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Kate Forbes: Same story, new headlines

A comment on the conversation around Scottish government minister Kate Forbes, her Christian faith and potential bid to be Scotland’s First Minister.

EUROPEAN PERSPECTIVES AUTOR 434/Nick_Spencer 02 DE MAYO DE 2024 15:44 h
Kate Forbes, government minister in Scotland. / Photo via [link]Theos think tank[/link].

“Whoever leads Scotland next, it can’t be Kate Forbes”

Ok, I’ll bite. The Kate Forbes Bandwagon is back on the move, the position of Scottish First Minister having unexpectedly become vacant. And that means that the Anyone But Kate Forbes Bandwagon is also on the move. Exhibit A: Kenny Farquharson in the Times, “Whoever leads Scotland next, it can’t be Kate Forbes”.

We have been here so, so many times before. The political allegiance doesn’t really matter. Ruth Kelly, Iain Duncan Smith, Tim Farron, even, in the early days, Tony Blair (before he clammed up on the whole God business). Tolerant progressives don’t “do God”, of course, but nor are they prepared to tolerate anyone else who does. So here we go again.

Farquharson’s case is that Forbes is essentially a moral dinosaur, better suited to Scotland in the “1950s” or “1920s” or the “19th century” (he seems unclear on quite how outdated her views are). It’s not that she doesn’t have talent or ability. According to Farquharson, she has “ideas and energy”, “vision” and “valuable skills”. She might even be good enough to work in the economic ministry which “would make full use of her undoubted talents.” (What a clever girl).

But she can’t lead the party, let alone the country, because she’s a Christian. No, that’s not fair. It’s because she’s the wrong kind of Christian, the kind that believes… ooh, wrong, archaic, bad things.

Farquharson’s argument is not above caricature or cliché (“I want a Scotland where the only weeping and gnashing of teeth is over the performance of the national football team”), and some of his criticisms verge on the absurd. “I want a Scotland that celebrates every child, regardless of their mother’s marital status or sexuality”. Meaning, presumably, that Forbes’ view on marriage and sex would prevent her from celebrating all children (whatever that means)?

Many people, not all fans of Forbes, have pointed out that “Muslim First Minister brilliant; Christian First Minister boo” is little more than Progressive prejudice. Farquharson’s defence – that his issue is not with Forbes’s Christianity but the way it is allegedly at odds with Scottish opinion – is a weak one. As many have pointed out, the Scottish National Party's line on gender recognition and free speech is hardly in–line with said opinion. Some unfashionable opinions are more acceptable than others, it seems.

No, the real issue is her faith. Farquharson tries to dodge the accusation of prejudice by claiming “the problem is not her beliefs… [it’s] her opinions” but the distinction is self–evidently spurious, and he makes no attempt to defend it. Forbes is a Christian who holds views on social issues that, although normal 40 years ago, have rather fallen out of fashion. The fact that she has done little to suggest she would pursue those views legislatively, were she to find herself in Bute House, is not enough for Tolerant Progressives (just ask Tim Farron). They like their Ministers pure.


Modernity is where I stand

Being as generous to Farquharson as possible, I don’t think his article does show him to be an anti–religious bigot or straightforwardly prejudiced. Rather, it demonstrates that even well–meaning people can be painfully un–self–critical, captured by the received wisdom of their time and class.

Take his understanding of “modernity”. Kenny Farquharson believes that modernity is a good thing, “a concept worth defending”. Amen. So, what is modernity? It turns out that modernity is what Kenny Farquharson believes, a set of moral, social, and public policy orientations more or less synonymous with the liberal progressive worldview. There is no sense that modernity might be characterised by legitimate pluralism, by the recognition of justifiable difference and the willingness to negotiate through the ensuing disagreement. No. Modernity is where I stand.

“I would prefer a politician whose values chimed with the nation he or she sought to lead”, he writes, seemingly unaware that the Scottish nation (like every nation) disagrees on these matters. That’s what politics is. Invoking “the nation’s values” is a classic trope, designed to shortcut the need to negotiate. One would have thought that the last decade of “populist” politics might have disabused people like Farquharson of such notions, but apparently not.



There is no recognition that intelligent, moral, and thoughtful people might disagree over start of life, end of life, sexual relations, family structure, etc. These people are “ghouls”, “fundamentalist[s]”, “Covenanters”. There is no sense that their views might be tenable or defensible in a “modern” society, or that people might hold them for reasons other than atavistic conservatism, religious bigotry, or inchoate prejudice. Such beliefs are simply beyond the pale, not open to discussion or negotiation. The same goes for the people that hold them. Progressive views are right, end of discussion.

Or take his understanding of leadership. The highest level of politics is less about integrity, intelligence, diligence, vision, skills, ideas, etc. – the kind of thing that even Farquharson acknowledges Forbes has in spades. It’s about symbolism. Farquharson praises Nicola Sturgeon for being “a tremendous role model for young working–class women”. He commends Humza Yousaf for being “the first Muslim to lead a national government in the Western world”. He says the First Minister’s role is one in which you “personify the nation you lead”. What matters is less what you do, or your competence, or political vision. It’s who you are.

But, of course, no single individual can “personify” or represent an entire nation. Moreover, in a modern polity, nor should they. They are political officials, not presidents or crowned monarchs. Parliaments can and should. So should parties, though they rarely are these days. But to expect that of a First, or Prime Minister is absurd. Such a “performative” conception of leadership has become popular of late, fuelled by our obsession with identity politics, but it’s a shallow and painfully confused. The Scottish and indeed British populations are overwhelmingly white. By Farquharson’s tortured “personify the nation” logic, so, then, so their First/ Prime Ministers be.



The result of all this is confusion and hypocrisy. “I want a secular Scotland”, Farquharson claims, presumably imagining that he means a Scotland marked by a fairness when it comes to religious non/beliefs, but actually showing himself to mean a Scotland in which Tolerant Progressives can exclude those with whom they disagree without having to do that hard work of explaining why they are indefensibly wrong. “I want a Scotland marked by generosity of spirit”, he writes, again unaware that he has just written an article marked by intolerance, caricature, lack of generosity, and the near total absence of self–reflection.

If Kate Forbes does make First Minister, we will see many more pieces of this nature, and, to be honest, irrespective of whether she can bring her talents and achievements as Finance Minister to bear on the new job, I’d give her six months.

But I also have the sense that we are beginning to witness the death rattle of this kind of unreflective and rather self–righteous Progressivism. The sheer level of public bemusement, frustration and anger at the SNP’s spectacular mishandling of gender recognition and free speech; the sense that Progressive leaders are fixating on these culture war issues while most people are far more worried about economic insecurity, casual crime, and the like; and the belief that Tolerant Progressives are ever more likely to try to close down, cancel, deplatform, or otherwise silence those with whom they disagree is growing. For many people now, it is not Kate Forbes who scares them. It is those who insist that she, and people like her, are unfit for office.

Nick Spencer, Senior Fellow at Theos Think Tank, UK. This article was first published on the organisation's website and re-published with permission.




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