Voices: Why should Kate Forbes’ views on gay marriage disqualify her SNP leadership?

Voices: Why should Kate Forbes’ views on gay marriage disqualify her SNP leadership?

The one thing you have to concede about Kate Forbes, the Scottish finance minister running to replace Nicola Sturgeon, is that she possesses a bravery and honesty rarely glimpsed in politics. Asked an embarrassing and hypothetical – but nonetheless reasonable and apposite question – she didn’t behave as most of her counterparts do and dodge it. She went ahead and told the truth. No matter how damning.

The question was about gay or equal marriage and whether she’d have voted for it in the Scottish parliament in 2014 when it was enacted. It would have been easy to defect. Yet she admitted she would not have personally done so, on religious grounds: “Marriage between a man and a woman, that is what I practice. But I will not roll back on any rights that already exist in Scotland.”

Just in case that wasn’t sufficient to kill off her leadership bid, she’s now doubled down on illegitimacy, sex outside marriage and, perhaps inevitably, trans rights. Forbes states that transgender double rapist Isla Bryson “is a man”, and she does not support making it easier for 16 and 17-year-olds to change gender. Her faith also means she thinks having children outside of marriage is “wrong” and something she personally would “seek to avoid”, even if it’s fine for others: “It’s entirely up to them. It’s something that I would seek to avoid for me personally. But it doesn’t fuss me, it doesn’t put me up nor down. The choices that other people make is [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 practice.”

As a “wee free” (a member of the small Free Church of Scotland, and thus a tiny minority inside a majority religion of Christianity), those are her beliefs; and she doesn’t see why they should prevent her taking the top job in Scottish politics. I’d tend to agree. If it’s good enough for the preeminent European stateswoman of recent years, Angela Merkel, then its good enough for Forbes, as she explains: “I think the example that’s worth talking about here is Angela Merkel. Under Angela Merkel’s leadership, she held a vote on same-sex marriage, she implemented the results of that vote to introduce the legal right to equal marriage, but she voted in line with her conscience.”

At the same time, one of her rivals, Humza Yousaf also entered the debate, and with similar sentiments, though he’s on the other side of the argument to Forbes. The Scottish health secretary has said his Islamic faith doesn’t mean he isn’t able to make his own mind up about legislation: “I’m a supporter of equal marriage. Let me get to the crux of the issue that you’re asking me. I’m a Muslim. I’m somebody who’s proud of my faith. I’ll be fasting during Ramadan in a few weeks’ time.

“But what I don’t do is use my faith as a basis of legislation. What I do as a representative, as a leader, as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, is to bring forward policy and pursue it in the best interests of the country.”

It seems to me that both are right, and that personal religious or moral beliefs shouldn’t either force someone to vote for things that run counter to their conscience. They should not necessarily be under any obligation to oppose things that others, rightly or wrongly, say are against their beliefs. That is why the Merkel example is so powerful – and shows how the balance between private and public belief can be balanced. It was an example increasingly ignored by party activists in this country, as Tim Farron – an impeccable liberal and supporter of LGBT+ rights – discovered to his cost, a few years ago, when he got mixed up about whether gay sex was a sin. He quit the party leadership, he said, because “remaining faithful to Christ” was incompatible with the role.

It’s doubly regrettable, therefore, that so many traditional conscience issues are getting party politicised and tangled up in partisan and ideological (often fabricated) culture wars. These debates are sliding British politics towards the American model, where abortion, LGBT rights, gun control and religious tolerance are becoming polarised along party lines. It should, for example, be acceptable to be a devout Democrat and oppose abortion; or be a MAGA Trumpite and also believe in a woman’s right to choose – but it’s becoming increasingly difficult as faith groups align with political factions.

The SNP is the purest and most advanced symptom of this disease in British politics – even in Northern Ireland, the connection between religion and politics is waning. The SNP, despite its progressive pretensions, is about one thing, obviously: independence for Scotland. It’s a perfectly honourable cause, but the ideology of the SNP – exacerbated by Nicola Sturgeon’s self-confessed “divisive” style of politics – has tarnished it. You can surely be, say, in favour of a smaller state and less migration and still be a Scottish nationalist? And, even more so, you can be against equal marriage and trans women in female prisons and still want Scotland to leave the UK. Indeed, in my view you should be able to hold such a mix of political and personal views and hold a senior position in a party, even the leadership.

Yet such flexibility and tolerance seem alien to the party, and Sturgeon only added to the acrimony by tying the Gender Recognition Reform bill to the rights of the Scottish parliament to make law and the cause of independence. The very existence of Kate Forbes, a dedicated separatist in every way, is a standing indictment of that approach.

Politics, in other words, works best when debates are conducted on class interests – rather than on nationalism – and when personal issues of conscience are decided by free votes in legislatures (and, very occasionally, referendums). One party on the left, one on the right and a smaller one in the centre seems the natural order of human affairs. Mess with that and your politics becomes grotesquely distorted, as in Northern Ireland or, say, Quebec. That’s also why Brexit was such a difficult issue for the British political system to deal with, because it broke up so many of the old dividing lines. (Much good it has done us, too.)

It seems unfair to me that Forbes – who might prove to be a formidable figure and the best person to get Scotland free – will be denied the chance to achieve independence, simply because she doesn’t personally hold with gay marriage; even if she is still willing to follow and support the relevant law in favour of gay marriage passed by the Scottish parliament.