Kate Forbes: 'There is light at the end of the tunnel'
It’s been four days since Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon made their announcements which put the whole of the UK into effective lockdown.
No more leaving the home unless for one of the stipulated four reasons; no public gatherings of more than two people; no more non-essential businesses or shops. No more anything, unless it is government sanctioned.
I’m therefore speaking to Kate Forbes, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, from my makeshift office in my children’s playroom in suburban Edinburgh, while she’s in “the middle of nowhere” in Dingwall.
It’s not ideal, but, as with every aspect of our new lives, we make do.
The last time I interviewed Forbes, about nine months ago, it was in her capacity as the minister in charge of public finance and the digital economy in Scotland, and a lot has changed in those few months, both for Forbes personally and the world in general.
In February, Forbes was parachuted into the role of finance secretary after her predecessor, Derek Mackay, was forced to resign over his inappropriate communications with a 16-year-old schoolboy.
The scandal rocked Scottish politics and hit the SNP hard, especially as Mackay’s resignation came the night before he was due to deliver the budget.
And it was Forbes, at just 29 years old, who stepped up to the plate.
It was a little bit like going over the top of the trenches and you only had to get to the other side of no man’s land to reach safety
But how did she cope with being thrown in at the deep end, taking on one of the biggest, most important duties in any government: delivering a budget speech?
“It was the only thing I could do,” she replies, when I ask her whether she had to put the circumstances which led her there to one side while she focussed on the budget delivery. “I couldn’t wish away the situation, or the reason why I was giving the budget, but I had one job to do and my whole morning was hanging on standing up and getting to 4.20pm. And that was my focus.
“It was a little bit like going over the top of the trenches and you only had to get to the other side of no man’s land to reach safety. So that was very much a case of having tunnel vision and focusing on the task at hand. But of course, getting to 4.20pm didn’t actually give me much respite because the following week it was straight into committee, and then negotiating a budget through parliament.”
Forbes’ budget delivery, although last minute, was widely praised, and not just by those within the SNP.
“I was very appreciative of people’s comments afterwards,” Forbes says. “I didn’t go into that budget speech trying to be big or clever, I just had to get through it. And I’d spent all morning prepping frantically, and I switched my phone off because I was getting so many good luck messages and every new good luck message made me feel like the stakes were higher. So, people were very kind and I think they recognised the challenging circumstances of it. And I think perhaps too, when you’ve only had a morning to prep, people perhaps had low expectations. So, it was nice to exceed their expectations.”
I didn’t see it coming. The whole thing was extremely sad.
Afterwards, when the chaos had subsided, how did she reflect on what Mackay had done and those messages he sent to the schoolboy which many said were “predatory” and symptomatic of grooming?
“I think it’s really sad. And, you know, for me, it was a big shock. And it still is. But as I said, the last week has been so busy, and I’ve not been in touch with him, just really been focusing on the task at hand, but it was a shock. I didn’t see it coming. The whole thing was extremely sad.”
Just when she thought she might have “a moment to catch my breath”, the coronavirus pandemic hit Scotland. All of a sudden, delivering the Scottish budget at a moment’s notice and subsequently being appointed to one of the most high-profile cabinet positions paled into insignificance.
And while she admits she may have had pangs of “imposter syndrome”, she had to put any feelings to one side because the stakes were too high not to give her all.
“When you have people, businesses that are expecting answers, then you’ve got to rise to the challenge of the economic impact of COVID-19, it does not matter whether you feel like you can or not, you have to because the role demands it,” she says.
The economic impact of the global pandemic is immeasurable at the moment, but Forbes says there are two main priorities to focus on at this stage: making sure people have money now, when they need it, and making sure the economy can recover at the end of it.
I don’t think anybody envisaged the impact to spread so quickly to essentially every corner of the economy.
“Everything I say has got to be seen in the context of the pandemic and the public health emergency and when it comes to economic impact, it’s because people are following doctor’s guidance and government advice staying at home that we’re seeing the profound impact on the Scottish economy and on businesses.
“And, initially, the worst and the fastest hit businesses were in retail, leisure and hospitality and that’s why we set out to support them first. But I don’t think anybody envisaged the impact to spread so quickly to essentially every corner of the economy.
“I guess there’s two priorities when it comes to supporting business. The first is to ensure that people, ordinary people with families living in communities, have cash in their pocket and support for businesses is there because we want employers to keep paying people so at this time of uncertainty they can still afford to eat and pay their bills.
My biggest worry is for those that have no financial safety net.
“And that’s why support for the self-employed is just as important as any wage retention scheme, because it’s about money.
“The second priority is what our economy looks like when the pandemic passes. And we want to be able to bounce back. So, when this is over – and it will be over – we want to ensure that businesses that we will need for a fully functioning society and a fully functioning economy are still there, whether that’s in the transport sector or food distribution sector or the manufacturing sector. So although we’re encouraging everybody to follow the health advice, I’m very mindful of the economic impact.”
While Forbes has the ability to make this all sound very simple, it’s a mammoth task for any government and for any finance secretary, least of all one who has been in the job just a matter of weeks. There’s no getting away from the fact that despite the good intentions and the billions of pounds being made available not just in Scotland but across the UK, there are going to be devastating side effects for large swathes of the population.
I ask her what she is most worried about.
“My biggest worry is for those that have no financial safety net, and that’s quite a big group. So, whilst I’ve been very positive about the Chancellor’s announcements on wage subsidy and on self-employed, there is still a group that will benefit from neither and they keep falling through the cracks. And the question for government is, where do they come across our radar? And how do we get help to them quickly.
“There’s a lot of people that fall through the cracks and they’re the people I’m most worried about.”
And while there are undoubtedly many who fall into this category, the aim is that government funding will be enough to keep most businesses ticking over and protect salaries until all this is over.
For the more fortunate employees, their biggest worries will be much simpler: grappling with the logistics of working from home, with companies having to roll out remote working practices almost overnight.
I often hear it said that the Scottish Parliament was designed to be family friendly. It cannot be family friendly for anybody who does not live within commuting distance.
The tech and digital sector was previously forecast to be the fastest growing sector in the country by 2024, but this has now been massively accelerated.
“I think that various sectors of society have had to achieve in 24 hours what they thought they might have several years to do, and that’s not a bad thing, because if tech is the future and we can work smarter and more intelligently and more productively using technology, it’s good to see various organisations in the public and the private sector moving technology really fast.
“I think our telecoms businesses and the infrastructure has done quite a good job of coping in the last two weeks, where people have had to depend on their emails and on conference calling and broadband far more than they ever did. And considering I’m speaking to you from what some might call the middle of nowhere in the Highlands, and we’re doing an interview right now… it’s often the rural areas that struggle the most.
“My hope is that when we come out of this, we don’t lose some of that good work. Having proven that people can work smarter using technology, let’s not revert to the old ways of working when this is finished.”
And that sentiment should also be transferred to the Scottish Parliament, Forbes says, given the criticism of its family-unfriendly working practices which led to the recent announcements by her SNP colleagues Gail Ross and Aileen Campbell that they would not be standing for re-election.
“I think we’ve proven that we can work remotely,” she says. “There’s still an important place for scrutiny and for debate, but the size of some people’s constituencies, particularly Gail’s, the responsibility to be in Edinburgh, far away from family, for three nights a week means that people will be faced with a choice at the moment with the way things are between families and work.
“And the more we can do to reduce that sense of choice, the better, and that can only be done through technology and other means. I often hear it said that the Scottish Parliament was designed to be family friendly. It cannot be family friendly for anybody who does not live within commuting distance.”
Forbes has been outspoken about the difficulties and pressures faced by women in politics, not just as a result of family commitments, but because of the “vitriol and aggression” they receive, particularly on social media.
I think people see the level of vitriol and aggression and think that it’s just not worth it.
When I ask how she deals with being on the receiving end – she has had to deal with a lot of abuse over her religious beliefs – she is quite clear: “You just ignore it. Absolutely ignore it”.
I have to admit to being slightly taken aback by this response and wonder whether taking on the new role in the midst of what is the biggest crisis to hit Scotland – and indeed, the world – in generations has led to her developing a thicker skin.
“I think I’ve developed a real sense of priority,” she admits. “And the priority is the job at hand. And that may sound dismissive of people’s comments, but actually, it’s true. In terms of the magnitude of the job, it does mean that the inevitable political vitriol and aggression kind of pales into insignificance.
“I think once we’re through this, though, it doesn’t take away from the fact that we need to resolve the vitriol and aggression, because I remain very concerned about attracting people into politics with the state of some of the political discourse just now.
“I think people see the level of vitriol and aggression and think that it’s just not worth it.”
With people stuck at home using technology as their main way of communicating with the outside world, is Forbes worried about increasing abuse on social media?
“This crisis is bringing out the best in people and sometimes the worst in people as well,” she says. “People are definitely using social media to get answers to their questions, to express their worries and concerns, but you see a lot of selflessness amongst people who are very mindful that others are worse off than them and who want to help. And then there’s others who probably can’t see beyond their own very difficult situation. In a period of worry and anxiety, it’s almost understandable that people are perhaps a lot more impatient and frustrated.
“So, while people can, in their impatience and frustration and worry, lash out, there are many more who want to do their bit to help. I actually think of social media as a far more balanced place at the moment than I’ve seen it since I got into politics.”
A positive side effect of social distancing perhaps, but does Forbes believe that Scotland is able to come out the other side with a similarly positive outlook?
“We have a choice at the end of this when it comes to recovery, about how we build an economy for the future. What do we want to focus on? What are our long-term ambitions for our economy? We have a choice what we invest in at the end and I want it to focus on inclusivity and our low-carbon ambitions.
“I think we will get through it. And I think we need to live in hope that we will get through it. We’ll only get through it by following medical advice, by staying at home and by sticking together as a community, by looking out for the most vulnerable, those that are isolated, making sure that they are well cared for, and recognising that this enormously challenging situation does have a light at the end of the tunnel.”