22 February 2023

Is Kate Forbes a victim of aggressive secularism, or just rubbish at politics?


A week in politics is no time at all: the transformation of Kate Forbes from the SNP’s heir apparent to a seeming no-hoper has been swift enough to give a mayfly whiplash. Since announcing her leadership bid on Monday, the Finance Secretary has seen support from MSPs fall away due to her unapologetic stance on a range of social issues

Forbes is one of the 13,000 or so members of the Free Church of Scotland. She has never hidden her faith: she once told the BBC she ‘believes in the person of Jesus Christ’ with all her ‘heart and soul and mind and strength’. What has got her into trouble is not that she is a believer, but that her church has views on issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and children out of wedlock which sit uneasily with the progressivism of a party nowadays as interested in posing with a Pride flag as the Saltire.  

The shock that an avowed Christian might actually take the Bible seriously reminds one of the controversy caused by both Jacob Rees-Mogg and Tim Farron in recent years when asked about their own take on matters of sin. Rees-Mogg upset the hosts of Good Morning Britain by revealing to hosts that, as a Catholic, he did actually agree with Papal teaching on abortion. Farron spent the 2017 election hounded about his views on gay sex – despite having voted for gay marriage. 

All this raises the question: can a Christian politician survive in an ‘aggressively secular’ age? Is Forbes the victim of ‘anti-Christian intolerance’, as her Church suggests? She is not the first ‘wee Free’ to seek to lead the SNP. Gordon Wilson led the party from 1979 to 1990 without his faith being an issue. Scotland only legalised homosexuality in 1981, and gay marriage in 2014. To say ‘you just can’t have’ Forbes’s views and ‘lead a modern party’ – as one journo did on Twitter – is a very new development. 

Just 46% of Britons identified as Christian in the recent census – down from 72% two decades ago. Only 7% of Scots attend Church regularly. Most of us understand less and less about Christianity. For those who take their political opinions from the latest nervous breakdown across the Atlantic, it’s easy to caricature Forbes as Pat Buchanan with bagpipes.  

There’s much in the Tom Holland’s thesis that modern progressivism is downstream from two millennia of declaring the last shall be first, and all that jazz. Even as most of my generation profess themselves avowedly secular, they are earnestly tolerant and abstain from sex, drugs, and binge-drinking out of a conscientious piety familiar to centuries’ worth of Christians. Hence why young Catholics tend to host the best parties

As with any faith, there are some who take its credos more seriously than others. If the Free Church of Scotland is at one end of the spectrum, the gender self-ID enthusiasts in the SNP can be portrayed as being at the other. They may profess themselves to be liberal, but toleration is a recent and rare phenomenon. Most faiths throughout history have sought total victory over their enemies. For the woke, Forbes must be damned, and driven out of the leadership race.

We’ll doubtless read versions of the ‘Reader, it’s the Woke Left who are the real bigots’ argument about Forbes. Whilst there’s certainly something in that – and I have no truck with the tartan trans Taliban – I don’t think it fully explains Forbes’s struggles so far. She has something of Rishi Sunak about her. Not only because our Hindu Prime Minister is also deeply religious – he keeps a Ganesh statue on his desk – but because she is also a young, talented, and quickly promoted finance minister with little experience at the top of politics. 

When Sunak was challenged last year about his wife’s finances, the obvious question was why he hadn’t realised her non-dom status might be an issue. It betrayed a fundamental political naivety. Similarly, Forbes must have realised that her faith would provoke this line of questioning from journalists – especially after her party’s recent controversy over the limits of social liberalism, and Farron’s experience. 

Forbes could have handled it better. That does not mean having an Alastair Campbell to say she ‘doesn’t do God’. Nor does it mean suppressing her own religious views to toe the party line – as her opponent Humza Yousaf, who is a Muslim, apparently does. She does not have to render unto the SNP’s what is the SNP’s, and unto God what is God’s. But she should have had an answer ready – and been ready to pivot away as quickly as possible. 

In Forbes’ defence, she has had little time to prepare for this contest. Sturgeon’s resignation was wholly unexpected, and Forbes has been on maternity leave for months. And despite the wild swings of the bookmakers, this debacle is not necessarily terminal for her candidature. SNP members are the second most socially conservative of any leading party in the UK, according to polling. Her fellow MSPs may be shocked, but party members may be a tad more sympathetic. 

The only conclusion of this debacle so far is that life is easier for a social conservative in a party of the right than one of the left. But if one positive development can come from this whole affair, it is that a little more religious literacy amongst our political class would be no bad thing. Instead of mirroring the American left in treating every instance of religion in politics as some Roe vs Wade spin-off, they should practise a little more of the tolerance that they preach. 

It would be ludicrous to think that if a Farron, Rees-Mogg, or Forbes came to power they would turn Britain into a Christian Saudi Arabia. They are the heirs of the pagans, and they are not going to produce a Julian the Apostate any time soon. But a few more religious voices in politics would be no bad thing – especially in a country hurtling towards 300,000 abortions a year with almost no discussion.

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.