PAmela MacKenzie presides over an enviable range of fillings at Batty’s Baps deli on Dingwall’s main street. “Kate Forbes has been really good in the field,” she says. “We are always forgotten in the Highlands, even on weather reports, but she gets things done.”
Winter is not yet over in the north of Scotland and the pavements are covered with chunks of unmelted snow. But the warmth that locals feel towards their MSP, who represents the vast Holyrood constituency of Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, and is now a favorite to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the Scottish National Party, is palpable.
“The Kate we know is always looking for an opportunity to help.” At the end of the main street is the National Hotel, where Gregg and Kathryn Brain reflect over coffee on the journey of the young woman who fought the deportation process “just minutes” after being elected.
“She went from being one of the youngest MSPs to delivering the budget with hours to spare,” adds Kathryn, recalling the moment in 2020 when Forbes replaced former finance minister Derek Mackay, seeding her reputation for economic competence. .
Despite their evident affection for Forbes, the couple, both members of the SNP, have yet to decide who they will support in the leadership election. The choice is between Forbes, which promises a “reset” but lost prominent supporters when he opposed same-sex marriage and abortion as a member of the conservative Free Church of Scotland, health secretary Humza Yousaf, who enjoys the majority of support from MSPs and is considered the continuity candidate, or outlier Ash Regan.
The Brains represent a significant minority of swingers who are key to a race described as existential in terms of its impact on the party’s future ethos, policies and independence strategy.
It was to that group that Forbes appealed squarely on Saturday, as the party fell into turmoil when its chief executive – and Sturgeon’s husband – Peter Murrell resigned along with media chief Murray Foote in a growing dispute over transparency about the numbers of party members.
Forbes promised to “restore trust and transparency” to the party’s internal dealings, but Ken Gowans, councilor for Inverness South and a party member for half a century, says “his honesty, integrity and ability to communicate with a variety of people ” broaden her appeal far beyond the members: “If you look at the polls, she is the candidate with the support of the general public.”
While he insists that “there is no such thing as a typical SNP member”, he also advises ignoring the loud online endorsements: “What is missing from social media is the broad swaths of moderates in the middle and they will be the ones to decide”.
The finance secretary, still technically on maternity leave, spent much of her childhood in Dingwall, a town northwest of Inverness, and is now raising her baby daughter with her husband, Ali, in a nearby village.
Everyone agrees that she has a local advantage – some members say they are surprised that many find her social views less shocking because they know her; others suggest that her fluency in Gaelic gives her a direct connection to thousands of people, particularly on the west coast.
There is a distinct frustration among members of the Highland SNP that the leadership race has not gone far enough beyond the central belt, a reflection of Sturgeon’s ‘urban base in central Scotland’ approach. A Gaelic-speaking Highlander in Bute House would bring a sharper focus to rural concerns such as public transport, ferries, depopulation and a lack of affordable housing, they believe.
But while these members face geospecific challenges — one is struggling to make the 100-mile round trip to the nearest hustles after canceling his vehicle in a deer accident — they are also struggling with the same issues as members. across Scotland.
Sturgeon was so popular for so long that some members are still reeling from his resignation, one suggests, but the clear differences between the two leaders on economic and social issues “energized” and “renewed” the members. Others found Forbes and Regan’s attacks on Sturgeon’s record, and their insinuations of impropriety in the election process last week (which were derided as “Trumpian” by colleagues), as “extremely disappointing”.
Some believe the party can continue as a “great church”, uniting divergent views under the umbrella of independence. But younger members in particular say they had to dump Forbes because of its stance on LGBTQ+ equality, while others praise its insistence that transgender law reform is not a priority for most voters.
Sue Lyons, who set up the Highland Women for Independence branch during the 2014 referendum campaign and is supporting Humza Yousaf, is worried about possible fractures.
“Framing Kate’s views as questions of conscience fails to take into account how fundamental these questions are to me. I’m just not sure I could stay in a party that isn’t fully committed to equality and abortion rights.”
Others dispute the terms. “It’s interesting that as soon as you start thinking about business, you’re described as right-wing,” muses architect Neil Sutherland, director of sustainable building firm Makar, based in Inverness, where Forbes recently made a campaign visit. “Kate has been talking about wealth creation, which is hugely important for Scotland, which is economically weak and has much more potential.”
Sutherland is also one of those who suggest that Forbes’ faith-based views are handled more pragmatically in the Highlands, where the integration of church and community means people find ways to relate to one another out of sheer necessity. Likewise, Kathryn Brain describes how locals of all religions and none came together to support their family. There is certainly a hedge around what some interpret as urban condescension towards Highland belief.
“The contemporary church is very different from the perception,” says Reverend Calum Iain Macleod, minister of Ferintosh and Resolis Free Church, which officiated at the 2021 Forbes wedding. “Each church community has its ecclesiastical DNA, but we recognize that we are ministering in the 21st century”.
While Forbes has been heavily criticized for its past opposition to the ordination of women in the Free Church, Macleod says the current congregation of up to 100 includes women in the music group and welcoming staff, while the pastoral support group is run by women. “In terms of equality, it is a very balanced ship.” While there are no gay members, “as a church community, we would never exclude anyone.”
Though Forbes prerecorded its interviews for this week’s political Sunday programs, Macleod insists the church has moved away from a strictly Sabbatarian mindset. “It’s just common sense. I don’t think Kate is going to get off the phone on Sundays.