Kate Forbes defiant despite backlash over equal marriage views

Politician hoping to become SNP leader says public are ‘longing for a politician to answer straight questions with straight answers’

SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes has denied her attempt to replace Nicola Sturgeon is over before it has begun, after her comments about her personal opposition to equal marriage prompted an immediate and furious backlash.

Forbes, who has been on maternity leave from her role as finance secretary, said the public were “longing for a politician to answer straight questions with straight answers”. But prominent MSPs who had previously backed her attempt to become the next SNP leader after Sturgeon’s unexpected resignation last week, withdrew their support and LGBTQ+ party members described their “anger and shock”.

Forbes, a member of the socially conservative, evangelical Free Church of Scotland, told reporters on Monday she would not have voted for Holyrood’s equal marriage legislation had she been an MSP at the time, just hours after launching her campaign.

By lunchtime on Tuesday, the MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch had lost at least half of her original MP and MSP supporters, as she doubled down on her “straight-talking”, telling Sky News that having children – and sex – outside marriage was “wrong according to my faith”.

A source working closely with Forbes campaign acknowledged that the past 24 hours had been “bruising”, but underlined that that she had always been honest about her religious beliefs and that her refusal to “put up a pretence in order to win votes” was a sign of integrity.

Clare Haughey, the minister of children and young people, who had earlier nominated Forbes for her “skills, knowledge, experience”, responded: “I absolutely and completely support equal marriage. I am unequivocal on this issue. I cannot continue to support Kate’s leadership campaign.”

I absolutely and completely support equal marriage. I am unequivocal on this issue. I cannot continue to support Kate’s leadership campaign

— Clare Haughey MSP (@haughey_clare) February 21, 2023

Tom Arthur, another Scottish government minister, Highland MP Drew Hendry and Holyrood’s health committee convener, Gillian Martin, likewise withdrew their backing, while MP Hannah Bardell posted at length on Twitter about how “hurtful and painful” Forbes’ comments were to her LGBTQ+ friends.

Pete Wishart, the party’s longest-serving Westminster figure, who had previously urged Forbes not to be deterred from standing “over all this rubbish about her religious beliefs” swiftly moved to distance himself from her campaign, tweeting: “Kate had every chance to say that she would be prepared to come in behind the parties [sic] social liberal agenda. It looks like she wasn’t prepared to take it.”

Her comments revealed deep divisions between her and the frontrunner, the Scottish health secretary, Humza Yousaf, on LGBTQ+ rights. The third candidate to put herself forward, Ash Regan, a former minster who resigned over Holyrood’s gender recognition bill, has yet to speak at length to the media.

Forbes also said she would not challenge the UK government’s block on Holyrood’s gender recognition reform bill, and did not support self-identification for trans people.

Yousaf told a press conference earlier in the day that he backed Sturgeon’s positions on same-sex marriage, abortion clinic buffer zones, banning conversion practices and on gender recognition, confirming he would “absolutely” challenge Westminster’s use of section 35 to prevent the bill, which was supported cross-party in Holyrood, going for royal assent.

Forbes, , told BBC Radio Scotland on Tuesday morning her views were “fairly mainstream Christian teaching” but that media reporting did not “allow for much nuance”.

She repeated the position reported by many outlets on Monday night, including the Guardian: “I will defend to the hilt everybody’s right in a pluralistic and tolerant society to live and to love free of harassment and fear. And in the same way I hope others can be afforded the rights as people of faith to practise fairly mainstream teaching. That is the nuance that we need to capture.”

She said that there was “no question” that she defended the legal right to equal marriage and that questions about whether she would have voted against that right were “hypothetical”.

“The risk is that we are saying certain public offices in Scotland are barred either to people of faith or … the people of faith that we don’t like – if we are proposing that you can only participate in the public square in Scotland if you abide by certain issues, then we are essentially barring those who practise very mainstream religious teachings.”

She denied she was out of step with the progressive values of the party, saying the SNP had a “huge diversity of members, which reflects the diverse nature of Scotland”.

But many LGBTQ+ members were aghast at her comments. SNP activist Sarah Cheung said: “If Kate Forbes or Ash Regan gets elected as first minister the progressives will walk and you can say goodbye to independence.”

Cheung, who says she joined the party in 2019 “because of its pro-LGBTQ values”, added: “We all understand an individual’s right to practise their faith, but this should not be done at expense of our right to love. We are supposed to unite the party as one so we can send out a message to Westminster that we want a fair and equal independent Scotland that treats all marginalised groups fairly. We should not be throwing a vulnerable group under the bus to achieve that.”

A married gay man and prominent SNP activist said he had been considering backing Forbes, but that her comments on marriage equality were “completely irresponsible, dangerous and a million miles away from the SNP members”.

“I know she was not saying that she would overturn marriage equality legislation, but saying she would have voted against it not only hurts me, the LGBT+ community and our allies, it worries me for any future equality legislation that might not fit with her religious beliefs.”

Yousaf, a practising Muslim, said on Monday at the press launch for his campaign: “I don’t legislate on the basis of my faith.”

He told the BBC that it was for Forbes to defend her views, but that his own track record on equality issues “speaks loud and clear”.

“I’m a minority in this country … my rights don’t exist in some kind of vacuum. You know, my rights are interdependent on other people’s rights. And therefore I believe very firmly in fact, with every fibre of my being, that your equality is my equality, and therefore I’ll always fight for the equal rights of others regardless of who they are.”

Forbes later told Times Radio that she “she regrets enormously the pain or hurt that has been caused” by her comments, adding that she would “seek forgiveness if that is how it’s come across”.


Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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