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There's nothing progressive about the bullying of Kate Forbes

Kate Forbes has returned to the Cabinet under John Swinney | Alamy

There's nothing progressive about the bullying of Kate Forbes

Every woman I know who has tried to make themselves disappear as a man has harassed, ogled, or abused them will have recognised the body language of Kate Forbes in the Scottish Parliament’s chamber as she visibly tried to disassociate herself from what was happening around her and of which she was the target.

It’s what we do when we go for a smear. Distract, deflect, disembody. Shrink our whole being simply to separate from the reality of the pain of unwanted and intimate intrusion. 

The vitriol from Patrick Harvie and Ross Greer about Forbes was sickening. It was, in my book, good old-fashioned misogynistic bullying cloaked with a veneer of so-called progressiveness tied up with a rainbow lanyard. 

It’s extraordinary that parliamentary language doesn’t allow for nicknames like ‘Honest John’, but to denigrate a fellow MSP as being a danger to the very existence of minorities [and at the same time whipping up fear among them] because she once answered a hypothetical question with [perhaps ill-judged] honesty goes without comment.

I would remind Ross Greer that back in 2014, when the vote for equal marriage was passed, he was still a teenager, and while times have moved on, both he and Harvie appear to have not. 

For an MSP that argues that everyone should have the right to be who they are without exception, it seems a tad hypocritical to then condemn another for doing just that.

For expressing a personal view that she would not have voted for equal marriage, had she been an MSP ten years ago rather than a trainee accountant, as she was then. The vote was, after all, a vote of conscience for the very reason that the parliament recognised that not everyone was at the same point on the journey then.

While times and attitudes have moved on, it needs a very long stretch of logic to argue that Forbes, having not been an MSP at the time, and regardless of her actions and comments since, believes that Greer does not have the right to exist equally in this world as a queer man. And while that was clearly the nub of his ire, I had the distinct impression that it is Greer that doesn’t believe Forbes has the right just to be.

“I’m being asked to vote for someone who thinks there’s something wrong with me,” he opined during the vote to elect Forbes as deputy first minister, “not because of any views I hold but simply because of who I am. I will not do that; the Scottish Greens will not do that.” 

Every woman knows that feeling of being trapped, of the need to try and melt into the background. So to then double-down on Forbes because instead of demonstrating enough contrition to pass the Greens’ pious test for purity, while her personal religious beliefs were weaponised against her, she then deployed classic avoidance techniques. Frankly, this was for the playground. And watching it play out in real-time in our democratic institution without anyone stepping in was stomach-churning.

There is nothing progressive about publicly berating a young woman who you know, in the circumstances, can’t fight back. They knew that and still chose to play the woman and not the ball.

But the open demonisation of Kate Forbes returning to government after 12 months in solitary for her apparent sins has sent so-called progressives into a state of apoplexy and they were afforded the luxury to express their views, unchallenged, in the people’s parliament.

We currently have three men of deep religious conviction leading our three main political parties at Holyrood. That is not representative of the largely secular and female-dominated Scotland we live in and yet no one passes much judgement on that. 

Forbes is not, as some would argue, an affront to democracy; she is a product of democracy. And, I would argue, far more liberal, certainly more forgiving, than many others are of her.

“Is this the Scottish Government’s vision for the future of Scotland,” Harvie asked of her return, “taking us back to the repressive values of the 1950s?” This from the co-leader of a party that is currently expelling members who have signed a Women’s Declaration defending sex-based rights. If anyone is taking us back to the dark ages, it is him.

We all have a framework within which we live our lives. The question for democracy is whether politicians can divorce the private from the public self. And for my money, Forbes is one of the most able people to do this. Yes, she has a moral compass dictated by her socially conservative beliefs. But none of that means she negatively judges others. And she has been emphatic about upholding democracy and the rule of law.

Forbes believes in the power of economic levers to lift children out of poverty, to create a more equal and just society. A woman who has the intellectual capacity to deliver on what she has promised but instead is judged on one set of her personal beliefs that she has expressed, and with which others concur but remain silent. Forbes’ honesty here was not the best policy.

I look at the family she comes from, Christian missionary parents who believed wholeheartedly in the redistribution of wealth and whose lives were spent mopping up the social tragedy caused by stark inequity. Forbes grew up surrounded by the horrors of poverty and exploitation. She saw young women destined for marriages rooted not in love, but in a transaction.

Her bird’s-eye view of life in the raw, and the sacrifices made by her own family, helped to shape who she became and where her values were drawn from. Forbes’s husband is a widower whose wife died leaving him as a single parent to his three girls. And now Forbes’s family, her husband, their baby, and her half-Indian stepdaughters, surely they represent the very image of a modern-day, blended and diverse Scotland?

Harvie believes that the appointment of Forbes could threaten to drag Scotland back into the 1950s. Perhaps he should look at where Scotland is now. That on one day in Holyrood last week, there was a national housing emergency declared, a bill launched to tackle the drugs crisis, a report into an emergency in schools, a debate on the crisis in falling teacher numbers, and an emergency bill lodged to tackle the Post Office Horizon scandal. 

And a government that blames everyone else but themselves. After 17 years in power – latterly formerly propped up by the Greens – and with a parliament more powered up than ever before, is this the progressive Scotland Harvie is searching for?

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