The race to succeed Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister was always going to be interesting, but who would have predicted the roller coaster ride we’ve witnessed in its first few days? Twists and turns; personal animosity; a debate on the intersection of religion and politics; and barely anything about independence or major issues that have populated headlines for months. It’s been both fascinating and troubling to watch. With several weeks of voting still to go, and plenty of choppy water under the bridge already, it’s still anyone’s guess who’ll obtain the keys to Bute House and take Scotland forward into its next political chapter.
Party favourites were ruled out of the SNP leadership contest early. Deputy First Minister John Swinney said he would not put himself forward as a candidate at the end of last week. On Sunday, Màiri McAllan MSP – a former special adviser to Nicola Sturgeon – also said she wouldn’t stand. And on Monday, Constitution Secretary Angus Robertson bowed out as well. That left three potential contenders for First Minister of Scotland: embattled Health Secretary Humza Yousaf, Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, and ex-minister Ash Regan. Both Forbes and Yousaf launched their leadership bids on Monday but Ash Regan, slightly behind the curve, only officially launched her campaign today, as nominations for the contest closed.
With several weeks of voting still to go, it’s still anyone’s guess who’ll obtain the keys to Bute House
Kate Forbes – bookies’ favourite from day one – has endured a modern-day, secular inquisition. In her first round of media interviews she was grilled on gay marriage and other social progressive tenets. Asking for her plan on huge issues like our beleaguered NHS, the cost-of-living crisis, and widespread inequality appeared not to matter. Atypically for her profession, Forbes embraced this interrogation, giving honest answers about her Christian beliefs and how she navigates faith and politics. She was clear that her faith is deeply important and drives her political service. She also said she’s a democrat who accepts the decisions of parliament, and her party. A post on her social media channels addressed the week’s events:
“Every leader’s identity is multifaceted. I am a woman, I am a Highlander, I have a faith. Of all these characteristics, the questions over the last few days have focused on my religious faith. I feel greatly burdened that some of my responses to questions in the media have caused hurt, which was never my intention as I sought to answer questions clearly. I will defend to the hilt the rights of everybody in Scotland, particularly minorities, to live and to love without fear or harassment in a pluralistic and tolerant society. I will uphold the laws that have been hard won, as a servant of democracy, and seek to enhance the rights of everybody to live in a way which enables them to flourish. I firmly believe in the inherent dignity of each human being; that underpins all ethical and political decisions I make.”
Forbes’ unashamed Christianity, and articulation of liberal, democratic principles is refreshing in our balkanised culture, which appears to be forgetting what things like freedom of speech, expression, conscience, and religion actually mean. And how important there things are for ensuring our way of life. Her honesty about her beliefs appears to have paid off too. Polling at the end of the week still has Forbes as favourite among SNP voters – even after the media stramash of recent days. A poll of 1,001 SNP voters shows that the finance secretary is on 28 per cent support, Humza Yousaf is on 20 per cent, and Ash Regan is on a much lower 7 per cent. Most SNP voters are still to decide who to back.
Forbes’ unashamed Christianity, and articulation of liberal, democratic principles has been refreshing
Developments like this cast doubt on the claim that orthodox Christian views are a barrier to the office of First Minister. At least, this is a non sequitur to most Scots. Scotland’s “progressive” commentariat might be horrified at the idea of a committed Christian in Bute House, but the public are a far more accepting bunch. They see Kate Forbes as the best woman for the job: c’est tout. It’s early days but it would seem that Forbes is still in with a good shot of becoming SNP leader and First Minister. Some SNP MSPs have said they’d block her at parliament. I suspect this is performative, to some extent. How many would actually choose to lose the whip and harm their own party to prevent a talented colleague getting a promotion?
Yousaf is clearly the establishment favourite. Leading figures are trying every dirty trick in the book to skew things in his favour. Both Swinney and Sturgeon have had a swipe at Kate Forbes over her views, and SNP figures are accused of orchestrating a witch hunt against her. This screams insecurity to me: she’s perceived as a threat to the existing hegemony. That’s a good thing, in my mind. Who wants more of the status quo? The previous First Minister was too long in government. The policies she presided over have, at times, been completely put-of-step with public priorities – a harmful distraction. At a time when Scotland faces manifold challenges, fresh thinking is sorely required.
Humza Yousaf has been serially incompetent in his various roles. As transport minister, he failed to progress vital infrastructure projects; as justice minister, he took forward hate crime legislation that threatens free speech; as health secretary, he’s presiding over record failings. He may be the ‘continuity candidate’ for some, but who wants continuous failure? Ash Regan will appeal to many women voters in the SNP, thoroughly scunnered with the Scottish Government for pursuing gender legislation that threatens women and children. However, she lacks experience, and it shows – particularly when she’s in front of the camera. Kate Forbes also opposes the gender law as it stands, and has the mettle to resolve issues.
It’s early days but it would seem that Forbes is still in with a good shot of becoming SNP leader and First Minister
As a Christian commentator, you might think it obvious that Kate Forbes is my pick for next First Minister of Scotland. She is, but not simply because I share her beliefs. That would make me guilty of the same tribal identity politicking that’s so damaging to our politics. I’d vote for her because she’s a person of integrity, honesty, and tenacity. She understands that truly great politics involves tolerance of different views and collaborative working by people on all sides. And because her track record means she offers the best chance of good – sound and reliable – governance. Whether we’re nationalists or unionists, I’d hope we can all agree these traits are top of the list of what’s required in a First Minister.