Euan McColm Euan McColm

The vindication of Kate Forbes

Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan during the 2023 leadership debate (Photo: Getty)

So much for Scotland being the home of ‘radical’ progressive politics. 

After almost two decades of the Scottish National party saying that Scots are fundamentally different to their neighbours – wiser, more compassionate, just generally better – the party now reckons Scottish voters might just share the same priorities as those south of the border. 

First, SNP members selected 60-year-old former deputy first minister John Swinney – a self-declared centrist – as leader to replace the hapless Humza Yousaf. Members clearly wanted to bring some calm to a party riven with splits over independence strategy and policy priorities.

Then, shortly after Mr Swinney was sworn in as Scotland’s seventh first minister on Wednesday, it was announced that he has selected Kate Forbes to be his second-in-command. This is a recognition that Scotland is a far more ‘small c’ conservative nation than the priorities of recent SNP governments might suggest.

When Nicola Sturgeon stepped down as her party’s leader last year (prompting Swinney’s resignation as deputy first minister), Forbes was, along with Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf, one of three candidates to succeed her.

The victorious Yousaf was the continuity candidate, utterly loyal to his predecessor and determined to follow her priorities, including pushing forward hugely controversial legislation on gender equality.

Regan, something of a lightweight on policy, was the first candidate to fall in that race (shortly after defeat, she defected to the Alba party, established by former SNP leader Alex Salmond). But Forbes gave Yousaf a run for his money.

Early in the contest, Forbes – a devout member of the deeply socially conservative Free Church of Scotland – revealed that, had she been a member of parliament at the time, she would not have voted in favour of same-sex marriage.

Although Forbes insisted she had no desire to roll back any existing equality legislation, senior SNP figures were among those briefing heavily that she must not become leader.

Yousaf ended up winning the leadership by just 52 to 48 per cent and, rather than clasping former finance secretary Forbes close, offered her a demotion she was compelled – correctly – to reject.

The tight result though brought to an end the myth that the SNP is a party of the radical left. In fact, a great many of its members were – and remain – entirely comfortable with Forbes’s rather out-of-date views.

While Yousaf blundered through a miserable year of leadership, which included major developments in a police investigation into SNP finances, Forbes sat on the backbenches, her reputation for competence growing on the basis that things couldn’t get any worse than they were.

Forbes’s views remain an issue for colleagues. Indeed, a key factor in Swinney’s decision to return from the political twilight was the fear among senior figures that she might win a contest to succeed Yousaf and, in the process, create yet more division in a party already in crisis.

Along with her views on gay marriage, Forbes is no fan of the SNP’s obsession with gender ideology. She has expressed concerns about the failed plan to reform the Gender Recognition Act and is sympathetic to the views of feminist campaigners who worry about the impact on women’s rights of trans rights.

The SNP’s former government partners, the Scottish Greens, made it clear last week – without naming her – that they would struggle to work with First Minister Forbes. While the choice of Yousaf’s replacement was for the SNP, the Greens wanted to see someone who shared their priorities.

Forbes does not come near to living up to the ‘standards’ set by the crank Greens, whose focus on the environment has long since been eclipsed by their desire to push forward contentious legislation backed by government-funded equality groups.

The appointment of Kate Forbes to the second most powerful position in government will infuriate many on the nationalist left. But the truth is she represents the views of a great many Scots – including half the members of the SNP.