Thoughts on Kate Forbes SNP leadership bid

In some of the most disappointingly unsurprising news of the week, Kate Forbes has launched her SNP leadership bid and, within days, is being quizzed on sexual ethics. Most of us knew this was coming. Forbes is a committed, professing Christian of the Free Church of Scotland variety. To put that into some kind of context, when David Cameron – former Conservative Party Leader and Prime Minister of the UK – was asked about his Christianity of the Anglican variety, he said it is ‘a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes.’ When Kate Forbes was asked about her Christianity, she said:

To be straight, I believe in the person of Jesus Christ. I believe that he died for me, he saved me and that my calling is to serve and to love him and to serve and love my neighbours with all my heart and soul and mind and strength. So that, for me, is essential to my being. Politics will pass. I was a person before I was a politician and that person will continue to believe that I am made in the image of God.

That is to say, Forbes is a real practising Christian who actually believes in Jesus and the stuff of the Bible.

None of this is news to anyone who watches on. Everyone in the SNP knew that she was this sort of FCoS Christian. Everyone she works with is aware that she actually believes in the Bible and it shapes her worldview. Her competence in office and ability to work well with people across party lines has been long noted. She is generally well liked and well received across the board. Her faith is not news and everyone knew these sorts of questions were coming.

Given this, I think there are several observations worth making. In no particular order, here they are:

Journalistic contradictions are hypocritical

Just five days ago, The Spectator ran an article Kate Forbes is the Obvious Successor to Nicola Sturgeon. In that article, Stephen Daisley wondered whether the SNP would be tolerant enough to accept a “devout Christian leader”. Others have noted and made much of her commitment and integrity. Indeed, what many journalists have been calling for is politicians of great integrity in office. A call that is all the clearer in the post-Johnsonian era.

Imagine my surprise, then, when those selfsame journalists lauding Forbes integrity are dismayed that she refused to lie about her position on Gay Marriage. Alex Massie, in The Spectator, notes ‘it is a mark of how far the world has shifted that a candidate to be leader of the SNP may be ruined by expressing a view little different from those publicly expressed by Barack Obama just 15 years ago.’ Nevertheless, he goes on ‘If, as it may well be, her campaign is sunk that will be both a shame and her own fault. That is partly a matter of her faith but it is also because of her inability, on these questions anyway, to tell a useful kind of lie.’ Other outlets have said similar.

There you have what can only be considered a journalistic hypocrisy. On the one hand, we need politicians of great integrity and honesty. Look at Boris – such a liar! On the other hand, they decry Kate Forbes for refusing to “play politics” and tell “useful lies”. I am afraid they cannot have politicians of integrity who tell lies for the purpose of advancing their careers. The brazen way in which they have called for Forbes to do so says far more about journalistic integrity and their gross hypocrisy than it does anything to do with Forbes.

Fairweather SNP supporters are either stupid or disingenuous

You might consider it harsh to call some of Forbes’ erstwhile SNP supporters stupid. But it is hard to know what else to call them. Remember, as I noted at the top of this post, Kate Forbes religious views have been well-known for a long time. She has made no effort to hide them and has been remarkably frank about them. Anyone who did not know when they threw their weight behind her a) this questions was inevitably going to come up, b) what Forbes’ view on the matter was already and c) that she would answer honestly has simply not been paying even cursory attention.

Again, many of her fairweather supporters were quick to applaud her straight-talking and her integrity a few days ago. Apparently, they knew all about her frankness then. But, much like the hypocritical press, they cannot fathom why someone lauded for integrity would not now tell a lie. Apparently, it does not compute that camping out on your integrity necessarily means that a lie at this juncture would undercut that particular campaigning point. It is difficult not to consider this to be stupidity if it was not apparent ahead of time.

Similarly, SNP supporters are trying to square a circle. The Guardian report:

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.”

Where do you begin with that? On the one hand, she is encouraged to stand despite the known issues swirling around her Christian beliefs – which she has been painfully open and honest about and nobody backing her could claim seriously to not know what they were – yet now they insist her Christian beliefs are fundamentally at odds with the party. It is either disingenuous to get someone to run knowing those two things were at odds or you are stupid; either not realising it might be an issue when it clearly would be a question or thinking it wouldn’t matter and now realising it does. And it is hard to argue otherwise when, in that same Guardian report, one Forbes supporter insisted:

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.

Which makes Clare Haughey look disingenuous or stupid because she ‘had earlier nominated Forbes for her “skills, knowledge, experience”, [but] responded: “I absolutely and completely support equal marriage. I am unequivocal on this issue. I cannot continue to support Kate’s leadership campaign.”‘ She can’t claim not to have known.

Fruit without root

It is notable that among her supporters, many were highlighting Forbes skills, competence and integrity. Integrity, it seems only two days later, is not actually one of the things they value at all. They would have preferred she lied about her views, which makes the comment disingenuous at best.

Of course, Pete Wishart (and others) are adamant that Forbes should not be stopped from running because of her Christian faith, and indeed supported her leadership bid as such. That is, of course, until her Christian faith actually appeared in any form whatsoever. Then, it seems, her Christian faith is an effective bar on SNP leadership. I think Forbes has effectively summed up matters herself when she said, ‘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.’

This is ironic because one of the things that has been repeatedly admired about Forbes is her ability to work across party lines effectively. Her ability to work with people who have wholly different views to her. It has been noted that she built up good rapport with Michael Gove, for instance. It does not take a genius to see what trait leads her to be able to do so and what it is that means others cannot. It seems Forbes ability to work with people she disagrees with – a trait admired across the board – is the very liberal principle that her party supporters are now refusing to extend to her and might explain why they have been much less successful in working with others.

The irony here is that the SNP want the fruit of Forbes’ classical liberal stance – the ability to work alongside and build rapport with people you deeply disagree with – without actually having to accept the liberal principle of working alongside and building rapport with anybody they deeply disagree with. They see Forbes ability to work across party lines and admire it, unable to replicate it quite so well themselves. Yet, the moment they disagree with a single stance she takes, they cannot dream of working with her. Yet they cannot see that the very thing they admire in her they are unwilling to extend to her. They want the fruit of collaborative working without the root of any principle that might mean you have to work with people you don’t fully agree with.

The line is not equal marriage, but total agreement

Gillian Martin has this to say:

What is interesting about this is that Forbes has said in the hypothetical world in which she was an MSP with a vote on Gay Marriage, she would have voted against. However, in the actual world where she is an MSP after Gay Marriage has been introduced, she will uphold the legislation. That is to say, nothing about a Forbes leadership would lead to a change in the law on gay marriage as it is.

What is interesting – and Martin is not the only one who has voiced this – is that this is apparently a red line for her. She argues that equal marriage is her red line. But Forbes has been clear that her leadership would not lead to a change in gay marriage. Which means, the red line Martin actually has is not gay marriage, but alternative views on its benevolence. The issue is not that Forbes would do anything to undercut gay marriage as it is currently legislated – she has said she wouldn’t – but that she demurs from Martin’s opinion that were the issue up for legislation today, she would vote against. Indeed, Forbes has rightly pointed out this is exactly the line Angela Merkel has taken: ‘Under Angela Merkel’s leadership, she held a vote on same-sex marriage, she implemented the results of that vote to introduce the legal right to equal marriage, but she voted in line with her conscience.’

But for Martin, this is not good enough. Not only must Forbes uphold gay marriage (as she has said she would do) she must also insist that she believes it is as good and right as Martin does. Which means Martin’s red line – and many other SNP member’s red line – is not actually equal marriage or gay rights at all. Their red line is, in fact, total agreement. Differing views will not be tolerated.

The real question(s) at hand

The question for SNP members is a straightforward one. Would they rather have a competent leader who has the integrity and honesty to tell them her views, even if they are not politically expedient, or would they rather have a leader whose faith is apparently meaningless to his politics and who has a record of having failed in three ministerial offices? Minimally, even if she does not ultimately win (which takes in a wider set of concerns), if the SNP will not even support Forbes’ leadership bid, are they willing to send the message that it is okay to have a Hindu Prime Minister, a Muslim leadership candidate but never a Christian one? Given her supporters clearly knew her views, if they all back out now, are they ready to appear stupid or utterly disingenuous as if they never knew, didn’t think it would matter or fully expected her to lie? Can the SNP credibly claim to welcome a diversity of views if, it becomes clear, there are a range of issues – on which a sizeable number of people across the country do actually demur – that are simply deemed intolerable for an SNP leader to hold?

Bearing in mind that their previous leader was just brought down by her stance on trans rights, self-ID and women’s prisons, might it just be that the SNP do not speak for the majority in such matters? I appreciate this will be a cross-border and self-selecting group, but it was interesting to note at the time of writing, a Times poll asking who should replace Nicola Sturgeon had 77% in favour of Kate Forbes. That was under an article headed, ‘Kate Forbes would have voted against gay marriage’. Might it just be that, for most people, they simply don’t see it as the issue the SNP do? Might it not be the vote winning or losing issue many have made it out to be? Might it, in fact, still be the case that most people would still prefer a competent, honest leader with integrity, even if they are a practising Christian of the Free Church of Scotland variety?