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by Kirsteen Paterson
24 February 2023
Kate Forbes: There is no democracy without disagreement and debate

Kate Forbes: There is no democracy without disagreement and debate

“There is no democracy without disagreement and debate. Decisions are always better for having been debated. It gives confidence to voters and members that the policy we have come to is the best policy.”

Under-fire SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes is speaking to Holyrood about her entry into the race, and the response to comments she has given in interviews on subjects from same-sex marriage to having children outside of marriage.

She wouldn’t have voted in favour of the former, she said, but would “defend to the hilt everybody’s right in a pluralistic and tolerant society to live and love free of harassment and fear”. On the latter, she said it would be “wrong” according to the teachings of the Free Church of Scotland, to which she belongs, though “in a free society you can do what you want”.

And she's hopeful that party members will still select her over rivals Humza Yousaf and Ash Regan.

“Fundamentally, most of the time people’s personal choices are not subject to judgement by me,” she tells Holyrood. “We are scared of people of faith because we don’t really understand it. We increasingly operate in fear in this country and we need to actually stop being scared of speaking our minds.”

Whether or not Forbes was prepared for the response she’s received – criticism from MPs and MSPs and the loss of endorsements from several cabinet colleagues – she has thought about it. “Our political discourse leaves very little space for nuance and people can ask me, on any issue under the sun, do I think it’s right and wrong, and there are things that I wouldn’t do myself, but I’m not going to legislate or judge other people who make those choices.”

The “rights of people of faith to practice fairly mainstream teaching” should be respected, she says, something she argues is not in conflict with protecting the legal right to equal marriage. “As a servant of democracy, rather than a dictator, I absolutely respect and defend that democratic right.

“I would like to think that people respect me as a thinker who is actually applying judgement and discernment to issues, but when you are asked in a quickfire media interview if things are right or wrong, it doesn’t allow for that nuance,” Forbes goes on. “That can spill over in very, very few issues which our party has long recognised are issues of conscience.

“We seem to be in a place where that nuance has been lost.”

At just 32 and as finance secretary, Forbes has risen higher and faster than many politicians do, having been elected for the first time in 2016. At the last election, she took a massive 24,200 votes in her Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch constituency, winning 56.1 percent of the vote and increasing her majority by almost 7,000.

But colleagues have distanced themselves from her bid, with Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Spey MP Drew Hendry withdrawing his endorsement. Ministers Tom Arthur, Claire Haughey and Richard Lochhead did the same. “It’s a good question,” she says when asked why they seemed surprised by her comments on marriage and the family. “People often have said that I’m quite open about my perspective on things, sometimes quite vocal. If people think that I’m not who they thought I was, that’s for them to answer. I have worked alongside them for six years.”

Forbes has also faced claims that she’s adrift from young voters, in particular, on such issues. At 32, she doubts that, and points out that with three teenage stepdaughters and a baby, she has “a huge vested interest in Scotland being a successful country and having our public services working well”.

And while she has been more commonly asked about equalities issues, Forbes says her policy prospectus is built around the economy. “We need to dual the A9, we need to deliver our broadband objectives, we need to look at connectivity around our islands,” she says.

“We have a huge demographic challenge, we know that we need to increase the tax base and we know that right now businesses are overwhelmed with the asks and burdens on them. How do we revitalise and really drive the economy so that in the next ten years we have the investment we need to pay for public services and social policy?

“It’s about taking a joined-up approach in government. In public health, you may want to tackle alcohol consumption, yet by banning whisky adverts you risk one of our most significant industries. We want to encourage recycling, but there are small businesses in very rural parts of Scotland that won’t have a reverse vending machine and are kind of stuck. That needs to be reviewed.

“We need to think about growth in food and drink, tourism, technology and be very focused on how we deliver growth and creating a supportive environment and strong relationship with government so that we can listen and adapt quickly.

“Ultimately, it’s about making it affordable to business and that comes down to infrastructure. Government should be focused on investing in infrastructure so business can thrive.”

This interview appears in issue 502 of Holyrood magazine. You can also read our interviews with Humza Yousaf and Ash Regan.

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