Siobhian Brown: 'Kate Forbes was attacked for her beliefs and I wasn't standing for it'
As one of the few MSPs to first support and then stand by Kate Forbes in the SNP leadership contest, the last thing Siobhian Brown expected was to be asked to go and see ultimate winner Humza Yousaf on the day he formed his government. But, after the new first minister had assembled his cabinet, and with all eyes still on the goings-on down the road at Bute House, Brown found herself sitting in a St Andrew’s House ante-room as ministerial positions were being handed out.
“I didn’t know what was going to be offered,” she says. “It was quite surreal. I don’t think I knew what I was getting myself into.”
What she was offered was Minister for Victims and Community Safety, a slightly altered role from the one that had been filled briefly by her good friend Elena Whitham after Ash Regan – the third contender in the SNP leadership race – resigned from the job last October in protest over the government’s gender reforms. It is a big step up for someone who until 2014 had no interest in politics and whose Holyrood career is barely two years old. Still, for Brown, the biggest surprise is that Yousaf picked her at all when she had been so vocal about her backing of Forbes.
I didn’t know what was going to be offered. It was quite surreal. I don’t think I knew what I was getting myself into.
“I was extremely surprised to be asked by the first minister to come and meet him [because] I was a supporter of Kate Forbes,” Brown says. “It was difficult for anyone to put their head above the parapet for that position. They are all talented and could all lead but one thing I felt very, very passionately about is that we’d been through a pretty turbulent time with legislation. I voted for the GRR [Gender Recognition Reform Bill] – trans people are a minority group that have been demonised and it’s been a very toxic area that should never have been like that – but then there was the attack on Kate Forbes for her religious beliefs and I was not going to stand for that.”
The row broke out after Forbes, who has never made any secret of the fact she is a member of the socially conservative Free Church of Scotland, was asked early in the race about her views on equal marriage, having children out of wedlock and abortion. She responded that had she been an MSP at the time the Marriage and Civil Partnerships (Scotland) Bill was making its way through Holyrood in 2014 – she was not – she would have voted against it and that she personally would never choose to have either an abortion or a child outside marriage. The comment on equal marriage came first, with Forbes facing an instant backlash that saw initial supporters including Richard Lochhead, Hannah Bardell and Gillian Martin back away from her. She endured intense scrutiny of her religiously based beliefs in the weeks that followed but, rather than criticise her for it, Brown reiterated her backing for the then finance secretary, saying that while she strongly disagreed with some of Forbes’s personal views she respected her right to hold them. It is a sentiment she reiterates as we mull the matter in a Holyrood meeting room.
Kate Forbes (centre) ran for the SNP leadership against Ash Regan (L) and ultimate winner Humza Yousaf (R)
“I want people to be respected – I won’t judge them and go against them,” Brown says. “I felt there was an element there that was very unfair and that’s why I backed Kate. I thought about it a lot. My paternal grandmother, who I lived with for a while, was really religious – she was an Irish Catholic. There’s no way she would have had babies out of wedlock. As my life progressed, I had two children out of wedlock and then I got married. At no time did my gran judge me. She grabbed those kids from the day they were born and she loved them.
“I didn’t think about that until the leadership contest. My gran would never have done it [had children outside marriage], but she accepted me. It’s not about tolerating, it’s about accepting. I came out [in support of Forbes] when she first came out and then I reiterated my support for her. At that time a few people had pulled out. It’s all personal decisions, but I felt that we shouldn’t be judging or telling people with religious beliefs that they shouldn’t be open about their views.”
Brown says that, despite her candidate being unsuccessful, she immediately respected the result of the contest and that both she and “the whole party” are behind Yousaf. The feeling of respect is, it seems, mutual: Brown says that when she was finally ushered in for her audience with the new first minister “he said it was all water under the bridge, ‘you supported Kate but I want us all to move on together’”.
When we meet, Brown is just a few weeks into the community safety role and still finding her feet. Responsibility for victims of crime has been added to the portfolio under the new regime, something Yousaf began pushing for during his time as justice secretary and something Brown says she is keen to make progress on. Brown also expects much of her focus to be on community resilience, an area she first became interested in while serving on South Ayrshire Council during the pandemic.
“Victims is a thing that I really wanted and that’s been added to the title,” she says. “I’ll be putting 100 per cent into everything, but I had a really interesting conversation with Victim Support about a scheme that’s been going for a couple of years where they assist the families of murder victims. The police will call them and they offer their services to go and help. Initially it’s helping with the funeral – for some people it’s about the cost – but a few things they told me about are that sometimes when there’s been a murder in the house the family will go back after forensics have been there and it’s still a crime scene. That shouldn’t happen to anyone. From my discussions I realised that there’s so much here we need to do to protect families […] I’ll be trying to make that my priority and to make the process for victims better than it has been.
“I’m also really interested in resilient communities, especially since the pandemic. In March 2020 we weren’t in a position to be ready for that and I don’t ever want us to be in that position again. As a councillor, we did a project called Looking Out For You – we got 40,000 bundles of paper that you could put your name and phone number on. I decided I’d be the contact for the six roads around me. We don’t know our neighbours these days. We put those out so everyone had a contact that if they needed food or needed to go the pharmacy they had someone to call.”
Two things stand out on first meeting Brown: she is exceptionally well dressed and she speaks with an Australian accent. The two are related. Though her parents are from Ayr and met in the town’s Bobby Jones nightclub, they moved to Sydney when Brown and her brother were very small – “we went out to Australia on a £20 deal in the 1970s because my parents wanted to have a better life,” she says. Once there, her mother set up a fashion retail and marketing business that grew into a 12-shop chain that the young Brown ended up working in. She was, she says, “brought up in fashion my whole life”, and it definitely shows.
Brown’s journey back to the country of her birth began when she was in her early 20s and, “as most Australians do”, decided to go travelling. She based herself in Ayr, living off and on with her grandparents as she spent two years exploring Europe. On her return to Australia she couldn’t settle – “I had this yearning to be in Scotland” – and, despite there being an expectation that she join the family fashion business, she eventually made the decision to return to Scotland once more.
“I was about to turn 28 or 29 and I thought ‘enough, I’m going back to Scotland – I don’t want to be an old woman thinking back with regrets’,” she says. “I thought ‘I’m going to go back and if I last three months, I last three months’. Here I am 25 years later, still here.”
Initially based in Glasgow, Brown moved to Ayr when she met her first husband, working in a law firm and going on to gain a commercial conveyancing paralegal qualification at the University of Strathclyde. The couple had two children – a daughter who is now 19 and training to be a nurse and a son who is 16 and studying aeronautical engineering at college – and went on to get married before later divorcing. Not long after, Brown was unexpectedly reunited with a boyfriend she had first met during that spell in Scotland in her early 20s. They have since married and, in addition to her two older children, Brown now also has a teenage step-daughter and seven-year old daughter called Scarlett.
“I got together with my husband 12 years ago,” Brown says. “I went out with him in the 1990s but he broke my heart then I went back to Australia. When my first marriage fell apart we got back together. He popped up on Facebook so I added him as a friend. It took a couple of months to get the nerve to meet each other, but he was actually living in the same apartment block as my mother – she’d moved back to Scotland not long before – so we would probably have met anyway. We got back together after 18 years apart and got married for his 50th birthday. I had Scarlett when I was 44. We were trying and it never happened. We’d given up so it was purely accidental.”
Brown and husband Graeme with their four children
It was amidst the excitement of reuniting with her lost love that Brown became interested in politics. During the 2014 referendum campaign her father, who now lives in New York, called to ask how she was going to vote. She told him she wasn’t interested. “I’d gone through a marriage break-up and my children were young – I wasn’t interested, it wasn’t on my radar, I wasn’t into politics,” she says. But the conversation sparked something in her and, after doing some research, she decided she was in favour of independence. When the No side won she joined the SNP and, three years later, decided to stand for local election before tentatively agreeing to put her name forward for the 2021 Holyrood vote.
“I got involved in the 2017 council elections – I stood and was elected as Ayr West councillor,” she says. “At the 2021 Holyrood elections I wasn’t sure I wanted to stand. With the council I don’t think I knew what I was getting myself into. It’s a hard job being a councillor. You have to work two jobs because the pay is not good – generally it’s retired people who have a pension. I was still at the law firm and juggling. Local politics is pretty toxic and it’s hard to get things done. When the Holyrood election was coming up I’d made up my mind that I was going to stand down [from the council] when I was asked to stand. I didn’t think I’d win because it’s such a Conservative stronghold. We had a sitting Conservative MSP – John Scott – and the party [SNP] said they wouldn’t stand a man where there already was a man. There was a lot of interest in the seat but I decided I’d put myself forward because I felt it needed someone locally. I was against five people but I got the nomination. It’s all been a bit of a blur and now I’m here.”
Being ‘here’ has led to quite an adjustment to life back home in Ayr, what with a very young child still to care for and a husband who is used to being the centre of attention being pushed somewhat to the side. But the family has settled into a routine where Brown’s mum handles Scarlett’s school run from Tuesday to Thursday and her husband, Graeme, has learned to share the limelight.
“I used to come through to Edinburgh on a Tuesday – I’d drop Scarlett at school then drive across, but in this role there’s so much I need to be doing that I’ll come over on a Monday night,” Brown says. “I work in parliament until late and go back to the flat to sleep then come in as early as possible. My husband texted me the other day to say he is so proud of me. I’m quite a reserved person and my husband is not. He’s the ‘woo look at me’ guy and it took him time to adjust to me being the centre of attention. He came back from seeing his aunt and said ‘all they were talking about was you, you, you and I had to say what about me?’. He’s really outgoing and all of a sudden he’s not the centre of attention. But even public speaking, I’ve never liked it. I had to say myself ‘get over yourself, you’re not that important’. That’s how I got myself through that fear. It’s part of the job and I have to do it.”
With the dust settling on the leadership contest, the SNP is now keen to pick up where it left off when former first minister Nicola Sturgeon made her shock resignation speech in February. There is still the small matter of a police investigation into the party’s finances to deal with – “whatever the outcome there have to be lessons learned,” Brown says, speaking before news breaks that Sturgeon, like her husband and former SNP chief executive Peter Murrell and former SNP treasurer Colin Beattie, has been arrested and released without charge as part of the probe.
But the most pressing matter on the agenda party-wise is a postponed independence summit that should have been held in March but is now scheduled to take place later this month. The party’s deputy leader Keith Brown has said the special conference will be “solely focused” on how to hold a legally binding referendum, but Brown is not convinced that that is going to happen any time soon. Yousaf suggested during the leadership campaign that the party would have to work hard to convince the people of Scotland that independence is the best way forward before attempting to hold another vote. For Brown, that approach makes the most sense.
“I do think we’ll get it [independence] but I don’t know how,” she says. “At the moment I don’t think there will be a prime minister that will allow Scotland to have a referendum. After everything we’ve gone through in the last few years what we need to focus on now – and I would love us to be independent now, but we’re on a rocky road after Covid and the cost of living – I think what we need to focus on now is showing others what we could be doing if we had full powers and bringing more people on board to get up to 60 to 70 per cent and then Westminster can’t refuse the voice of the Scottish people. That’s what I would hope. I do believe if we had an independence referendum we would win it. I just don’t know when that would be.”
In the meantime, Brown is keen to get on with the day job, the scale of which she is still getting to grips with. “I don’t think I even had any idea being an MSP the responsibility that ministers have,” she says. “Now I’m in it and I have two laptops and three phones I’m realising. There’s a lot of work to do.”