Kate Forbes has insisted she is a “servant of democracy” after a backlash over her views on same-sex marriage dogged her leadership launch on Monday.
Ms Forbes, who has served as the SNP’s finance and economy secretary since February 2020, caused controversy on Monday after she said she would have voted against the landmark equalities bill “as a matter of conscience”.
Ms Forbes’ social views have become a talking point among SNP members as a result of her membership of the conservative Free Church of Scotland.
“I believe that it should be a conscience vote because of its profound significance in all mainstream faiths”, she told The Scotsman.
Questioned on the topic again this morning, Ms Forbes denied that being willing to vote against same-sex marriage in the past is incompatible with leading a progressive party.
Speaking to Times Radio, she said: “The first thing I would see that in this country equal marriage is a legal right and I am a servant of democracy. I am not a dictator. I respect and defend that democratic choice to the hilt. That choice was almost a decade ago in the meeting.
“I was certainly not in frontline politics. But what I’ve said is that I would defend to the hilt your right … to live and to love, free of harassment and fear”.
Questioned over whether she was making the same mistakes as Tim Farron, who led the UK Liberal Democrats from 2015-2017 and whose social views attracted similar controversy, Ms Forbes said: “I think the approach I’ve taken is to answer these questions with straight answers”.
One of the questions that dogged Tim Farron in the 2017 general election was whether he considered gay sex to be a sin. Asked to comment on this point, Ms Forbes responded “I would start again by saying that I will defend to the hilt everybody’s rights”.
She added: “Frankly, I couldn’t care less. For two consenting adults do in the comfort of their own bedroom or wherever it is. That is their business. It’s not my business.
“I practice my things in a particular way. They won’t share my faith. They can do what they like within the bounds of the law as consenting adults. And that is a fundamental distinction that I would make”.
Pressed further, Ms Forbes said: “I think the premise of the question is fundamentally wrong, which is, it’s a theological question. And if you’re asking me theologically, what the Bible says, sin is universal”.
She added: “I’ve only answered that because you’re looking for a straight answer. I’ve not answered it because I’m remotely interested in pontificating about civil rights”.
Ms Forbes also expressed “regret” if her position has caused any “hurt”.
The finance secretary’s social views have emerged as a major issue in the race to replace Nicola Sturgeon as first minister, with political opponents within the SNP suggesting her personal views on issues such as gay marriage and abortion make her unsuitable.
Hannah Bardell, an SNP MP, responded to the leadership frontrunner’s comments on Monday by saying: “I have listened carefully to Kate Forbes.
“I believe firmly in respectful discourse and debate and I have to say I have a level of respect for her being so open and direct about her views and why she holds them but I disagree with her.
“However, I would have hoped that given Kate has so many friends, including myself, who are LGBTQ and hold her and her talents in such high regard, she might have tempered them or at least considered her response a little more carefully”.
When Ms Bardell’s position was put to Ms Forbes this morning, the financial secretary said: “I don’t just defend her [Ms Bardell’s] rights, I celebrate her as a person. She doesn’t need me to speak for her. I defend her right to live, to make choices, to love, free of harassment [and] prejudice”.
Ms Forbes’ main rival in the race is secretary for health and social care Humza Yousaf. Mr Yousaf vowed on Monday to continue to pursue Ms Sturgeon’s “progressive path” and suggested he may refuse to serve in the cabinet of a first minister whose “values don’t align with mine”.
Mr Yousaf also revealed he will challenge the UK government’s decision to block the Gender Reform Bill if elected as first minister.
Ms Forbes has said she would reconsider the reforms, telling The Telegraph she was “strongly minded not to proceed” with a legal battle planned by Ms Sturgeon to overturn Westminster’s veto of the Scottish self-ID law.
Questioned on the issue again this morning, Forbes expanded: “I previously expressed concerns about self-identification, and I think that we need as many safeguards as possible. I think actually the bill was getting there. So additional safeguards had been added in through amendments, for example, for young people who needed to seek advice in advance and making a decision.
“So I think it’s possible to build in more safeguards and the purpose is ultimately to give that reassurance to women who care about safe spaces and single-sex spaces, as well as to avoid stigmatising the trans community further, because we knew that there’s a process here that works”.