Nicola Sturgeon’s departure has left a wide-open field for potential successors. One of the favourites to replace her is finance secretary Kate Forbes, an articulate and ambitious cabinet member, but one whose staunch religious beliefs risk placing her at odds with the SNP’s socially liberal policies and imperilling relations with its governing partner, the Scottish Greens.
Forbes was catapulted on to the political scene. Less than two years after joining the frontbench, she was promoted from public finance minister and told to deliver the Scottish government’s pre-Covid budget with six-and-a-half hours’ notice when her predecessor was sacked in disgrace.
Aged 29 at the time, Forbes later reflected that she felt like a “sole ranger”. She had to swallow any fears and get on with cramming every tax rise and cut to deliver the speech and field any questions with total confidence. “If you crash and burn spectacularly, that’s the last gig you’re going to be asked to do,” she told the Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast later that summer.
Her political awakening came during commonplace heated debates around the dinner table with family, first in Dingwall, where she was born, and then India, after her father moved there to work with Christian charities. The poverty of slums, and seeing children younger than her building the school she was being educated in, left a lasting impression.
With a keen interest in history, Forbes graduated from the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh before becoming a chartered accountant.
Though she was elected an MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch two years after the independence movement was defeated in the 2014 referendum, Forbes kept the faith. She believed that the longer the UK government resisted allowing another independence referendum, the bigger the “wall of support” for one would become.
Given her meteoric rise, she was often asked about her interest in one day replacing Sturgeon. “Certainly not right now,” she shrugged to the Spectator’s Women with Balls podcast in May 2020. “If you rise too fast without the experience, the skillset, then you’re more likely to sink and burn quicker,” she told the Guardian when asked about a year later.
Though in principle Forbes might appear a natural successor, she has made no secret about the strength of her religious beliefs. She is a member of the Free Church of Scotland, which takes a strongly conservative position on women’s reproductive rights and same-sex marriage. It has been suggested the Scottish government’s gender recognition reform bill was rushed through while Forbes was on maternity leave.
It was revealed that in 2018, while still a backbencher but already tipped as a “rising star”, she told an audience at a prayer breakfast that politicians should recognise that the treatment of the “unborn” was a “measure of true progress”.
Forbes has brushed off questions about whether her faith conflicts with SNP policies – such as establishing buffer zones around abortion clinics – by saying she stands by collective responsibility. But during a leadership contest, her own views would come under greater scrutiny given she would be the one ultimately making decisions.
“Politics will pass,” Forbes told the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast in May 2021. “I am a person before I was a politician and that person will continue to believe that I am made in the image of God.”
The SNP, which only has a majority due to its 64 seats in Holyrood being bolstered by a further seven from the Scottish Greens, would probably find itself struggling to keep the agreement in place if its socially liberal stances began to be abandoned.
Forbes’s religious beliefs could also prove problematic with SNP members.
The appearance of unity and message discipline has been a key hallmark of the success of Sturgeon’s tenure. But that risks falling apart if there are bigger, protracted battles over social issues.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, says SNP members are “by no means cultural conservatives in the main”.
For those who support policies like the SNP’s recent gender recognition reforms, Bale believes “it could be difficult for them to swallow somebody with very strong Christian beliefs, particularly if those bleed into trying to change the policies of the SNP”.
While politicians can try to put aside their own religious beliefs – Alastair Campbell famously interrupted an interview with Tony Blair to tell a journalist who asked about them “we don’t do God” – the former Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, found it difficult to escape questions about his own faith and whether he believed gay sex was wrong.
Forbes signalled she does not, for instance, adhere to the Free Church’s interpretation of the Westminster Confession and its bruising attitudes towards Roman Catholics. “I make my own decisions on the basis of what decision is right and wrong, according to my faith, not according to the diktat of any church,” she has said.