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Whisper it, but your religious views do matter in modern British politics

It is not often that challenging what many hold to be a fundamental human right makes sense. In the case of Kate Forbes’s candidacy for the leadership of the Scottish National Party, her right to religious freedom does not leave her protected from some justified cause for concern.

Before her leadership bid had even begun, it was dominated by one central problem: could a politician from a left-of-centre party in modern Britain stand for First Minister of Scotland, when they do not support gay marriage, think abortion in any circumstances and even rape is wrong, and even personally disagree with the practice of sex before marriage. As to be expected, there was an immediate backlash. Mhairi Black MP, the Deputy Leader of the SNP in the House of Commons, describing Kate Forbes’s views as ‘showing inteolerance’ and having ‘alienated swathes of the population’. She is, as you would expect, backing Forbes’ main rival Humza Yousaf. Even before these criticisms begun to appear in the public domain, there was almost a preemptive counter-outrage by those arguing that she had the right to hold those views because freedom of religion and expression is an important part of our democracy. They did, indeed, have a point that attacks on religious views appear, at times, to be selective. The parts of the media, who have attacked her conservative Christian beliefs, have been markedly absent in probing Hamza Yousaf’s own Muslim faith and the fact he missed the gay marriage vote in the Scottish Parliament.

Kate Forbes seems to have fallen victim to the Tim Farron trap: that asking Christian politicians from liberal parties whether they think widely-accepted liberal practices are a sin, makes good headlines and seems to reveal a hypocrisy about their own political affiliations. We do not, for example, spend much time wondering and asking if certain Conservative party backbench Christian politicians think homosexuality is sin. Perhaps this is because we already know that some of them do: 136 Conservative MPs voted against the (Conservative) Government’s same-sex marriage legislation in 2013. There is, however, another reason why we do not quiz backbenchers about their religious views or even or even why Kate Forbes did not have this scrutiny when she appointed Finance Secretary under Nicholas Sturgeon in 2020. That is because those who are seeking the highest of offices come to represent more than simply what is on their manifesto.

There is a fundamental question to contend with: should your religious views, as a matter of course, bar you from political leadership? The answer to that is, obviously, no. It would be untenable to examine the religious conscience of every political contender for a leadership position and simply bar those with Christian beliefs. But, do certain religious views potentially undermine one’s credibility as a leader of modern Britain? The answer to that is a tentative, whispered yes. Britain is fundamentally a tolerant country. We overwhelming support same-sex marriage, sex before marriage, and the right of women to an abortion. Transitioning from being a member of government or a backbench MP to a leader of a nation with these values, makes you a representative for the whole country and the values it holds. The unspoken truth is that despite the importance of religious freedom, it just does not work as a leader of modern Britain when you hold social views that many see as illiberal and that exclude valued minority communities.

Why is this an unspoken truth? Because there is a fundamental hypocrisy at the core of those who are defending Kate Forbes's right to her religious views: while they argue she is allowed to express her Christian beliefs, they condemn those who surely have their own right to say that those views disqualify her from high office. Although, polling does suggest that Kate Forbes is still the most popular leadership candidate, and at 30% that number is hardly conducive of wild enthusiasm for her leadership bid, a contingent of SNP LGBTQ+ parliamentarians have also bandied together to support Hamza Yousaf, as the ‘only Leadership candidate who has committed to protect, strengthen and celebrate’ LGBTQ+ rights. If Kate Forbes does become the next First Minister of Scotland, it would not be wrong for these LGBTQ+ political representatives and activists to fear the damage it could do. For Scottish adolescents, for example, who are struggling with their own sexual orientation, it could be devastating to see someone elected to the highest position in the land who believes that their very sexual inclinations are a sin. That is not the kind of inclusive language and leadership that is going to help these young people, or even adults, win the battle to accept their sexuality. Kate Forbes’ views do not offer the kind of leadership that will alleviate potential guilt from women who have had an abortion, or that will stop pro-life activists intimidating vulnerable women. Religious views do matter in British politics because the voters and media accept that there are values that define modern Britain and therefore need to define its leaders.

There is, however, an incontrovertible tension, that as a society we support the right of religious freedom, and the right to freedom of speech to express it, yet certain religious views seem to undermine a politician’s suitability for political leadership. This tension lies, ultimately, in the fundamental conundrum of the SNP. Which is that for decades it has been the only significant pro-independence party, while also becoming entrenched in left-wing politics. The SNP, alongside Labour, the Conservatives and others, are identifiable by their values on economic issues and on social issues: the two spectrums of political thought that constitute party politics. What voters and the public have come to expect from the SNP is a further-left representation of the Labour Party, with economically and socially left principles, with the added central pillar of support for Scottish independence. What has fundamentally taken place in the SNP leadership contest is that Kate Forbes and those with her social views in the SNP have been exposed as politically homeless. The current Finance Secretary has left-wing economic views, which is why she has had popular success in that post. Yet, her socially conservative beliefs do not belong in the party that she has had little choice but to support, because her core political principle is one in favour of Scottish independence. Kate Forbes, and her Christian, socially conservative values, would have more legitimacy in our politics if the Scottish independence movement had not become centralized around one political party, which by necessity has defined itself by one particular political ideology. Kate Forbes may yet come to lead her party, but her position at the top will only expose this tension within the SNP. Far from ending scrutiny over her religious views, the election of Kate Forbes will only intensify it, and if we do live in a modern liberal Britain, that will be deservedly so.

Featured image: Mark in Glasgow Southside at Flickr