SNP leadership contest: Those crucifying Kate Forbes for her beliefs should heed the words of German anti-Nazi theologian Martin Niemöller – Murdo Fraser

There is a general rule in politics, as in war, that you should never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

On that basis, my approach to the current SNP leadership battle should be to sit back and observe with delicious detachment as the three contenders and their supporters knock lumps out of one another. It has been remarkable to see a party notorious for its iron-clad discipline for the last two decades now disintegrating into a bitter and personal civil war. It is as if the departure of Nicola Sturgeon has removed the cork from a bottle, with pent-up concerns and emotions suddenly given an outlet.

But this contest matters. It matters because the winner will not simply be SNP leader, but the First Minister of Scotland, a position in which we all have an interest. And it matters because of what the appalling treatment of Kate Forbes tells us about the state of public discourse in our country today.

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Forbes is a credible candidate to be First Minister. I shadowed her in her role as Finance Secretary and, compared to many of her Cabinet colleagues, she was in command of her brief and someone with whom it was possible to have a good working relationship, albeit we might fundamentally disagree across a range of issues.

Although young to be seeking the top job at just 32, she certainly appears to be a more capable candidate for the role of First Minister than either the hapless Humza Yousaf, who has failed in every government job he has ever held, or the virtually unknown Ash Regan. It is not, however, Forbes’ record in government that has become the talking point in this contest so far, rather it is her views on social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion which have dominated the headlines, to her and her team’s obvious frustration.

Forbes has been clear that she would not seek to change legislation in these areas, and that as First Minister she would be a servant of democracy. No, say her detractors, that is not enough. She is not even entitled to hold personal opinions of which the majority disapprove. Unless she disavows her personal faith-based beliefs, then she cannot possibly be considered as a candidate to lead Scotland’s government.

We have even seen, in a display of the most egregious spinelessness, some of Forbes’ original parliamentary backers withdrawing their support following negative headlines about her views. Given that anybody who has worked with her in parliament will have fully understood where she stands on moral issues, it is hard to understand why these individuals backed her in the first place.

This attitude goes right to the top. There will be a particular corner of Hell reserved for those SNP leadership figures who, whilst loudly proclaiming their own deep Christian faith, nevertheless announced that Forbes’ views – of which they would have been well aware when they sat beside her in Cabinet over many years – now ruled her out as a candidate to be First Minister.

Kate Forbes appeared to be in command of her brief as Finance Secretary (Picture: Robert Perry/Getty Images)Kate Forbes appeared to be in command of her brief as Finance Secretary (Picture: Robert Perry/Getty Images)
Kate Forbes appeared to be in command of her brief as Finance Secretary (Picture: Robert Perry/Getty Images)

The backlash against Forbes’ opinions has now been met with an equally strong counterblast, from those concerned about what this means for the place of people of faith in public life. Refreshingly, we have seen the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, the Church of Scotland, and representatives of the Muslim community, all united in speaking out in defence of a politician’s right to hold personal views on moral matters. As the Kirk put it firmly: “Scotland is a diverse, pluralistic society which includes people of many faiths and beliefs and it is right that we seek to treat one another with fairness and respect, especially when we hold a different opinion.”

None of this has stopped Forbes’ opponents from trying to capitalise on her difficulties, with Yousaf claiming that she cannot be trusted to stand up for equal rights for the LGBT community. The polls would suggest, however, that Forbes’ standing with the public has not been harmed by the row, perhaps because people are genuinely impressed to hear a politician be honest about their beliefs, even when they might personally disagree with them.

Some political colleagues of mine have been reluctant to defend Forbes in the public square, believing that the best outcome for unionists from this battle is a victory for Yousaf. In reality, I think it matters little now who wins this contest. Yousaf, the continuity candidate with a dismal track record, is unlikely to progress the independence cause where Sturgeon failed. And a victory for either Forbes or Regan is likely just to accentuate the splits we are already seeing within the SNP and the wider Yes movement, with the coalition with the Greens bound to disintegrate.

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To me, it is important that we defend the right of individuals in public life to practise their faith and stand by their beliefs. If we truly believe in a liberal, diverse, tolerant Scotland, then we should not countenance the silencing of minority views in line with an individual’s faith.

The German anti-Nazi theologian Martin Niemöller is now most famous for his poem which begins with the words, “First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist” and ends with the chilling phrase “then they came for me – and there was no-one left to speak for me”.

Kate Forbes’ detractors may well cheer today as part of the crowd as they watch her led away to a place of crucifixion for her beliefs. They should reflect that if the mob has its way on this occasion, at some future point it might be them who feel the pain of the nails being driven into their hands.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife



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