The SNP leadership contest, concluded a mere five months ago, resulted in the unconvincing victory of Humza Yousaf over Kate Forbes – by 52% to 48% on a 70% turnout. Many SNP members clearly bought into the candidature of Kate Forbes for SNP leader and as First Minister of Scotland. A significant number of her supporters saw themselves as liberal, left-leaning and progressive, yet got enthusiastically behind Forbes – despite her traditionalist views.
The reasons offered at the time and immediately after were varied. Some felt that Forbes had energy and zest; others that she had ideas on the economy and on tackling poverty (although no detailed proposals were offered). For some, Humza Yousaf was so damaged and exhausted after a chequered ministerial career that Forbes was the only choice; while some feminists and others were prepared to support her conservative perspective on a number of areas because of her views on the trans issue.
Since the leadership contest and the decision of Forbes to sit out the cabinet of Humza Yousaf, she has for some come to symbolise a First Minister in waiting. Sitting waiting for the inevitable failure of the Yousaf administration, weighed down by 16 years in office, the shadow of the Sturgeon years and police investigation, and the backlash which looks inevitable in the 2024 and 2026 elections.
Forbes has in the resulting period made light of not winning the SNP leadership, saying that 'she dodged a bullet' by not winning last time round. Now she has created a few more ripples by saying that she assesses, as a person of faith, that the Second Coming of Jesus is more imminent than the Second Coming of an independence referendum.
These comments emerged in Edinburgh Fringe in an exchange with the comedian and political commentator Matt Forde who directly asked 'What is more likely in the next 10 years – the Second Coming or a second independence referendum?' She replied that as a Christian 'the Second Coming could happen at literally any time – in the next hour', but that an independence referendum is 'going to take a bit more work'.
These observations are explained by some Forbes supporters as 'a joke' and 'light-hearted', but that is to minimise, and even trivalise, the depth of faith and belief that Forbes has repeatedly demonstrated. It is in effect an attempt to deflect and diminish such views which Forbes (as with previous comments) could have chosen to navigate in a more diplomatic way.
The implications of such comments need to be seen against the backdrop of the traditional, uncompromising conservatism she expressed in the SNP leadership contest. Forbes said that her faith meant she did not support lesbians and gays having the right to equal marriage; and even that she did not believe in people having children and sex outside of marriage.
The defence of Forbes in the SNP leadership contest was that these were personal views and would not impact on the decisions she would make as SNP leader and First Minister. This wilfully ignored the realities of modern politics and political leadership, which involve at their core making choices about values and ethics and having to decide on legislative questions which impact the personal lives of people. 'The personal is political' as used to be said with the associated numerous layers and nuances.
Subsequently, the reasons and motivations many have given for their support of Forbes has been revealing and worrying. When I asked one senior SNP member if Forbes' views were reminiscent of 1950's Scotland, they replied: 'A large part of the SNP older membership still lives in 1950's Scotland on many issues'. Another SNP member, who like the previous one, voted for Forbes, said: 'This is the party of Gordon Wilson and Donald Stewart and Winnie Ewing. It has a long tradition of social conservatism running through it like a rock'.
What these comments reveal is a politics ill-at-ease with modern Scotland and the questions and choices it faces. Forbes has nothing positive to say to a large swathe of the citizens of Scotland. This includes LGBT people, those who have children outside of marriage, and even those who have sex outside of marriage.
Going further, Forbes does not have the defence that the likes of Gordon Wilson, Donald Stewart and Winnie Ewing had. They all grew up in a Scotland defined by a social conservatism, prevalent authoritarianism and punitive authority, which policed the boundaries of what could or could not be discussed in public.
Rather, Forbes has chosen, in an age where LGBT rights, sexuality, gender and sex form a central part of the political conversation, to put herself unapologetically on the side of moral and social conservatives, to rail against progressive liberalism and with it the grain of what makes up modern Scotland. It is not surprising that she has stood up for the rights of Graham Linehan, whose Edinburgh Fringe shows were cancelled. He has taken up an extreme anti-trans rights position, comparing their effect with that of 'the Holocaust'. Forbes stated of Linehan: 'Offence needs to be caused. He's not inciting violence as far as I can see'.
There is more to it than that. One dimension is the continued tensions in the current SNP as it staggers into the new world post-Sturgeon leadership. As one pro-independence campaigner puts it: 'Forbes, [Angus] MacNeil and their Alba acolytes know exactly what they're doing when they stoke up culture wars and anti-environmental rhetoric. They're playing to their own conservative constituencies, while hiding behind religion and freedom of speech'.
An indicator of this is attitudes in the SNP towards the Scottish Greens, who are currently in government with the Nationalists. This drives some in the SNP to fury and indignation, believing that much of this modern 'woke' agenda is being foisted on the party by self-righteous Greens. Forbes said in the same Edinburgh exchange that the Scottish Greens were 'urban-centric' and people felt they were being 'preached at' by them – which she used as a criticism.
Another bigger dimension which has impact beyond Scotland is the changing world of Christianity. Evangelical Christianity has now become synonymous across the developed world with a vicious cultural and political war. It's not just focused on rowing back on LGBT rights, politicising and stigmatising trans people, but also on attacking the rights of women and in particular reproductive rights.
This divide is profound in societies in which progress towards equality for women and minorities has become deeply contentious. Kate Forbes has unambiguously placed herself as part of the global campaign which is openly leading a backlash against the rights of women, LGBT people and trans people. It is anti-free speech and advocates policing and suppressing books that children and young people read – the ultimate and real 'cancel culture'.
Kate Forbes can try to laugh off her comments about 'the Second Coming of Jesus' and her comparison of this to any second independence referendum, but there is a consistent pattern and record of comment which is about devaluing and disrespecting the rights and legitimacy of the lives and identities of a large part of modern Scotland.
She is free to propagate such opinions but, for reasons outlined at the start of this essay, 48% of SNP members were prepared to endorse her as party leader and hence leader of the country. They either agreed with devaluing their fellow citizens or were happy to go along with such an approach for what they thought were more important reasons.
This accommodation of a doctrinaire hard-line social conservatism in present day Scotland and the SNP has caught many by surprise – and some still want to deny it. It does though have major consequences for how we think of the future of Scotland, politics, the SNP and independence.
There is probably not an immediate likelihood of the 'Second Coming of Jesus' but, as Kate Forbes lays out her stall at odds with modern Scotland, we have to understand the full implications – and ask whether we are really prepared to live in a Scotland in which the Second Coming of Kate Forbes could be a real thing.