AS I SEE IT: TERRY MURDEN says the new SNP leader can bring fresh thinking, but must tackle some age-old problems
They say you start noticing that you’re getting old when policemen start to look younger. The same might be said about politicians. Kate Forbes, one of three candidates to be the new leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister, not only describes herself as “fresh faced”, she is less than half my age and younger than my eldest daughter.
Age, however, should be no barrier to early achievement or success. Sir Matt Busby, the Scot who nurtured the Busby Babes at Manchester United, famously said: “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.” The opposite, of course, is not necessarily the case.
Sir Matt’s words are still inscribed on the wall in the Old Trafford changing rooms and would be an apt slogan for two of the leading contenders in the SNP leadership race. At 32, Ms Forbes is twenty years younger than the outgoing leader. Her main rival, Humza Yousaf is 37. They are of the generation that first read the Harry Potter books and as such they will be seeking to sprinkle some magic over Holyrood that will reflect the values of a younger demographic.
Both have held jobs at the top of the Scottish Government, so what they may lack in years they make up for in Cabinet experience, a factor that may hinder the chances of Ash Regan, 48, the third candidate in the contest. The former Minister for Community Safety has only been in parliament since 2016 and will need to draw on other qualities and experiences to convince her party that she has what it takes to lead them and the country.
Yet there is still more we need to know about the two frontrunners. Ms Forbes,who also entered parliament in 2016, will draw the most attention and the most scrutiny. She is Cambridge educated and a member of the Free Church and her moral standpoints are already proving a potential barrier to her chances.
While her role in government has focused on crunching the numbers and making some hard decisions about who gets what, she can be expected to lace her leadership campaign with a moral code. That is already evident from her admission that she opposes same-sex marriage and, had she not been on maternity leave, she would not have supported the gender reform bill in its current form. It would almost certainly have led to her sacrificing her position in government.
She was marked out as a potential successor to Nicola Sturgeon from the moment she delivered the disgraced Derek Mackay’s budget in 2020. The night before he was due to address parliament, Mr Mackay was forced to resign over allegations concerning his private life. Ms Forbes took on the responsibility and presented the statement so comfortably it was as if she had been preparing and rehearsing it for weeks.
While some believe she understands the workings of the economy and business less than she would have us believe, her three years as Finance Secretary have exposed her to what company leaders and economists say is required. They will be relentless in demanding a greater focus on growth, whoever gets the job, though Ms Forbes has been guilty of resorting to blaming Westminster when the numbers have fallen short. This will not wash for too much longer and is an SNP habit that the new leader will need to shake off.
Ms Forbes has named the economy among her priorities and will be mindful of criticism from the business community that the SNP under Ms Sturgeon focused too heavily on the social agenda, burdening the country with nice-to-have but ultimately costly programmes that have proved a deadweight for the taxpayer.
For all the initiatives, advisory groups and funding schemes, there has been little movement in Scotland’s productivity and company creation figures. It can be argued with some justification that this is a result of the government’s limited powers, but there is also a case for saying the powers it does possess have not been used wisely or boldly enough.
Mr Yousaf can count three previous departmental roles before his current post at Health, though none has been hailed as particularly successful and some have been seen as downright flops. As such, his experiences may not count much in his favour and will be targeted with some relish by his opponents. With no hands-on role in economic and financial affairs, the business community may be wary of entrusting him with the top job. His muslim beliefs have thus far escaped any comment, perhaps because he does not wear his religion on his sleeve like Ms Forbes.
He has already opened the door to his past by reminding us that his late grandfather arrived in Scotland from Pakistan barely able to speak English. His grandson is now hoping to become the first leader of the country from an ethnic background, an ambition he shares with Labour leader Anas Sarwar.
Until her potentially damaging comments about same-sex marriage, Ms Forbes had been the candidate that the opposition fears most and they will have been secretly hoping that as a young mother she may have viewed the contest as coming too soon. However, such opportunities do not come around too often and confirmation on Monday that she was standing was accompanied by a short video, indicating that she had wasted little time since Ms Sturgeon’s announcement to prepare herself for the campaign.
An Ipsos poll on Friday gave her a clear lead over Mr Yousaf with 31% believing she would do a good job as opposed to his 20%. However, a third (32%) also said they don’t know who she is and the latest revelations are already counting against her. This seems at odds with a country which, by and large, allows those with differing religious views to live and work happily side by side.
Nonetheless, the controversy creates a lot of uncertainty and the next polls may show it has dented Ms Forbes’ chances. Even so, as the Tory leadership election last summer showed, polls and expectations do not always correlate. Rishi Sunak was expected to beat his rival Liz Truss, but democracy proved it can be the Great Pretender. To borrow another phrase from the world of football that Sir Matt Busby would recognise, politics can be a funny old game.
Terry Murden held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business