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by Margaret Taylor
02 October 2023
Kate Forbes: 'There’s a complete illiteracy about faith and religion and what it means for someone who believes'

Picture by Anna Moffat

Kate Forbes: 'There’s a complete illiteracy about faith and religion and what it means for someone who believes'

In the weeks before I head to Dingwall to meet Kate Forbes, I spend a lot of time talking to people about religion. The former finance secretary had sparked something of a national conversation when, during her ultimately unsuccessful campaign to replace Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and first minister, she had been asked repeatedly about her own beliefs. Though Forbes had never made a secret of her strong Christian faith, there had been outrage from some quarters when she confirmed she would not have voted for the 2014 Marriage and Civil Partnership Act had she been an MSP at the time – she was not – and that she personally would never consider having either an abortion or a child out of wedlock. Many people had been pleased to hear her speak up, though, and there had been, as Forbes has repeatedly described it since, a bit of a “backlash to the backlash”. It was those people’s views I’d been keen to hear.

When we meet in her Dingwall constituency office in mid-July, Forbes is keen to hear them too. The people I’d met, I tell her, had been in strong agreement with her on the headline issues, but that is hardly surprising given it was those with strongly held religious beliefs I had deliberately set out to interview. But the thing that had struck me most, I say, is how afraid those people said they had become about owning their religious beliefs. By steadfastly sticking to hers Forbes had given them hope that faith-based views, however unpopular, can at least be aired as part of a considered public debate.

Kate Forbes in Dingwall, where her constituency office is based. Picture Peter Jolly

It was not necessarily an easy position for Forbes to get to, though. Routinely described as being an adherent of the ‘socially conservative Free Church of Scotland’, Forbes says her views are just mainstream Christian. She has variously been a member of the Church of Scotland, the Anglican church, “an independent church in our front living room” when her family lived in India, the Church of North India, and the Pentecostal Church. The reason she goes to the Free Kirk now, she says, is that it’s just round the corner from her house. Denomination hardly matters, though. It was her religiosity full stop that people found distasteful and many of her initial backers in the leadership race – then ministers Tom Arthur and Clare Haughey among them – withdrew their support as soon as the first interview questioning her position on equal marriage aired. The backtracking felt, Forbes says, if not hurtful, then a little surprising.

“I had sat people down and said you need to know what I think and what I believe,” she says. “People said ‘it’s fine, it’s fine’, but then it wasn’t. I like them a lot, but was I surprised by their reaction? Yes, in a way, but we live in a culture of fear. You don’t understand how scared people are. Chief executives are scared of saying the wrong thing for fear their business will be destroyed, politicians are scared, journalists are scared. 

“Over the last few years constituents have approached me with issues they’re scared about – kids at school who have been punished for holding fairly normal faith-based views. They’re not pushing them on anybody but there’s a culture of fear. The gender debate highlighted that. Parents are frightened about going to teachers. It’s not unique to my experience or the experience of those around me or people in parliament. I’ve had so many people contact me to say my experience emboldened them to think there’s still a degree of honesty and that they are entitled to share their views even when they feel those views are deeply unpopular.”

Despite that, there was much speculation at the time that, in the face of such scrutiny and criticism, Forbes would throw in the towel. She had, after all, broken her maternity leave to enter the leadership race, embarking upon an intense period of political campaigning when her then five-month-old daughter Naomi had not yet even been weaned. “The weekend before the contest I remember calling the health visitor with an SOS – ‘please help me wean this baby’,” Forbes recalls. What people didn’t know at the time but that Forbes recently revealed in an interview with the Press & Journal is that she had also just got over a bout of post-natal depression that had briefly left her crippled with “extreme levels of terror” and the constant feeling that “something awful was going to happen”.

Forbes at the announcement of the SNP leadership contest result with (behind) husband Ali MacLennan and baby Naomi. Picture: Alamy

But, having made the decision to stand, and having absolute faith in her own, well, faith, she says there is nothing that would have compelled her to pull out. In any case, she says, the very fact she was standing meant those difficult conversations were finally being had and she wanted to be part of that.

“Once I decided to do it, it’s interesting, there was some commentary that I was going to pull out, but once I’d set my mind to do it, I was going to do it,” she says. “There’s a perception that some of the questions and the backlash took me off guard but it didn’t. It went UK wide and ended up dominating every radio show and so on, but I was expecting there to be unease because you have to remember that the whole weekend before I had suggested I was going to run I was being asked by journalists to comment on how unfit I was for the role before I’d even said I would go for the role. Twitter was absolutely on fire about how unfit I’d be.

“It makes you want to go out and defend yourself, but I think there’s a complete illiteracy about faith and religion and what it means for someone who believes. I understand Scotland is a secular country, but if some arguments are deemed to be beyond the pale then you can’t even debate them. It’s far better to hear bad ideas aired so you can dispute them, disagree with them, and shatter them than to push them into the darkness and fringes of society where they are allowed to fester. That’s why I think the answer to disinformation is free speech. Some people think it’s cancel culture, shut them up; I think it’s air them. I used to have conversations at university about who you were willing to debate and who you were not willing to debate. My view is that truth will always win, so debate it. Again, there’s a false assumption that I questioned the scrutiny that I got, I didn’t. I aired my views on day one because I thought it would allow people, particularly those who had supported me, to hear the whole package.”

Forbes seems sincere when making this argument – she seems sincere in everything she says – but I get the sense it is a little rehearsed, that it is easy with hindsight to say she had been expecting everything that was thrown at her now she knows she has survived it. Indeed, when the interview is over and we head outside for photographs, Forbes admits she had initially been apprehensive about how people would react to those early interviews; that she’d been afraid to go to the shops because she didn’t know what kind of reception she’d receive. It is a rare glimpse of insecurity from someone who is clearly entirely comfortable in their own skin.

Given her background, Forbes was always going to be either intensely secure or intensely insecure. Raised between Scotland and India, where her father worked in a voluntary finance role for Christian charity Emmanuel Hospital Association, her life up to the age of 15 was spent shuttling between the Scottish Highlands and the Indian cities of Hyderabad, Ludhiana and Mussoorie. When in Scotland she and, in time, her three younger siblings attended a Gaelic-medium school; when in India they went to local schools where they stood out not only as the only white kids in class but as the only kids that could not read and write in English. “We were a fascination in the school and in the town,” Forbes says. “Of course we were a fascination, but you get used to everywhere you travel everyone stares.”

By the time Forbes was ready to sit exams her mother had begun working at Woodstock School in Mussoorie, an international establishment whose motto is ‘eliciting greatness since 1854’ and whose fees are now close to £20,000 a year. Just as Forbes’s family had been able to live unsalaried all those years thanks to the Christian charities that supported her father’s work, so she and one sibling had the privilege of attending that school free of charge due to her mother’s role there. It was a world away from the local schools, where corporal punishment was the norm and kids were packed in 60 to a class, and on the Woodstock alumni page Forbes describes her time there as “perhaps three of the happiest years of my life”. But before long the family was on the move again, heading back to Scotland for the final time, where Forbes attended schools in Bishopbriggs then Dingwall before her secondary education was complete. Though some people question their identity in the face of such disruption, for Forbes it was character building.

A young Forbes (in the blue dress) and her family in India 

“It’s grim moving around schools all the time,” she says. “By the time I moved to Dingwall I’d moved one, two, three, maybe four times and I remember thinking ‘wow, it never gets easier’. It was still awkward walking the hallways of a school in which you know nobody. I saw my siblings and I really felt for them. It’s lonely. It’s never easy to make friends although there were kind people who took me under their wing. By high school most people have known their friend group for years, some since P1 – it’s a long-established group. Being the new kid is a bit challenging, but it makes you very steely and allows you to rise above the fear of what other people think of you.”

That steeliness was on display long before Forbes had to answer for her religious beliefs. When then finance secretary Derek Mackay, who was outed for sending inappropriate messages to a 16-year-old boy on social media, was forced to step down on the eve of the 2020-21 Budget, Forbes was asked to step in at the very last moment. Though she was a junior minister in Mackay’s department, she had not been party to the detail of the Budget – “that was kept firmly under lock and key” – so when she was asked at 7am to deliver it that afternoon she had no choice but to learn its contents from scratch. “It all comes down to projected confidence,” she says. “You can’t afford to doubt yourself or fear that you might crash and burn.” 

Crashing and burning is out of the question for Forbes, who despite losing the leadership contest to Humza Yousaf is still being widely touted as a future – as in not-too-distant future – leader of the SNP. Maybe it’s because she has a thick skin, or maybe it’s because she truly believes that God will have her back no matter what (she has, she says, tested her faith many times but “never found it wanting”), but Forbes got into politics because she has “an absolute burning desire to improve life for people in Scotland” and she’s not going to give up just because the going gets a little tough.

Things are getting tougher, though. Mudslinging and personal attacks have always gone with the political territory, but Forbes is convinced that things have got worse since the last Holyrood election. The rhetoric across the chamber has hardened and even within the SNP arguments that would have been resolved with a handshake at the close of a debate are being allowed to fester. Party stalwart Fergus Ewing, a former minister whose late mother Winnie is revered across the SNP, had the whip withdrawn for a week after voicing concerns that people in Forbes’s Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch constituency, which borders his Inverness and Nairn one, share. Since leaving office Sturgeon has repeatedly cited the toxic atmosphere her detractors say she helped to create. Holyrood is, Forbes says, now a pretty hostile place to be.

“Politics is a place where the cut and thrust of things has got to be separated from personal feelings – if you are a sensitive soul in politics then you won’t last long,” she says. “The problem is when that changes and I’m starting to sense that changing a little bit. I think there’s a sense of exhaustion and defensiveness which starts to spill over into public life. Nicola Sturgeon said that’s why she was standing down – it had become a 24/7 job in a way it hadn’t been. I find it very easy to switch off Twitter trolls. I don’t let it affect me as most of it is really distant from the truth, but now it’s all-consuming, some people start to believe the bubble. That’s when hate-filled language starts dominating and people get mischaracterised; people start generalising [with statements like] ‘I hate the Tories’, ‘I hate Labour’, ‘I hate the SNP’.

“It’s changed during my time [at Holyrood]. It’s consensus opinion that things have degenerated significantly since the 2021 election. Maybe it’s because the new recruits came in during Covid so didn’t have the same period of getting to know each other [that earlier intakes did]. In 2016 we met the other new recruits in other parties and got to know them as newbies together. We could identify with them. The new recruits now don’t see it that way. We had some new people in from Westminster and maybe they brought the Westminster culture with them. I’m amazed going back to the backbenches how hostile it feels. Most of my friendships are with people from 2016. I think people are too defensive to change it. It takes an enormous generosity of spirit to smile at and shake hands with people who have criticised you – in my own party and across parties.”

Delivering her first Budget as finance secretary after stepping in at short notice when Derek Mackay was forced to stand down. Forbes says the atmosphere at Holyrood has 'degenerated significantly since the 2021 election'. Picture: Alamy

Yet against this backdrop it is widely believed that Forbes would willingly seek to lead – and, presumably, try to unite – her party again should Yousaf’s premiership fail. When we meet Forbes swears her focus is “constituency, constituency, constituency”, but there is much speculation that she and advisers including former business minister Ivan McKee are putting together an offering that would be far more economically coherent than the one currently being pursued by Yousaf and Forbes’s successor as finance secretary, Shona Robison. Having lost the March election by a whisker despite the backlash against her religious beliefs, it is reasonable to assume she would stand at least as good a chance at the second time of asking.

The question arises when Forbes is interviewed by broadcaster Iain Dale during the Edinburgh Fringe and while she tells him that she “dodged a bullet” and “has no desire to re-run”, just over a week later she tells The Irish Times newspaper that she would “never say never”. As a seasoned interviewee she’ll have known how such a comment will land and her words are duly seized upon by the political press pack, who take them as confirmation that her eye remains on the leadership prize.

It is easy to imagine Forbes, who as finance secretary always looked comfortable commanding the Holyrood chamber, taking Yousaf’s place in the first minister’s chair. But then, it’s easy to imagine her throwing herself into her current role as a constituency MSP too. Perhaps due to the itinerant nature of her childhood Forbes was quick to put down roots when her family finally settled in Dingwall, to the point that when she was studying at the University of Cambridge and training to be an accountant with Barclays in London she couldn’t keep away from the place. With her marriage to local builder Ali MacLennan and the arrival of baby Naomi, those roots are now deeper still. She understands the issues affecting families across the Highlands because she’s been out there and spoken to them about them; she wants to fight for those issues because they affect her and her family too.

“When I lived in London, I was up here all the time – some months I’d be here every weekend,” she says. “My family was very close, and I spent all my money on travel. I felt like my whole world was up here. I worked for Dave Thomson, my predecessor. At the time I’d been in two minds about whether to continue working for him or to do my accountancy training but thought I’d do the training with a view to moving back. He retired so I threw my hat into the selection contest thinking that it was probably good experience and a good test. There were lots of brilliant candidates, many of whom had been councillors, had a good following and were much older, much wiser.

"Everyone knows an election is won on how you fight it and I really busted a gut travelling round everywhere. I phoned folk, I did leaflets and everything I possibly could. It was an era when people thought a good Facebook following would translate into votes, but social media is false because the people who follow you aren’t necessarily your electorate. It was the difference between an election fought on social media and an election really trying to connect with voters. [Forbes won the seat with a majority of 9,043 – the 11th biggest at the 2016 election – before increasing that to 15,861 in 2021, the largest by a margin of more than 2,500.]

“I’ve always loved being a constituency MSP. I love this area – it’s in my bones, my family and friends live here – and we need to deliver infrastructure like the A9, the A82. The Fort William road is horrific – if you think the A9 is bad, on this road for a huge stretch its 20 miles an hour; it’s not wide enough for two lorries to pass. We need a new hospital for Fort William, a new school for Beauly. Fishermen, farmers, crofters, I’m trying to ensure that rurality doesn’t prove a disadvantage. I’m on two committees – rural affairs and constitution and culture – and I’m a very contended backbencher, just for the absolute record.”

As a child with her father

The most notable thing about Dingwall other than how long it takes to drive here – I come on the tortuously slow A96, another of the northern trunk roads the SNP government has infamously failed to dual – is how quiet it is. I arrive on a Wednesday morning just as the historic Town Hall clock strikes 10am, but as I turn the corner onto High Street I’m greeted with silence. Shops lie empty, cafés have closed down and, apart from a couple of people in a council works van, there is nobody about. The town has, Forbes admits when I mention the silence, “probably seen some better days”.

By the time our chat is over, and we come outside for photographs some locals have started milling about and the warmth they feel for their Holyrood representative is evident. “Smile Kate” shouts an elderly man on a bike as Forbes poses in the middle of the street. “I’m trying” she throws back through a gritted smile, her gaze kept firmly on the camera. Before long two elderly ladies come along. “Oh, I saw the camera and said, ‘that must be for someone important’,” one smiles at Forbes. “Just me,” she laughs back.

As we pause outside her office to say our goodbyes someone else is hanging back, obviously keen to speak to her. When we part company Forbes turns to give him her full attention. “I just wanted to thank you,” he says as I make my way down the street. I’m out of earshot before he cuts to the chase, so I don’t know what he’s thanking her for. I do know this, though: she may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but, having won the biggest majority at the last Holyrood election and almost pipped the seemingly untouchable Yousaf to the first ministerial post, Forbes is clearly doing something right. She may well just be getting started.

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