Kate Forbes: controversial views, religion, and political career of SNP candidate explained as election ends

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Kate Forbes’ leadership bid became shrouded in controversy.

When Kate Forbes first launched her bid to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister and leader of the SNP, she was the bookies’ favourite. But a whirlwind of controvery later, she lost out to her rival and new frontrunner Humza Yousaf - who on Monday (27 March) was announced as the winner of the bitterly-contested election.

Interestingly, no candidate achieved an outright majority after all 50,494 votes were counted - and so Ash Regan’s second preference votes were added, giving Yousaf 26,032 votes and Forbes 23,890 - another famous 52% to 48% split.

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Forbes’ loss may be in part due to the controversy she faced over some of the personal and religious beliefs she revealed in a series of interviews. The Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP admitted that she would have voted against gay marriage if she had been in government at the time, prompting several MPs and MSPs to withdraw their public support.

She later apologised for any “pain” her comments caused and said she would not seek to overturn same-sex marriage legislation, but for many, the damage was done - with political experts warning that her campaign had been derailed.

But who exactly is Kate Forbes - and what has she said? Here’s everything you need to know about the former SNP leadership candidate - including some intel on why she may have lost out in the contest.

Kate Forbes is one of the three candidates running to replace Nicola Sturgeon - but her leadership bid has been shrouded in controversy. Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorldKate Forbes is one of the three candidates running to replace Nicola Sturgeon - but her leadership bid has been shrouded in controversy. Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld
Kate Forbes is one of the three candidates running to replace Nicola Sturgeon - but her leadership bid has been shrouded in controversy. Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld | Kim Mogg / NationalWorld

Early years

Forbes was born in Dingwall in the Highlands in 1990. She spent part of her childhood in India, and the other parts attending a Gaelic school in Scotland, where she became fluent in the language.

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She went on to study history at Cambridge University, before earning a master’s degree in diaspora and migration history at the University of Edinburgh in 2013. She was employed as an accountant at one point, and later worked for Barclays.

Starting out in politics

The 32-year-old’s career in politics began when she worked for Dave Thompson, MSP for the Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch. In the 2016 Holyrood elections, Forbes succeeded Thompson in the same constituency, almost doubling the votes he had received in the previous election from 4,955 to 9,045.

During her time as a backbencher, she held the post of convener of the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group on Gaelic. She was promoted to the junior position of minister of public finance in 2018.

Kate Forbes arrives at BBC studios in Glasgow, she has confirmed she is entering the race to succeed Nicola Sturgeon. Picture date: Monday February 20, 2023. Credit: PAKate Forbes arrives at BBC studios in Glasgow, she has confirmed she is entering the race to succeed Nicola Sturgeon. Picture date: Monday February 20, 2023. Credit: PA
Kate Forbes arrives at BBC studios in Glasgow, she has confirmed she is entering the race to succeed Nicola Sturgeon. Picture date: Monday February 20, 2023. Credit: PA | PA

Thrust into the spotlight

Forbes’ debut into frontline politics came in one of the most dramatic weeks in the history of Scottish Parliament. On 6 February 2020, Derek Mackay, the then finance secretary, was due to deliver the government’s annual budget - but the day prior, a story broke which sparked Mackay’s notorious fall from grace.

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The MSP was exposed as having sent hundreds of online messages to a school pupil aged 16. He contacted the boy out of the blue and over a period of six months, pestered him on Instagram and Facebook, calling him “really cute” and asking if the chats were “between us”.

He resigned swiftly, apologising “unreservedly”, meaning Forbes - just 29 years old at the time - received a dramatic, last-minute promoted to finance secretary. She became the first woman to deliver the Scottish annual budget, and is thought to be one of the youngest to have ever held her position in Cabinet.

Forbes earned praise for her performance and handling of the situation - both from colleagues and the public, with her majority growing further in the 2021 elections. She won 15,681 votes in her constituency - nearly 7,000 more than in 2016.

Later, in July 2022, Forbes became the first Scottish Cabinet secretary to go on maternity leave. She announced in August that Naomi, her daughter with husband Ali Maclennanhat, had been safely delivered at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness.

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Although her maternity leave isn’t up, Forbes has returned to work sooner than expected - to run in the SNP leadership race, against fellow candidates Humza Yousaf and Ash Regan.

Finance Secretary Kate Forbes giving a ministerial statement at the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, Edinburgh. Credit: PAFinance Secretary Kate Forbes giving a ministerial statement at the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, Edinburgh. Credit: PA
Finance Secretary Kate Forbes giving a ministerial statement at the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, Edinburgh. Credit: PA | PA

Controversial views

Forbes is one of the SNP’s most socially conservative candidates. Her views on key topics kept her in national headlines over the past few weeks, and in the opinions of many, are the reason she lost out in the leadership race.

First, asked by NationalWorld’s sister title the Scotsman if she would have voted against gay marriage had she been elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2014, she admitted: “I would have.” She also referred to her views of “marriage being between a man and a woman.”

She later apologised “unequivocally” for any “hurt” or “offence” she had caused and insisted she would not attempt to row back on gay marriage laws if she became First Minister, but it did not stop some of her early supporters - such as public finance minister Tom Arthur, minister for children Clare Haughey, and health committee convener Gillian Martin - withdrawing their backing.

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Forbes told Sky News: “My position on these matters is I will defend to the hilt everybody’s right in a pluralistic and tolerant society to live and to love free of harassment and fear.

“And in the same way I hope that others can be afforded the rights of people of faith to practise fairly mainstream teaching. And that is the nuance that we need to capture on equal marriage. Equal marriage is a legal right, and as a servant of democracy, rather than a dictator, I absolutely respect and defend that democratic right.”

Meanwhile, in her own words, Forbes’ “concerns about self-identification” for transgender people have been “well documented.”

In 2019, she was one of 15 politicians in the SNP to sign a public letter calling on the Scottish Government to delay its manifesto commitment to reform the Gender Recognition Act. In 2022, she said that her position had not changed and that the Scottish Government should not rush to change the “definition of male and female”.

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She was on maternity leave when Holyrood passed the gender reform bill, which was later stopped by Westminster. However, she admitted to The Guardian that although it is “outrageous” that the UK government would seek to overturn Scottish legislation, she “would have struggled to support that self-ID element of the Gender Recognition Act”.

She went on to insist that this was “not the end” of the reforms - saying she wanted to engage with the UK government to ensure the amendments were compatible with UK-wide legislation - but said she does not support self-identification without wider safeguards.

Forbes added that the recent rows over the placement of transgender prisoners in women’s prisons had highlighted the need for “further reassurance about safe spaces”, commenting specifically on transgender double rapist Isla Bryson, who was initially sent to a female prison before being moved to a male estate after an urgent review into the case. Forbes commented that “Isla Bryson is a man”, as a “rapist cannot be a woman.”

 Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, who said she regrets the pain caused by her comments on equal marriage. Credit: PA Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, who said she regrets the pain caused by her comments on equal marriage. Credit: PA
Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, who said she regrets the pain caused by her comments on equal marriage. Credit: PA | PA

Religious beliefs

Forbes is a member of the Free Church of Scotland - which is famously anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion. In 2018, Forbes made a pro-life speech at a prayer breakfast in Edinburgh, remarking: “May our politicians recognise that the way we treat the most vulnerable – whether the unborn or the terminally ill – is a measure of true progress.”

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However, after campaigners from Back Off Scotland wrote to each of the SNP leadership candidates, asking for support in implementing ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics, Forbes has committed to backing the 150-metre safe access areas. She didn’t clarify her stance on abortion during her leadership campaign.

The MSP said that women should not “be subjected to fear and harassment” when attending clinics across the country. She also said she would work with Scottish Greens MSP Gillian Mackay, who is introducing the issue as part of a member’s bill in Holyrood, on how to adequately “balance” the legislation.

Forbes condemned the “illiberal discourse” around her faith, telling PA: “If we get into the territory of suggesting that anyone who holds public office is to be barred to people of faith, then it sends a very bad signal to the countless people of faith and no faith in Scotland today. I think we need to be really careful of the message we are sending. Having said that, if my faith is the only thing that people can find to attack, that suggests that my competence, my vision and my experience, speak for themselves.”

She also said she does not align with every doctrine of her church - remarking: “I make my own decisions on the basis of what decision is right and wrong, according to my faith, not according to the diktat of any church.”

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A teaching she does agree with however is no sex before marriage, remarking that having children outside of marriage is “wrong” according to her faith. She told Sky News: “It’s entirely up to them. It’s something that I would seek to avoid for me personally. But it doesn’t fuss me - the choices that other people make are [up to them].

“In terms of my faith, my faith would say that sex is for marriage and that’s the approach that I would practise.” She added: “For me, it would be wrong according to my faith, but for you I have no idea what your faith is. So, in a free society you can do what you want.”

Finance Secretary Kate Forbes presents the 2022 Scottish Budget at Scottish Parliament Building on December 09, 2021 in Edinburgh, Scotland, alongside Nicola Sturgeon. Credit: Getty ImagesFinance Secretary Kate Forbes presents the 2022 Scottish Budget at Scottish Parliament Building on December 09, 2021 in Edinburgh, Scotland, alongside Nicola Sturgeon. Credit: Getty Images
Finance Secretary Kate Forbes presents the 2022 Scottish Budget at Scottish Parliament Building on December 09, 2021 in Edinburgh, Scotland, alongside Nicola Sturgeon. Credit: Getty Images | Getty Images

Leadership pitch and support

In Forbes’ leadership bid video, she said that her years managing Scotland’s budget and economy had given her the experience necessary to deal with the cost of living crisis. Describing herself as “bold”, “fresh-faced”, and “ready for new challenges”, Forbes also said she could offer the “strong” and “competent” leadership that would deliver independence.

Nominating Forbes, Clare Haughey wrote on Twitter: “Delighted to say I’ve nominated Kate Forbes to be our Party Leader and First Minister. I believe she has the skills, knowledge, experience and drive to lead us to a brighter future as an independent nation and to guide us through the economic challenges we face today.”

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She later withdrew her support for the MSP, commenting: “I absolutely and completely support equal marriage. I am unequivocal on this issue. I cannot continue to support Kate’s leadership campaign.”

Meanwhile, under the #Forbes4FM hashtag, other voters voiced their support for Forbes. Kenny Anderson wrote: “I don’t agree with ‘everything’ any politician stands for, it’d be strange for any normal person to do so but I believe Kate Forbes is the best person to lead Scotland & the SNP.”

He added: “I don’t ever remember the religious beliefs of a politician being aggressively scrutinised in the way we have seen in the last few days. Kate Forbes is the best person to lead Scotland and will do so with fairness to all.”

Neil Briogaisean commented: “Kate Forbes is articulate, intelligent, capable,  compassionate and honest - she is the threat the Unionists fear.  She will fix the economy, build a better Scotland and lead us to independence.” And Ian Summer said: “The attack on Kate Forbes is telling. It shows she is the candidate they fear most. I am backing Forbes for FM.”

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UK equalities minister Kemi Badenoch also weighed in, saying that while she supports same-sex marriage, she “admired” Forbes for her honesty.

Asked about Forbes’ comments at a Politico event on 21 February, Badenoch told the audience: "I admire her for not being dishonest. I support same sex marriage and like anyone I’m disappointed when anyone disagrees with me. But if you’re asking me to condemn someone for their religious views you’ve failed to understand the basic responsibilities of being minister for equality.

“I actually admire her for not being dishonest. It’d be very easy for her to tell lies, just so that she could win that election, and she’s not doing that, and I think that that’s something that people need to take into account.”

However, this support didn’t prove enough - and Forbes will now possibly be waiting to see whether Yousaf offers her a position in his Cabinet. Given how close the result was, it seems likely he will, but it is unclear as of yet whether Forbes would accept.

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