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by Mandy Rhodes
26 February 2023
Kate Forbes should have searched for answers in her own ministerial legacy - not the Bible

Kate Forbes should have searched for answers in her own ministerial legacy - not the Bible

A political party leadership contest is like lancing a boil – a necessary act of self-harm designed to relieve the building pressure and to return some sense of norm – but that in the moment, inflicts acute pain allowing the poison that’s been filling a void to spill over. It’s toxic, infectious, spreads a vile contagion that inflicts wounds, takes casualties, and causes lasting harm. 

Just think the Milibands. And think on.

And so it is that the party acknowledged, even by its enemies, for its renowned ability to keep a lid on dissension and corral any sense of debate into the requisite group think, now exposes itself for having as many pustules to pop as any other.

With the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon has come a brutal leadership contest that even in its opening stages, far from exploring where the contenders stand on the long running sore of how to actually improve the country and build the case for independence, instead reveals many a deep schism. A party, far from united, riven by religious intolerance, an incurious approach to challenge, a deep-seated hypocrisy, and an inflexibility to learn from its own mistakes.

But let’s not forget how we got here. This contest was sparked because Nicola Sturgeon found herself so out of step, not just with her own party, but with the electorate. Her dead-end de facto referendum strategy was a folly, and her unwavering support of a gender ideology left her so tied up in knots, she was unable to say a rapist was a man, exposing her to widespread ridicule.

Sturgeon acknowledged that she had become a problem; that she had polarized views; and she was a hindrance to the cause. She said her departure would free up her party to find its own path to independence, to have that debate unencumbered by the dominance of her lead.

And so here we are in 2023, discussing whether gay sex is a sin.

Make no mistake, I am no apologist for Kate Forbes – the finance secretary who has returned early from maternity leave, and straight into the political fray to fight for the top role – she is the architect of her own misfortune. I think she is a woman of many talents, not least honesty, and would potentially make a good first minister, but she has hurt a great many people with her poorly crafted words. And for some, her religious beliefs are just unconscionable.

But the social media crucifixion of Forbes has been hellish to witness. Everyone knew that she was religious – that within her church, marriage is for men and women; that it is wrong to have children out of wedlock; and that for her, personally, abortion would not be an option.

We knew all these things, the first minister knew all these things when she appointed her, but Forbes had the honesty [some may say naivety] to say them out loud and with no spin. She would have been well advised to listen to how her opponent in this race, Humza Yousaf, shaped his response to similar questions in the context of him being a practising Muslim, when he said that he didn’t use his faith as a basis for legislation. 

Forbes could easily have done the same. She has a record in government as a legislator, a number cruncher, and a senior minister putting policy and principle into practice. She could have pointed to all of that. She has been the finance secretary for over two years and a former minister for public finance for two before that. She has been responsible for the public purse.

Her, not God. 

Did her beliefs dictate then how money was spent in attempts to make Scotland a better place for all; to reduce poverty; close the gaps of inequity; raise tax, and build for an independent future for which her party craves?  

That’s where Forbes should have searched for her answers. In her own ministerial legacy. And not in the Bible. 

But much more damagingly, she answered with truth on the hypothetical question of how she would have voted, had she been an MSP at the time, on equal marriage. She said she would have voted with her conscience, and it would have been ‘no’.

For this, she has been denounced as a bigot whose views have no place in the 21st century, never mind in Bute House. And as she quickly lost any chance to interject, with nuance, how her faith might shape her but not her politics, that was lost in the ensuing scrum.

And amid it all, her weaselly ministerial colleagues, who have sat around the Cabinet table with her for years, have praised her budgets, and her abilities to debate, they all but peeled away.

Their faux surprise that the person they had shared responsibility with for running the country for over five years, and who has always been open about her religious beliefs, isn’t just shocking, it’s revelatory about the way politicians operate unto themselves. The first minister appointed her, for goodness’ sake, she knew then, what she knows now, but even she has brought into question the ability of Forbes to govern.

Amid all this febrile brouhaha, it’s hard to remember that it is only just over a week since Sturgeon announced her resignation and that there are five weeks of this contest to go. We need to dial down on the hate but with the outgoing first minister leaving a legacy behind of dismissing critics as racists, bigots, or transphobes, or their views as simply being invalid, that tone was perhaps already set.

Politics is a dirty game. A leadership contest, by its very nature, divisive. But the contest has already raised a huge existential issue about whether faith is the glass ceiling that in a progressive and inclusive Scotland we have still to truly shatter.

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