Kate Forbes on why tech is “the most exciting portfolio in government”
From the Himalayas to the Highlands, Scotland’s Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy has lived experience of how tech can impact on small communities
Scotland’s Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy Kate Forbes - Image credit: Anna Moffat
When Kate Forbes was elected to the Scottish Parliament, she had one simple goal: to get out and meet as many of those people she was now representing as possible.
She made a promise to visit every part of her incredibly rural Highland constituency and go into the smallest villages to meet the often-forgotten residents living in the tiniest communities.
Three years later, and now with the additional responsibility of holding a ministerial position, Forbes is still as passionate as ever about the rural communities she represents, but while her determination to give the smallest, most rural parts of Scotland the same voice as the biggest towns and cities is commendable, it does come at a price.
And that price, for Forbes, is feeling the pressure to single-handedly fix everyone’s problems.
“In my personal life, I approach problems in that way of thinking, ‘right, here’s the problem, what are you going to do to fix it?’,” explains Forbes. “And I don’t usually accept excuses personally, from myself, so I do find it enormously frustrating when I can’t solve problems and I think if there’s anything in the first few years that made me sort of rethink my position, it is that crippling sense of powerlessness to change things.”
As a native of Dingwall, and therefore representing a lot of people who have known her all her life, it has been hard for Forbes to “take a step back” and accept that she is never going to put right everything that is wrong.
When she began feeling like she didn’t want to go to work because of the tremendous “burden” of taking on board everyone’s problems, she knew she had to try to change her outlook.
“It was certainly a huge issue in the beginning,” she admits. “Coming back to parliament after the second recess in 2017, I just thought, ‘ugh’.
“I have definitely learned, and had to encourage my staff to think in the same way too, because we all have a tendency to personalise people’s pain or anguish and ultimately, you have got to remain as compassionate as possible but take a step back and recognise nobody’s given me a magic wand and realise if I burn myself out on a few really difficult cases then I can’t help anybody else.
“At the moment, half way through a term, I’m still learning, and it’s been a steep learning curve, but more than anything, I’m learning how to serve the people in my constituency but understand the things I can change and the things that I can’t change.
“And that can be a huge burden, too, because you see lots of things that you want to change but you can’t change, or you try to change and you don’t change. That’s a difficult burden.”
Forbes’ strong sense of community and passion for the Highlands and the people she represents comes, perhaps ironically, from the fact she spent a lot of her childhood growing up in India.
She lived there for the first three years of her life while her father provided healthcare to people who couldn’t afford it, and then again between the ages of 10 and 15.
“I think when you’re that age, you don’t reflect on your experiences because you’ve got nothing to compare it to, but moving from India and then to Scotland and then back to India was a bit of a shock to the system, but as a child, you don’t consciously reflect on it,” she says.
“I moved back to India when I was 10 and we had just been doing the Victorians in my little Scottish primary school and going to India, where it’s just a different world of no welfare state, and you’d have children who were the same age as me running about or doing hard labour.
“I remember doing PE in an Indian primary school and seeing kids my own age while we were doing PE, they were building houses, with bricks on their heads and things. It’s a total contrast.”
A self-confessed “nomad” who “moved around a lot”, it was finding stability on returning to Scotland, and specifically to the Highlands, that led Forbes down a political path.
The sense of belonging fuelled her Scottish identity and her passion for nationalism.
“There’s nothing like being taken out of your home country to make you prouder of your home country,” explains Forbes. “We were very proud of our Scottish heritage and my brother would dress up in a kilt and all the rest of it, so when we came back to Scotland, we were probably more Scottish, we acted more Scottish than normal Scottish kids.
“So, I got involved with the SNP when I was in my late teens, just helping out doing some leafleting and I got involved with Young Scots for Independence at the time.
“It was not part of my career ambitions at the time. The key link was always my home constituency. If you imagine if you’re a bit of a nomad and you’re moving around a lot, that sense of home is really important.
“I always had a sense that more could and should be done for the Highlands and I still think that to this day in terms of services, infrastructure, support, all with that one ambition of retaining the population and reversing depopulation. That’s really where I started to get involved with constituency politics.”
While Forbes said she hadn’t planned a career in politics – and indeed, she worked as an accountant in the banking industry before she was elected – her talents were spotted from an early age.
“The funny thing is, for a few years I went to an international school in the Himalayas and it was an American school, and one of my history teachers, who was also American, in the Indian Himalayas, wrote in my report card, aged 13, that Kate was doing OK at school, she was a bit bossy, but the only job that he could ever envisage me doing was debating in the Scottish Parliament. My mum found that report card a few days after I was elected.
“It didn’t mean that I left [school] wanting to get involved in politics, but I guess I’ve always had a really strong sense of public duty because my dad worked there as a volunteer for years, so it wasn’t like it was a great career move and we didn’t have a steady income when I was growing up, so I guess I always had a very strong sense of public duty and very strong sense that there was more to life than visible success.”
And growing up on the periphery of such poverty and inequality no doubt had some impact on Forbes’ future career.
“I think it gives you perspective, and in politics, you need perspective,” she agrees. “In a crisis or in a political moment, you think that is the be all and end all, but growing up in India gives you a much broader perspective.
“The crises that we face here, the challenges that we face here, are legitimate and difficult, but with a bigger perspective of what some other people face, I think it helps me not to be in a permanent state of panic.”
Forbes also gains perspective from her faith, which has always been important to her. She admits that being in church is one of the few times she switches off from her work and, despite being surrounded by her constituents, there is an almost unspoken rule that they don’t raise constituency issues with her on Sundays.
“Faith is a very important issue for me, I’m involved locally in a church which, again, helps with that bigger, broader perspective,” says Forbes. “I switch off and don’t do anything active. Sunday mornings are very important just for [that].
“I think they know that I’m off-duty on a Sunday. Most of them have known me since long before I was in politics.”
Forbes was elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2016 when she was in her mid-20s, and was appointed Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy in June last year as part of Nicola Sturgeon’s wider reshuffle.
She is viewed as a rising star within the SNP, and during her first two years in parliament, she was named as a finalist in the ‘one to watch’ category of the Scottish Politician of the Year awards and also as a finalist for ‘backbencher of the year’ in Holyrood’s own political awards.
But despite her success at such a young age – she is one of the youngest politicians to serve as a Scottish Government minister since devolution – her youth also means she has to work harder than most, especially coupled with the fact she is female.
“When you get involved in politics, you have to get into the habit of acting the role whether you feel it or not,” she says. “Perhaps I just had to work harder to fill the role because I was young and female, but I guess I never consciously thought of it as a disadvantage.
“I had to fill that role of leadership and even things like when you’re out campaigning, sometimes, if I were with a male activist who was taller and older, sometimes, the person would come to the door and instantly go to shake their hand before they would shake my hand.
“Oh well, I just have to work harder at making sure they shake my hand first.”
And does that happen now?
“I hope so,” she says. “But still, there’s a sense where you’ve got to fill that role. Particularly in technology, obviously, there’s very few women – in finance, there’s very few women – so from a ministerial perspective, I still need to do that in terms of acting the role whether or not I look like what people perceive the role to look like.”
Even if she has to ‘act the role’ to get people to accept she is the minister in charge of public finance and the digital economy in Scotland, there’s no acting involved when it comes to her commitment to the post.
“It’s the most exciting portfolio in government!” she declares, with what appears to be genuine enthusiasm and without a hint of sarcasm. “The digital side has previously been part of other people’s portfolios and I think that collectively, whether it’s business, private sector or public sector, everybody’s grappling with the pace of change and what an exciting time to be involved with tech and digital.
“It’s forecast to be the fastest growing sector in Scotland by 2024 but we’ll only reap the benefits if we’re making changes now. For me, from a public sector point of view, digital too often is perceived as a means of excluding people but actually, it’s a means of giving people new life, new access, new services, if we get it right.
“It’s changing at such a rapid pace, the opportunities for innovation are phenomenal and I love being right at the heart of it and trying to support businesses to make the most of digital, to support the tech industry to drive innovation and the public sector who are grappling with all these changes at a time when they’re already caught up in change with changing demographics and changing demands and changing levels of financial support.
“Tech should, if it works well, break down boundaries and barriers so that if you’re sitting in a remote peninsula, you should have the same access to capital, to employees, to other businesses as if you were in the middle of London.”
She adds: “I was in Dublin last year and I was illustrating some of the things we were working on and somebody asked me if I was trying to become the minister for everything because that’s the nature of tech, it’s embedded in everything.”
Forbes is quick to point out that her promotion last year has not impacted on her commitment to her constituency, and says having these dual roles just means she “works twice as hard”.
“My first job [when I got elected] was to get round every part of my constituency. My constituency is phenomenally massive and it’s got loads of tiny little villages and I don’t think it’s fair that some of the bigger towns get more attention than some of the wee villages, so my goal early on was to spend as much time as possible in some of the smallest villages.
“And then goal number two is just keep representing the Highlands on the national stage. That is, hopefully, something people can see I’m trying to do. And then the third aspect is just to fight for improvements.
“So, whilst I’ve got my ministerial role, I’m not forgetting my constituency and at the moment, I’m trying to do stuff around fostering and adoption because the nature of a remote and rural constituency is that it’s more difficult to deliver services.”
Forbes has also become a passionate advocate for the Gaelic language, and made history last year when she became the first female MSP to give a plenary speech entirely in Gaelic in the current Scottish Parliament chamber.
When she moved back to Scotland from India the first time, she studied Gaelic medium education in Glasgow, sparking her love for the language.
“Because we did Gaelic medium education when we were back in Scotland and then went off to India, the poor Indian authorities couldn’t understand why these British-Scottish kids couldn’t read and write English, it baffled them,” Forbes laughs.
“I hate the politicised nature, the people who try to politicise Gaelic…I hate it because in my world, there are people from all parties, from all constitutional positions who use Gaelic. It’s just a language of communication.”
While Forbes uses it in everyday life – from parliament to her Highland surgeries, from chatting with friends to bumping into Gaelic speakers in church – she admits that she’s also used it as a tool to get her out of an awkward situation.
“Not that long ago, I was asked by a journalist to give an answer to a question that I didn’t want to give,” she tells Holyrood. “It was a bit of a door-stepping exercise – I won’t go into details – but my get-out-of-jail-free card was to give them the answer in Gaelic. So, if BBC Alba were listening, they would have got the scoop!”
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