Hope not hate: Interview with Kate Forbes
In February this year, Kate Forbes landed one of the top jobs in Scottish Government. With Derek Mackay’s shock departure, the night before he was due to present his budget to the Scottish Parliament, amid a scandal about him inappropriately texting a teenage boy, Forbes had just a few hours to digest the information about Mackay, with whom she had worked closely as junior finance minister since 2018, and also get her head around the numbers.
At 7am the following day, Nicola Sturgeon’s chief of staff asked her to assume the mantle and at 2pm, she stood up in the chamber and presented Mackay’s budget. For well over two hours, she stood, answering questions from cross-party politicians, looking and sounding fully in command of her brief but aware that this could be her “spectacular undoing”. She says it was a sense of duty that powered her on and she just needed to get through the day.
“Well, as you’d imagine, with all with things like that, you’re firmly focused on the job that you have to do, and you can’t allow any distractions that are going to undermine your preparation,” Forbes says. “So you know, I was receiving a whole host of different texts saying, ‘Good luck’, ‘Hope you do well’, ‘Do you need any help?’ and so on and all the time they were coming through, I was just having to ignore them. You have to ignore everything else that’s going on, because ultimately, nobody was going to give me a free ride at 2pm. It was down to me. It was me that had to stand up and deliver and me that had to be prepared.
“You’ve just got to suppress all your fears, all your nerves, all your concerns, and that included anything to do with what had broken overnight [in terms of Mackay] and focus completely on the preparation and the job at hand.
“I think I felt like I was in a tunnel. I could see a light at the end of it, but I had to get to the end – and the end was at 4:20pm. That is all I thought about. That evening, I actually already had a dinner planned because it was my brother’s birthday, so I went straight from doing the budget to dinner with him and no, he wasn’t at all impressed by what had just happened to his big sister. So I don’t think that all that had happened over that 24 hours dawned on me until several days later and even then, I couldn’t afford to think about anything other than the fact I had to get through committee scrutiny of the budget, I had to get a budget deal, and get the budget through all three stages of Parliament. And then, just as I thought I may get a chance to reflect, COVID hit, and I’ve just kept going ever since. You have to. It’s just your responsibility.”
You have to ignore everything else that’s going on, because ultimately, nobody was going to give me a free ride
Forbes’s acute sense of public duty has served her well in the four years since she was elected as the MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch. And while she says that confidence is sometimes a carefully constructed artifice, she was immediately dubbed the ‘one to watch’, made a minister shortly thereafter, and having only joined the party in 2011, has been repeatedly tipped as its future leader.
But what do we know about Forbes? She was born in 1990, the eldest of four siblings. A proud Highlander. A Gaelic speaker, she is the only politician to have given a full speech in Gaelic in Holyrood. Is bright, has a degree from Cambridge and a postgrad from Edinburgh. Is an internationalist, having lived a large part of her childhood in India. Is fully committed to independence. Is a former chartered accountant. And she’s a member of the Free Church of Scotland.
That latter point has provoked a disproportionate amount of interest in Forbes, with questions raised about how she can square the circle between her religious affiliation to a church that is famously ultra-conservative on matters such as equal marriage and abortion, and yet be a government minister in a party that is perceived to be socially progressive on those very issues.
She argues about the need for respectful and informed debate, about collective responsibility in government, and rightly points out that it would be a “very dangerous route to go down” if someone of a particular faith could not stand for public office. However, she recognises that in a world where discourse can become heated, her faith may make her politically vulnerable, given the lack of nuance, particularly in online debate.
In April 2019, a letter signed by Forbes, then minister for public finance, and 14 other SNP politicians including three other government ministers and a deputy presiding officer, called for the Scottish Government not to “rush” into legislation to reform the Gender Recognition Act which they claimed could change the definition of what it meant to be male and female.
The letter, a response to a speech in which the First Minister had said transgender rights are not “a threat to me as a woman”, sparked a social media storm, with LGBT activists in her own party claiming Forbes had “questionable views” on equality because of her religious beliefs. She was decried as a bigot, a transphobe and the letter prompted a then member of her party’s National Executive Committee, and the national co-convener of the Out4Indy group, to say that Forbes’s promotion to cabinet secretary “was the last thing our party needs”.
He later deleted his tweet but said: “I disagree with Kate on GRA and also recognise she did a good job with presenting the budget. I’m fearful having a politician as a government secretary who has hinted toward anti-LGBTQ views in times when hate crimes are rising toward LGBTQ people. It’s scary.”
The issues around the proposed GRA reform – an SNP manifesto commitment and on which Forbes stood for election in 2016 – have created division in a party that normally slavishly adheres to a collective discipline.
For Forbes, it was bruising and an early lesson in how vitriolic and personal politics in Scotland has become – she later describes the general degeneration of debate as “increasingly more stupid” and with no room for grey.
Undoubtedly, Forbes risked a premature end to a promising ministerial career with publication of that letter. Words were exchanged at the highest levels and she questioned whether sticking to her own principles had been correct. But for the record, she does and, I would suggest, on a matter of principle, she would do it again. But despite her critics, less than a year later, she was promoted to Cabinet Secretary for Finance – the first woman in either Holyrood or Westminster to do so – and speculation about her being a potential next leader has not abated.
In fairness, Forbes has done nothing to invite suggestion that she could ever replace Sturgeon as FM and appears genuine when she says that she has simply stepped up to the plate out of a sense of public duty rather than with an eye on the next rung on the ladder.
It is that commitment to serve that is the key to who Kate Forbes really is.
I mean, you can’t miss walking past slums that would last for miles or not see the tarpaulin shacks where people are living in beside the road
Born into a religious family, although not then of the Free Church, and it remains a mixed bag - her uncle was a recent Moderator of the Church of Scotland. Her mother is a qualified teacher and her father, a trained accountant who eschewed the more comfortable material life that his profession could bring and instead chose to serve God in India. He worked as a missionary for various religious charities that offered free healthcare to the poor and Forbes describes being surrounded by “brilliant medical professionals” who worked alongside her father and who had also chosen to follow their faith to “treat the most marginal in society”. Forbes’s father later studied for a PhD in the Indian Stock Exchange and managed various hospitals, but the family mainly depended on charitable donations because he never took a salary. His children went to local Indian schools and they lived in tied housing.
Forbes talk of her time in India, to age 15, when the family eventually returned to the Highlands of Scotland, as her formative years, happy years with a family that had very little in terms of material wealth, but joy in abundance. She describes mealtimes as rowdy affairs, and always accompanied by debate.
“We weren’t political as a family in the big ‘p’ sense,” she says. “But we used to debate everything. We used to discuss, argue, about anything. So, I guess, whilst it wasn’t big ‘p’ political, or party political, in my view, everything that happens inside the home or outside the home, is ultimately political and for want of a better phrase, it all boiled down to how do you resolve the injustices in the world?
“Now it’s one thing to debate that in Scotland, when you’re talking about particular government policies but it’s quite another to talk about that on the way to school in India when you’re passing children begging on the street, or when you’re involved with healthcare and the cobbler at the end of the road is completely caught up in extraordinary debt as a result of being taken advantage of by loan sharks, and the injustices and the unfairness and the sense that government could do something, but they weren’t, was just obvious and all around you.
“I mean, you can’t miss walking past slums that would last for miles or not see the tarpaulin shacks where people are living in beside the road. You can try if you want, but you can’t miss it. It’s not a case of poverty being hidden, it’s acute, you can’t get on a train without passing children who are maimed and begging. You can’t go into town without seeing hordes of children clearly part of some form of ring and being exploited. So, you must deal with very weighty, difficult subjects, because you can’t avoid them.
“I guess, for me as a child, it normalised that state of poverty, of inequality, as being the state of the world, or at least, the state of some societies. Let’s just say, nobody needed to ever give me a briefing on poverty or social injustice. Nobody had to tell me about it, I could see it. And therefore, as a 10-year-old, if you’re standing there doing PE in the schoolyard and you see children younger than yourself carrying bricks on their head to assist with building part of the school, you’re going to question why, and you’re going to figure it out that it’s wrong, and you’re going to ask yourself, how do you resolve that kind of thing. What can you do?”
This backstory tells you much of what makes Forbes tick – she is a deep thinker and her childhood experiences gave her an inner confidence and an innate sense of the world being bigger than just you, but it is only half the story.
When the family decided to return to Scotland, she was against it – but says that while the family debated almost everything, this wasn’t a particularly democratic decision. Her parents had the final say.
Politics isn’t always a kind place, it’s a really messy world, not just in terms of the way that parties engage with one another but the fact that you’re always dealing with the worst aspects of human behaviour
She says she arrived back in Scotland “not particularly happy” and with new classmates in Dingwall not sure what to make of this exotic teenager who had been born there, spoke Gaelic, but had grown up mainly in India. She says the family had very little and depended on handouts and hand-me-downs. She remembers her teenage self being mortified by being driven around in an old Volvo that someone had donated to the family. And those things matter when you are young. Now, she is unmaterialistic and admits she would do her job for nothing if she had to.
I ask Forbes how she thinks all the moving and having to make new connections affected her as a child. She describes a particularly sad moment when they had to leave their dog, Bessie, behind in India with neighbours and how when it went missing, a family friend went looking for it and sent them a video of it sitting mournfully on the doorstep of their old home. She says it was heart-breaking but quickly adds that “people go through far tougher things as children”.
She describes a year of being very unsettled in Scotland until her mother took her back to India for a visit, which seemed to lay some ghosts and she settled into life on their return.
She excelled academically and at 18, secured a place at Cambridge where she studied history. She says she loved the international nature of the student body there, which made her feel like she was living abroad again. She then studied for a Masters in Diaspora and Migration History at Edinburgh and then, by a “process of elimination and not wanting to be a teacher”, she studied accountancy as part of a graduate scheme and went onto work for the banking giant Barclays.
The family had a history of being involved with the SNP and she joined the party in 2011 having been involved in Young Scots for Independence before that, but what motivated her to stand for election in 2016?
“I think there’s … a whole host of reasons. One, is that coming from a family that had always pontificated on political issues, I thought there was a responsibility, not just to pontificate, but to do something about it. I love the Highlands, I studied Highland history, my peers are all from the Highlands, and I could see on my front doorstep opportunities to do things differently. So, there was a sense in me wanting to be somebody who could try and deliver for the Highlands, would be the second thing. The third thing was that the opportunity arose. And I guess I’ve always been somebody that when a door opens, you’ve got a duty and a responsibility, whether you want to do it or not, to see if it will open all the way. And lastly, I didn’t think I’d win.”
Now, she is one of the most powerful politicians in Scotland and steering the country’s fragile finances through a global pandemic that has killed thousands of Scots. It’s a dark time when faith and her politics have been be sorely tested. I ask her if she has lost hope in either.
“No, because at a time like this, we all need hope, more than anything else. I think hope has dominated so many of the political speeches that I’ve heard during these times, people are making huge sacrifices and they need hope … hope that there is an end to the pandemic, and … that there is something bigger than themselves. Clearly, I have hope in something that is bigger than me and that will certainly be a guiding light, even in the most challenging circumstances.
“Politics isn’t always a kind place, it’s a really messy world, not just in terms of the way that parties engage with one another but the fact that you’re always dealing with the worst aspects of human behaviour – people come to me looking for help, when everything else has gone wrong or failed, so it is very messy but what keeps me here is that sense of responsibility, because I may not be the best, I’m sure that there are others that could do the job just as well, if not better, but I have a strong sense of responsibility to help people that come looking for help. You can back off and go do something easier, or you can stay and try and make it different, and for as long as I’ve got that sense of responsibility, I will stick at it.”