The problem with faith in leadership

by | 21 Feb 2023

What is happening to Kate Forbes just now was inevitable, and yet it is still utterly dispiriting. She needs a way out now because she still has much to offer Scotland.

One of my very favourite stories when it comes to considering political strategy is the George Lucas/Harrison Ford exchange during the filming of Start Wars. I know I use this quite a lot but for those who don’t know, Harrison Ford famously told the film’s director and writer George Lucas “George, you can type this shit, but you can’t say it!”.

That quote has been right at the forefront of my mind since speculation that Kate Forbes was a potential First Minister. I have spoken to people close to Kate and when I raised the faith issue with them they talked me through various pre-prepared lines. I kept thinking ‘you can type this stuff for her, but just wait until you see what it looks like when she says it’. And now we know.

I want to make clear at this point that there are people I know, rate and respect who are fans of Kate Forbes and that counts for me. I still have worries that she’s ‘Freeport Kate’, much to close to the big accounting firms and distinctly right of centre on the economy. But I have no hostility to her and because she has the endorsement of people I rate I have been keeping an open mind.

But I have never believed hers was a viable candidacy, for a single simple reason – she can’t represent her party on important issues which are absolutely crucial to the contemporary image of the SNP.

I can actually hear her strategists in a room discussing all the clever ways they can get round this. A few prepared lines, a willingness to take the pain upfront so she can then segue into territory where she’s stronger, play open and listening and understanding that she’s in a minority. I can virtually see what they’re scribbling on whiteboards.

But I told people close to her it wouldn’t work and they were kidding themselves on and it would not go like they thought. A good strategist in that room would have said the same thing.

So why? Why can’t this be squared off? The answer is simple; this is politics. You ask for and expect things from politicians that you don’t from normal people. For an ordinary person their religious freedom means they can believe anything they want – but it isn’t immunity, they still have to answer for their actions. It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

But with politicians its not just actions, its intentions. When you’re a private individual your opinions are yours, but when you’re a public figure they’re fair game. Kate Forbes’ faith does not give her immunity for answering to her opinions and that means she was never going to be able to outrun this problem.

This is politics – you ask for and expect things from politicians that you don’t from normal people

And this is important. I know some people have said that faith is a personal issue. And that is true for people who believe in god but do not follow up with a theological approach to how they live their life. But when a religious faith is directly impacting on the decision-making process of someone who is making decisions about our lives, we have a right to know.

Forbes has been public about the way in which she literally listens for guidance from her god. Again, that’s fine, but I don’t know who her god is (everyone has their own interpretation of the god they think they are answering to) and if she wants me to vote for her I want to know who is whispering in her ear (or soul or whatever).

And this is the problem; in many ways I think Kate Forbes could be really good for the independence movement, but her god seems to be an intolerant figure. If she’s going to keep listening to him (I’m assuming she believes in a patriarchal god given her literalism about the bible as translated) then I’m worried that his intolerance may lead her to make decision in the future which give me problems.

A Marxist has to answer for a sincere belief in Marxism, a market fundamentalist is expected to defend the principles of free market economics, a feminist can’t expect not to be questioned about what feminism means for how they will go about their business. These are all ideologies and ideologies matter in politics.

I know (again) that the strategists around her will be telling her to compartmentalise her social attitudes, to quarantine them from the stuff she actually wants to talk about. But I’m afraid that it’s not just what you believe that is a legitimate question but what it is that made you believe it.

If she can think there is a moral imperative to oppose gay marriage, what else will we later find out she believes to be a moral imperative? Where else might the views that led to opposition to the marriage between two consenting same-sex adults lead her next? Suggesting it is illegitimate for people to ask her this is for the birds.

And what if she wins? That leads to the next two problems. First, this will never, ever go away. This doesn’t ‘burn itself out’. In three months Forbes will still think it is wrong to have children out of wedlock (eh, like my children…). In six months Forbes will still think it is wrong to have children out of wedlock. In 12 months…

She will never, ever be able to stop talking about this. Ever. A decade from now journalists will still be asking this question on rotation. A Kate Forbes leadership becomes a leadership defined by what are these days considered extreme religious views.

No-one can lead a party whose policies they fundamentally disagree with and who’s views are miles away from the public mainstream

The second problem is that she becomes pretty incapable of imposing party discipline. If she has a moral get-out from following party policy, are colleagues with moral problems over Freeports able to defy her at will? How can the words ‘collective responsibility’ credibly pass her lips? Most parties have tolerance for a few people to break the whip over religious sensibilities – but they can’t actually lead the party.

If you doubt me there has been an experiment on this. That experiment is called Tim Farron. His strategists also told him he could compartmentalise this stuff, get out beyond it, focus on his positives and all the rest. It was only 18 months later after wall-to-wall interviews where he had to justify an anti-abortion stance when everyone (really, everyone) could see he was not viable.

All of this is a shame. Kate Forbes and I may not align completely on economic issues but I think she is an intelligent, capable and in many ways exciting young politician. She could have done serious things. If she doesn’t get expelled from the party now (which the party’s own intolerant and frankly corrupt rules suggest she must be), she might still be able to.

But not as leader. No-one can lead a party whose policies they fundamentally disagree with and who’s views are miles away from the public mainstream.

I hope the Forbes camp sees sense and withdraws her candidacy while she is still a viable cabinet member (and honestly, if further probing elicits more extreme religious views she may end up not even that). Forbes has a lot to offer Scotland.

In the end, for me, this is a lesson in bad advice. Religion in politics is hard to manage. Fundamentalist religious views are fundamentally hard to manage. You can’t be a public figure and dodge scrutiny over your moral positioning.

I don’t know who told her she could survive her views being exposed and challenged. That was never realistic. As she reads out perfectly good defence lines on broadcast interviews, someone reading in transcript might have bought it. Sadly somebody seeing it will take only seconds to conclude that this isn’t working out.

Because, in the end, you can type this shit George, but you can’t say it. The damage this has done to Kate Forbes as a person is something that gives me very real, very genuine sadness. None of us are better off for what looks like the unravelling of the Forbes candidacy. But that doesn’t change the political gravity.

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