of their mother’s marital status or sexuality.” Meaning, presumably, that Forbes’ view on marriage and sex would prevent her from celebrating all children (whatever that means)?

Many people, not all fans of Forbes, have pointed out that “Muslim First Minister brilliant; Christian First Minister boo” is little more than Progressive prejudice. Farquharson’s defence – that his issue is not with Forbes’s Christianity but the way it is allegedly at odds with Scottish opinion – is a weak one. As many have pointed out, the SNPs line on gender recognition and free speech is hardly in–line with said opinion. Some unfashionable opinions are more acceptable than others, it seems.

No, the real issue is her faith. Farquharson tries to dodge the accusation of prejudice by claiming “the problem is not her beliefs… [it’s] her opinions” but the distinction is self–evidently spurious, and he makes no attempt to defend it. Forbes is a Christian who holds views on social issues that, although normal 40 years ago, have rather fallen out of fashion. The fact that she has done little to suggest she would pursue those views legislatively, were she to find herself in Bute House, is not enough for Tolerant Progressives (just ask Tim Farron). They like their Ministers pure.

Being as generous to Farquharson as possible, I don’t think his article does show him to be an anti–religious bigot or straightforwardly prejudiced. Rather, it demonstrates that even well–meaning people can be painfully un–self–critical, captured by the received wisdom of their time and class.

Take his understanding of “modernity”. Kenny Farquharson believes that modernity is a good thing, “a concept worth defending”. Amen. So, what is modernity? It turns out that modernity is what Kenny Farquharson believes, a set of moral, social, and public policy orientations more or less synonymous with the liberal progressive worldview. There is no sense that modernity might be characterised by legitimate pluralism, by the recognition of justifiable difference and the willingness to negotiate through the ensuing disagreement. No. Modernity is where I stand.

“I would prefer a politician whose values chimed with the nation he or she sought to lead”, he writes, seemingly unaware that the Scottish nation (like every nation) disagrees on these matters. That’s what politics is. Invoking “the nation’s values” is a classic trope, designed to shortcut the need to negotiate. One would have thought that the last decade of “populist” politics might have disabused people like Farquharson of such notions, but apparently not.

There is no recognition that intelligent, moral, and thoughtful people might disagree over start of life, end of life, sexual relations, family structure, etc. These people are “ghouls”, “fundamentalist[s]”, “Covenanters”. There is no sense that their views might be tenable or defensible in a “modern” society, or that people might hold them for reasons other than atavistic conservatism, religious bigotry, or inchoate prejudice. Such beliefs are simply beyond the pale, not open to discussion or negotiation. The same goes for the people that hold them. Progressive views are right, end of discussion.

Or take his understanding of leadership. The highest level of politics is less about integrity, intelligence, diligence, vision, skills, ideas, etc. – the kind of thing that even Farquharson acknowledges Forbes has in spades. It’s about symbolism. Farquharson praises Nicola Sturgeon for being “a tremendous role model for young working–class women”. He commends Humza Yousaf for being “the first Muslim to lead a national government in the western world”. He says the First Minister’s role is one in which you “personify the nation you lead.” What matters is less what you do, or your competence, or political vision. It’s who you are.

But, of course, no single individual can “personify” or represent an entire nation. Moreover, in a modern polity, nor should they. They are political officials, not presidents or crowned monarchs. Parliaments can and should. So should parties, though they rarely are these days. But to expect that of a First, or Prime Minister is absurd. Such a “performative” conception of leadership has become popular of late, fuelled by our obsession with identity politics, but it’s a shallow and painfully confused. The Scottish and indeed British populations are overwhelmingly white. By Farquharson’s tortured “personify the nation” logic, so, then, so their First/ Prime Ministers be.

The result of all this is confusion and hypocrisy. “I want a secular Scotland”, Farquharson claims, presumably imagining that he means a Scotland marked by a fairness when it comes to religious non/beliefs, but actually showing himself to mean a Scotland in which Tolerant Progressives can exclude those with whom they disagree without having to do that hard work of explaining why they are indefensibly wrong . “I want a Scotland marked by generosity of spirit”, he writes, again unaware that he has just written an article marked by intolerance, caricature, lack of generosity, and the near total absence of self–reflection.

If Kate Forbes does make First Minister, we will see many more pieces of this nature, and, to be honest, irrespective of whether she can bring her talents and achievements as Finance Minister to bear on the new job, I’d give her six months.

But I also have the sense that we are beginning to witness the death rattle of this kind of unreflective and rather self–righteous Progressivism. The sheer level of public bemusement, frustration and anger at the SNP’s spectacular mishandling of gender recognition and free speech; the sense that Progressive leaders are fixating on these culture war issues while most people are far more worried about economic insecurity, casual crime, and the like; and the belief that Tolerant Progressives are ever more likely to try to close down, cancel, deplatform, or otherwise silence those with whom they disagree is growing. For many people now, it is not Kate Forbes who scares them. It is those who insist that she, and people like her, are unfit for office.

by Nick Spencer

“BREAKING: Kate Forbes claims Jesus will tell her whether or not to run for SNP leader.”

Scrolling through social media this week, this tweet pulled me up short. Admittedly at second glance, it became clearer that this is a satire account not an actual breaking news story, but many a true word is spoken in jest, as they say. The idea that a Christian might pray about a huge life decision, it seems, is literally ridiculous. The same was true of the outgoing First Minister; the notion that Humza Yousaf, as a practising Muslim, might actually want to pray in Bute House drew criticism too.

Much ink has already been spilled about Kate Forbes’s socially conservative views and whether they render her political leadership illegitimate. It remains to be seen whether this will prove to be a stumbling block for her for the second time in less than 18 months. If the SNP MSPs decide as much, as the wider membership ultimately did in last year’s leadership contest, it will perhaps be a matter of both electoral mathematics and anti–religious intolerance.

I don’t personally share a lot of Forbes’s politics, and we diverge on some of our theological understandings of ‘social issues’ too. But I fully share her confidence in the power of prayer and of the wisdom of the Christian tradition to shape decisions and actions today. If she were in fact to claim that God would guide her in the leadership contest – through prayerfully weighing it up and seeking wisdom – then I would believe her.

The possibility that Jesus will “tell” Kate Forbes anything is certainly uncomfortable in a society which understands faith first as moral principles and less as a live relationship with the divine. It is easy to caricature a God throwing lightning bolts and booming unsolicited advice from heaven. As most of us Christians know, it is more likely to be a gentle, quiet revelation; a conviction or a feeling of peace about the right way ahead, reached through prayer and seeking God’s guidance. 

Faith is not just assent to a set of beliefs, but rather something living that actively influences every area of life, and we are all poorer if we cannot understand that. It would be less coherent, would it not, for an individual to profess a faith but then not seek guidance in it about something as significant as the matter of whether to lead a country. It has become something of an easy soundbite for politicians to acknowledge the value of faith communities by praising the contribution of the church food bank or the gurdwara soup kitchen in their constituency. We have got to get better at recognising what it means to have faith at a personal level, in all its richness and power. We have to tolerate, even embrace, not just neat religious beliefs but also the intangible, mystical impact they might have.

Disagree with Kate Forbes’s conclusions, absolutely. Decide that they are reasons not to vote for her, yes. That is your democratic right. But let’s not question the potential for faith to actively influence her life.

by Hannah Rich

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Scottish Government, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


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