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Kate Forbes: 'Tolerance can only exist between people who fundamentally disagree'

Kate Forbes photographed by Anna Moffat for Holyrood

Kate Forbes: 'Tolerance can only exist between people who fundamentally disagree'

Kate Forbes is in no doubt about the state of Scottish politics – things are getting nastier.

An MSP since 2016, the finance secretary is highly regarded and seen as a possible successor to Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader. Yet in her relatively short time at Holyrood, Forbes believes there has been a stifling of debate and growing antagonism between those on opposing sides. 

Asked whether the environment has become unfriendlier and more unforgiving since she became an MSP, she jokes: “I hope you’re not suggesting cause and effect, but absolutely. I think it’s harder now to encourage good people to stand for politics such is the level of vitriol and anger…”

In 2019, Forbes, then a junior minister, was among a group of SNP MSPs who raised concerns about the reform of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), urging the Scottish Government not to “rush” into “changing the definition of male and female”.

Two years having passed since then, the much-anticipated Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill is expected to be introduced later this year. Under its expected provisions, trans people will no longer require a medical diagnosis to legally change their gender, allowing them to ‘self-declare’. And judging by the debate so far, things are likely to get fractious if not outright hostile.

Asked where she stands on the issue now, Forbes says: “My view remains the same [as 2019], which is that we need to ensure we are listening to all voices. I know there are lots of very polarised views on the issue. One view is that the Gender Recognition Act has almost become the symbol for a much wider discussion and debate. Secondly, there’s more fear, entrenchment, and vitriol even in the last two or three years than there was back in 2019.

“I’m not sure we’ve managed to achieve what I hoped we might, which was a more intelligent and informed and fair discussion that allowed people to express their views without being shut down. This is an issue that’s bigger than a political bubble. It’s an issue that mums and dads ask me about in relation to their children or their schools. I think a lot of people feel disenfranchised from the discussion and that does not lend itself to making good law.”

Forbes is a member of the Free Church of Scotland, a denomination which is opposed to gay marriage and abortion. The finance secretary, who spent some of her childhood in India after her parents went there as missionaries, has previously spoken of having to “tiptoe around” her faith as a politician.

On another issue facing MSPs at Holyrood, that of legislating for assisted dying, Forbes appears to have already made her mind up, a position influenced by having an uncle in his late 50s with Down’s Syndrome. 

“I often look at every proposal when it comes to assisted dying through the lens of where it would leave him,” she says. “That’s just a purely personal position, but I cannot see a system where the most vulnerable in society are sufficiently protected and I think that’s the message you’re hearing very strongly from disability rights campaigners.”

Perhaps because of her faith, Forbes is someone who appears to give these issues a great deal of thought. It’s not every day you hear a politician talking about “preaching tolerance,” for example, especially in the current febrile atmosphere. 

“Tolerance can only exist between people who fundamentally disagree with each other,” she says.

“To preach tolerance means you must be willing to speak to and be open to the views you do not share. Tolerance cannot exist when everyone agrees, so if anyone cares about tolerance in the Scotland of 2022, then we need to be more comfortable debating and discussing challenging issues with people who fundamentally disagree with us.”

Independence is going to happen; 2014 normalised the notion. If you look at most polling, particularly under the age of 55, there is a pretty consistent and settled picture of support for independence

As the pandemic moves into its third year, tolerance feels like something that is in short supply as people grow increasingly weary of the demands placed on us by the virus. Such was the state of the Omicron surge when our interview was organised, that Forbes and I chat remotely. She caught Covid in September but continued to work from home, albeit suffering from brain fog.

From shuttered shops to hollowed-out train timetables, the impact of Covid-19 continues to permeate all our daily lives. More than 150,000 people in the UK have died after contracting the virus, while potentially millions of others are living with long Covid. 

Yet the politics of the pandemic are complicated. At times the crisis has appeared to strengthen the economic case for Scotland remaining part of the UK while simultaneously exposing some significant cracks in the status quo.

Thanks to UK borrowing powers, Scotland has benefitted from record levels of Treasury funding, helping support workers and businesses through the most challenging circumstances any of us have ever faced. 

But a creaking fiscal framework has left the Scottish Government apparently unable to instigate public health measures to control the spread of the virus unless similar restrictions south of the border guarantee the release of funding under the Barnett formula. Last month, economists at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Fraser of Allander Institute called for the devolved administrations to be given increased borrowing powers to meet the challenges posed not only by Covid but future crises.

One immediate challenge for the Scottish Government could be funding the continued provision of free lateral flow kits amid Sunday newspaper reports – later denied – that the UK Government intends to stop doing so, having spent around £6bn to date.

“From the very beginning of the pandemic, we were pressing the UK Government for temporary fiscal flexibilities to allow us to make decisions quickly,” Forbes says. “What I was avoiding was health decisions being held up because we didn’t have the financial support in place. We procured ventilators, we procured PPE, we went full steam ahead because lives depended on it even though there were lots of financial issues to resolve…”

Forbes says Covid and the associated costs have strengthened the argument for a “robust review” of the fiscal framework.

“Within a £40bn-plus budget, I manage risk usually in the millions. We don’t have capacity to manage risk in the billions and the cost of Covid was of that level. We asked for temporary fiscal flexibilities. Unfortunately, and I still don’t know why, those temporary fiscal flexibilities were denied.” 

In the run-up to Christmas, Forbes inadvertently managed to throw her own party leader a curve ball when she questioned whether an independent Scotland would need the ability to carry out quantitative easing (QE). Used in response to the 2008 financial crash and the pandemic, QE allows central banks to inject money into faltering economies by buying government bonds. Continuing to use the pound following independence would prevent Scotland from carrying out QE in a time of crisis.

It sounds crazy to talk about 2014 as a different era but think about how many seismic shifts have taken place since then, whether it’s Brexit, the global pandemic or other significant global trends in terms of demographics and technological change 

At an event hosted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Forbes asked economist Professor Sir John Kay whether the inability to carry out QE following independence would be “such a great loss”. When the Labour MSP Michael Marra put the same question to the First Minister at FMQs, Sturgeon appeared wrong footed. “Nobody should think these are good things because the situations which make them necessary are not good things,” came the First Minister’s stuttering response. A video of the exchange tweeted by Holyrood has been watched more than 125,000 times.

“The notion that there is only one way to do something is blind to what other countries around the world do,” Forbes says. 

“Quantitative easing is not the only way in which countries around the world have managed both the 2008 crash and the current challenges. Anyone who suggests it is the only macro, fiscal or monetary lever that we have is not conscious of what’s going on elsewhere.

“In the event of independence, Scotland would go through a transition period and during that period we would set up our own [financial] infrastructure and there would be decisions to be made for independent Scottish ministers and there would be really important decisions to be made for independent leaders within independent institutions.” 

In 2020 it was reported the Scottish Government had dropped plans to publish an annual “economic case for independence” due to the pressures of responding to the pandemic. 

I ask Forbes if the economic case for separation is harder to make than the political one: “No, but post-pandemic we have a new starting position. Every country around the world is grappling with this and many of them are looking at what their own economic prospectus is for the next 10 years.

Forbes delivers her Budget as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon looks on  | Credit: Alamy

“I don’t think the underlying strengths of the Scottish economy have changed but every country has gone through two years of immense challenge. Incidentally, many have emerged stronger than the UK. 

“It sounds crazy to talk about 2014 as a different era but think about how many seismic shifts have taken place since then, whether it’s Brexit, the global pandemic or other significant global trends in terms of demographics and technological change.” 

Forbes cites the example of Denmark as a small independent country which Scotland could follow. But why be Denmark when you could be the UK, the world’s sixth largest economy? 

“Ultimately that comes down to whether you think the status quo is as good as it gets. If you think the status quo is as good as it gets, then I’m not sure I can persuade you otherwise. If you think that being part of a country with some of the biggest economic inequalities in terms of regional inequalities is as good as it gets, then I probably can’t persuade you otherwise. 

“If you think Scotland has internationally recognisable competitive advantages whilst also seeing children in poverty is a problem, then it’s not the status quo you should be defending. I think we’re at a really interesting crossroads right now where there’s no longer an option for no change. The question is what kind of change do you want to see.”

Delivering her Budget statement in early December, Forbes said she was offering a “bold and ambitious” package which would prioritise spending on public services and help meet Scotland’s climate change targets. Scotland’s local authorities saw things differently, however, complaining of a £371m real-terms cut to their funding and accusing the finance secretary of putting them in an “armlock” ahead of this year’s council elections after giving councillors control over council tax for the first time since the SNP came to power in 2007. 

According to the Institute for Government, difficult decisions over public services are something Scots will have to get used to in the event of independence. Publishing its report How Would An Independent Scotland Borrow last year, the think tank said separation would require “difficult tax and spending decisions in the medium term”.

“We would have to make intelligent decisions because economic prosperity is not an inevitability,” Forbes says. “I don’t accept that we would be looking at a prolonged period of austerity; we’re starting from a very strong economic base.” 

Forbes admits to being “weary” of renewed discussion of so-called Devo Max, a possible third option on the independence ballot which would likely give Scotland full fiscal autonomy while remaining inside the UK.

“Additional powers still don’t resolve the fundamental question at the heart of the independence argument which is one about a democratic deficit,” she says. “I can’t see a Devo Max which actually fixes that without there being prolonged debate and challenges about where powers should sit. We’d still be going round in circles.

“Independence is going to happen; 2014 normalised the notion. If you look at most polling, particularly under the age of 55, there is a pretty consistent and settled picture of support for independence. Devo Max had its debate day a few years ago and it’s probably flown the nest in people’s consciousness. It’s a fairly binary option right now between independence and remaining with the Union.” 

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