Criticism of Kate Forbes is about her suitability to lead, says senior SNP figure

Criticism of Kate Forbes’ views on equal marriage, transgender rights and sex outside marriage has nothing to do with faith but is about her suitability to lead the Scottish National party, according Scotland’s deputy first minister, John Swinney.

Swinney, one of the party’s most senior and respected figures, intervened as Humza Yousaf, Forbes’ leadership rival and frontrunner, suggested her views might not fit his “progressive vision” and prominent activists called for her to withdraw from the race.

Forbes, the finance secretary, who has been on maternity leave since last July, announced on Monday that she was standing to replace Nicola Sturgeon as party leader, after the first minister’s unexpected resignation last Wednesday.

She then undertook a series of interviews in which she was probed at length on her faith-informed views, and outlined positions that left many of her own supporters as well as LGBT+ members aghast, prompting a number of her most prominent backers to distance themselves from her campaign.

Swinney told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland that he “profoundly disagreed” with Forbes, who told reporters she would not have voted for the SNP’s equal marriage legislation had she been an MSP at the time, hours after launching her campaign.

“I’m a man of deep Christian faith, but I don’t hold the same views as Kate has set out in the course of the last couple of days. It’s been unhelpful that the debate has been focused on the question of faith because in my view, it’s got nothing to do with faith,” he said.

He pointed out that many churches, including the Church of Scotland, undertook same-sex marriages.

“Kate is perfectly entitled to express her views. The party members are equally entitled to decide if someone who holds those views will be an appropriate individual to be SNP leader and first minister,” Swinney went on. “So we can’t really have any complaints about the democratic airing and resolution of this question.”

Over the past 48 hours, Forbes has said freedom of practice for faith groups should be defended in Holyrood’s proposed ban on conversion practices, that having children outside of marriage would be “wrong, according to my faith”, and that she believes a trans woman is a “biological male who identifies as a woman”.

Yousaf – a practising Muslim who has said “I don’t legislate on the basis of my faith”, said on Monday that he would like Forbes to be a part of his cabinet should he become first minister.

On Wednesday morning, a spokesperson for Yousaf told the Courier: “Kate Forbes is a very competent and able individual. All governments operate on collective responsibility. That will be the case whoever wins this leadership contest. Humza’s vision for the future government of Scotland is a progressive one.”

Forbes is understood to be taking a step back from media engagements on Wednesday and is said to remain committed to seeing through the campaign.

The SNP’s policy convener, Tony Giuliano, said it was time for Forbes to consider withdrawing from the race.

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“Who gains from this? I don’t think Kate, the party or the cause gain from any of this. Because these questions will continue dominate the next five weeks, overshadowing everything else, including our drive for independence. And they would dominate a future general election campaign, too. Perhaps it’s now time to consider withdrawing from the race and prevent further damage to the party and the cause,” he said.

Although Forbes has argued that she holds “fairly mainstream views”, the former moderator of the Church of Scotland, Lorna Hood, said this interpretation was “disingenuous”.

Hood posted on Twitter: “I admire Kate Forbes being so open about her faith and respect her beliefs and her stance on moral issues as she understands them. However, to say mainstream Christianity teaches that marriage is between man and women is being disingenuous.”

With candidates having until Friday to secure the threshold of 100 nominations from at least 20 local branches, there has been some speculation that another candidate might emerge. But on Wednesday morning the social security minister, Ben Macpherson, who had been tipped as a last-minute contender, ruled himself out.

A spokesperson for the Free Church of Scotland said it was concerned at the level of “anti-Christian intolerance which has been displayed on social media, and by some political and media commentators. It is lamentable that Kate’s honest adherence to simple traditional values would, for some, disqualify her from contributing to the public good of Scotland.”

The third candidate to put herself forward for the role, Ash Regan, who resigned as a government minister over Holyrood’s gender recognition bill, is expected to hold a press launch on Friday.