SNP leadership race: The key problems facing Kate Forbes’ candidacy

It was 2003 when New Labour spinner Alastair Campbell apprised an interviewer “I’m sorry, We don’t do God”, stepping in before prime minister Tony Blair’s religiosity could be probed. The poignant intervention, as Blair readied to answer a question on whether his Christianity created common ground with US President George Bush, has taken on a totemic quality in recent years. 

Campbell’s “we” has naturally been taken to refer to the modernising New Labour project, but politicians of any stripe solicit divine intervention at their own peril. It makes for a God-fearing and impious political culture — with reticence on the matter of religion perhaps as close as British politics gets to a “rule”. 

This is not to say that Campbell’s “we don’t do God” decree hasn’t seen challenge. And in 2017, outspoken evangelical Christian Tim Farron led the Liberal Democrats into an election, eliciting much comment.

As Lib Dem leader, Farron was repeatedly challenged about his views on homosexual relationships, before eventually clarifying in a BBC radio interview in 2017: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin”. Farron has since expressed regret for this response, citing pressure from those within his own party who demanded he adhered to a specific line.  

Farron’s experience has become somewhat of a cautionary tale for those politicians, especially those on the left, who might be drawn to publicly pronounce on their belief system. But Farron’s troubles have remarkably returned to the political fore in recent days amid Kate Forbes’ run to replace Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister. 

Announcing her candidacy on Monday, Forbes is a member of the Free Church of Scotland which opposes gay marriage, abortion and gender self-ID. As expected, the finance secretary was immediately asked to expand on her commitment to progressive social policy, as enacted under Sturgeon and her predecessors. 

Forbes was for the most part unequivocal. She said she would have voted against leasing gay marriage “as a matter of conscience”; and when asked whether gay sex was a sin on Times Radio on Tuesday, she responded: “If you’re asking me theologically what the Bible says, sin is universal”. 

Refusing to dissemble her views, Forbes attended such answers with a commitment that she would not pro-actively roll back rights as first minister. Although this promise may have been subtly undermined by her suggestion that she would vote against same-sex marriage were it brought before Holyrood again.

But if Forbes thought candour could forestall a Farron-style political furore, she was very wrong. The series of interviews sent the finance secretary’s fortunes tumbling, relegating characterisations of her candidacy from frontrunner to dropout-in-wait. 

As a series of Forbes’ former backers, including MSPs Richard Lochhead, Gillian Martin, Claire Haughey and Tom Arthur and MP Drew Hendry, began withdrawing their support, a senior member of Forbes’ campaign told The Scotsman she had “f*****” her leadership bid. It was only day one. 

Naturally, her rivals piled on the pressure. “Love is love”, tweeted the otherwise quiet Ash Regan who launches her leadership campaign on Friday. Humza Yousof, the other announced contender who was catapulted to the front of the SNP leadership race by Forbes’ implosion, highlighted that he was the only candidate who backed Holyrood’s recent gender reform legislation, styling himself as the chief LGBTQ ally in the race. 

One wonders whether Forbes anticipated such a profound backlash. Perhaps she miscalculated the level of media attention her campaign would gather — the finance secretary had only become a surprise frontrunner after bookies favourite Angus Robertson declined to stand.

Of course, Forbes may still hope the media storm will blow over, but right now that looks unlikely. The leadership candidate’s primary political problem is that she wants to lead a party that has backed progressive social reforms at every turn since the Scottish parliament was (re)established in 1999. Forbes’ socially conservative values, at the helm of a professedly progressive party, would surely make for the unholiest of unholy alliances. The juxtaposition would make for ripe pickings by the party’s political opponents. “Tartan Tories”, Labour’s Anas Sarwar would jibe. 

Perhaps if Forbes were running to lead a different political party, the Conservatives say, her social views might matter less. Take the example of devout Catholic Jacob Rees-Mogg who in 2017 outlined that he was “completely opposed” to abortion in any circumstances, also affirming his opposition to gay marriage. But, like Forbes, he conditioned his opposition thusly: “[abortion] law is not going to change”. 

While Rees-Mogg’s remarks were met with strong opposition, including from within his own party, it did not stop the backbencher being promoted to cabinet by both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Indeed, Rees-Mogg has recently double-down, labelling abortion a “cult of death” in late 2022. The statement is unlikely to tarnish the former business secretary’s standing as a grassroots Conservative favourite.

Conservatives like Rees-Mogg, it seems, can “do God” with little consequence. 

Significantly, even conscious moderniser David Cameron felt able to invoke his “committed” Christianity as prime minister, explaining on one occasion that Britain is a “Christian country”. The motivations for invoking such a label can be debated, but the fact is Cameron’s political value went undamaged by the pronouncement. After all, this was the prime minister who brought forward legislation that legalised same-sex marriage. Cameron was a Christian, he said, just not one “on a mission to convert the world”.

This last point is crucial, for it is the potential policy implications of Forbes’ religiosity that has left many in Scottish politics recoiling.

Forbes’ campaign also comes at a time to when the matter of liberalising social policy in Scotland is high on the agenda. The SNP is still locked in a debate over the gender recognition reform bill, passed in December, which would make it easier for people in Scotland to change their legally recognised gender. 

The GRR bill was inevitably going to emerge as a sticking point in the race, with the question of whether the SNP should challenge the UK government’s decision to block the bill looming ominously. Regan, who resigned her frontbench position over the legislation, has said she would not; Yousoff, on the other hand, has firmly committed to enacting the policy, taking the UK government to court in order to do so.  

The prominence of the GRR bill debate meant it was only a matter of time before Forbes’ values came under question. 

It is also true that the belief that Scotland is a compassionate, progressive nation is a crucial part of the myth basis of Scottish nationalism. Fusing social and national solidarities, the suggestion that Scotland’s progressive political culture necessitates separation from backwards England has been an SNP rallying cry for decades. 

This pitch was made manifest by the Bute House Agreement, which outlines the SNP’s coalition deal with the left-wing Green Party at Holyrood. But were Forbes to become SNP leader, The Herald reports that the Greens may withdraw its support for the arrangement “even if she adopted a pragmatic approach to governing”. It would spark a constitutional crisis as the SNP, who are one seat short of a majority on Holyrood, seek to confirm a new first minister.

It is part of the common stock of political discourse that leadership contenders are scrutinised on their values, secular or otherwise. In the instance of Forbes, the view may soon take hold being a social conservative is a disqualifying trait for a candidate running to be leader of Scotland’s premier progressive party — no matter the motivation. “Doing God” may just do it for Forbes’ leadership aspirations. 

Of course, as a devout Christian, Forbes will probably not conceive of a choice between “doing God” or not. For the SNP faithful, however, who must elect a new leader by 27 March 2023, Campbell’s homily presents a crucial catechism.