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by Margaret Taylor and Kirsteen Paterson
19 June 2024
Henry McLeish: Kate Forbes's views enrich the parliament, they don't take away from it

Picture: Andrew Perry

Henry McLeish: Kate Forbes's views enrich the parliament, they don't take away from it

Former first minister Henry McLeish has spoken out in support of Deputy First Minister Kate Forbes, saying all politicians should have the right to freely voice their opinions.

Speaking at a Holyrood event held to mark the 25th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament, McLeish and fellow former first minister Alex Salmond noted that it had become harder for politicians to express their views in the years since they were both in parliament.

Alba leader Salmond, who was SNP first minister from 2007 to 2014, said that when the government he led tabled legislation on equal marriage, which eventually passed into law in 2014, there had not initially been a majority in support of the change.

That was built up through civil debate, he added, saying that was something that was missing when the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill was making its way through parliament in 2022.

“A government can’t tell a substantial section, particularly a majority, of a population that their views are not valid,” he said, in reference to comments made by the SNP leadership about those who opposed the bill.

After the GRR bill eventually won the backing of Holyrood it was vetoed by Scottish Secretary Alister Jack on the grounds that it impinged on the UK-wide Equality Act, with the Court of Session ultimately deciding that it was not within the parliament’s jurisdiction.

The Holyrood event was being held to mark the 25th anniversary of the parliament | Andrew Perry

McLeish, who was Labour first minister between 2000 and 2001, said that “if you start with an issue and end up in the courts there’s something wrong with the politics in the democracy”.

He then pointed specifically to Forbes, who last year came in for intense criticism due to her religious beliefs when she entered the SNP leadership race – in particular for saying she would have voted against equal marriage had she been an MSP at the time – saying: “I think it’s refreshing that people can come into politics with ideas”.

To applause from the audience he added: “We need differences of opinions in Scotland. The idea we should all go there [parliament] and then all of a sudden on an issue war is declared with someone being the victim – and I’m not suggesting that Kate Forbes is perfect in what she does or doesn’t do – we’ve got to have this ability to acknowledge that people having views in life, that’s enriching the parliament, not taking away from the parliament.”

Lib Dem peer Jim Wallace, who was deputy first minister in the first sitting of the parliament, said that the independence referendum of 2014 , which saw the electorate divided by 45 per cent to 55 per cent, had been divisive in the country.

He added that that had “permeated politics” and that Nicola Sturgeon, who succeeded Salmond as first minister following that vote, “can be, has been, a divisive figure”.

McLeish said in the early years of the parliament it was “a time in politics when there was great civility, a lot of respect, a lot tolerance”.

“You had political opinions, not political enemies,” he added.

Appearing on a later panel with current and former ministers Forbes was asked why she left the back benches to re-enter government.

"The reason why I came back is for one reason and one reason alone – I want to make a difference," she said.

"I can't change the world and I know I can't change the world but maybe you can change one thing that will make a differnce for decades to come."

She added: "You have to know why you want to be in this job and if you don't know why you want to be in this job, get another one.

"It doesn't matter if you're 21 or if you're 81, if you don't know why you want to do the job you won't last."

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