We all know leadership races move fast, politics over the last year has seen a litany of bookies favourites quickly fall flat over a misplaced comment or a dodgy photo dredged up from their past. In the last week we’ve found out this is no less true north of the border. In the wake of Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, the SNP’s Finance Secretary Kate Forbes quickly emerged as the front runner to replace her. Young, talented and popular within the party, Forbes seemed like the obvious candidate. There was just one problem – her religion.
This should have come as no surprise, after all Forbes’ beliefs and her membership of the Free Church of Scotland were no secret. However, she seemed wholly unprepared for the inevitable questions on her stances surrounding issues such as gay marriage and the very pressing topic of children born outside of wedlock, failing to handle them in a way that placated a party membership, many of whom believe the opposite to her.
Regardless of how well or badly Forbes has handled these questions, they have once again raised old questions about whether you can simultaneously hold strong religious beliefs and high office at the same time in modern politics. After all, we’re meant to live in a liberal and tolerant society and, as long as they don’t foist them on others, our politicians should be judged solely on their ability to do the job.
But from Alastair Campbell famously declaring in the 90s that ‘we don’t do God’ to Tim Farron’s evisceration as leader of the Liberal Democrats over his views on homosexuality, religion remains an issue that needs to be handled with care for anyone hoping to reach the top. Allow it to become the thing that defines you as a politician and it will become an inescapable distraction, brought up time and time again by anyone with a desire to get under your skin.
Does this mean you simply can’t be religious and hold high office in modern Britain? There are examples of deeply religious people doing perfectly well. Look at Rishi Sunak, there’s a lot of things that have made him unpopular since he took over as leader, but his devout faith is certainly not one of them. Granted the focus tends to be towards Christians, but then there’s Jacob Rees-Mogg. Rees-Mogg is a devout Catholic, and it certainly hasn’t held him back within his party. Forbes herself became Finance Minister in the Scottish Government at just 29.
So maybe the issue comes down to the parties themselves. All major parties in British politics are broad churches, but none more so than the SNP. The SNP has always been a diverse coalition of different interests from the religious right to far-left, brought together by the sole shared interest of Independence. Perhaps for Kate Forbes, her biggest problem has simply been one of timing. A party in a time of crisis needs someone who can appeal to all wings and hold it together, not someone from the fringes.
There’s also an argument to be made that religious beliefs can be a positive, they can provide politicians with a sense of conviction and guiding principles that drive them to get into politics in the first place. Ultimately, what people don’t want is those religious beliefs guiding decision making. A YouGov poll from 2017 suggested 65% of people think leaders should keep religious beliefs separate from their decision making. But holding religious beliefs isn’t something that, on its own, can scupper a political career. Rather, it’s just another piece of baggage that all politicians carry that needs to be effectively balanced to succeed.