Forbes is Farron revisited: the pitfalls and perils of combining religion and politics


The case of Kate Forbes and her seemingly doomed pitch for the leadership of the Scottish National Party (SNP) is filling many column inches.

Ben Rich has published one perspective on the issues. He titles his piece “Is a single, settled religious issue really the basis on which to veto political leadership?” He also comments that “the scorn of the secular commentators for its power [to drive social action] is to disavow the actions of our numerous religious institutions.”

In this piece I would like to frame the issues somewhat differently.

Acceptance of people’s religious faiths and how they personally choose to interpret such faith is a well-established cultural and political position in the UK – except that religious beliefs are not an acceptable reason to flout the laws of the land. 

There has been much progress in making sure that people with different religious beliefs are not held back from achieving high office. We have a Hindu Prime Minister, have had Catholic ones, we have a Muslim Mayor of London – and on it goes. The evidence is overwhelming – though doubtless we can continue to improve. 

But the issue with Forbes, and indeed with Tim Farron before her, is not that. The issue is whether, in a secular, multi-faith society those elected to high office should be guided by their own specific religious beliefs when making policy for the whole population.

Also whether specific religious beliefs, and one’s own personal interpretation of them, is a private matter, or whether it is appropriate as a subject of political statements that can sound uncomfortably close to preaching from the pulpit. 

I suggest that people’s discomfort with Forbes and Farron are not a result of their religious belief. Rather it is a result that they may choose their own religious interpretations in driving the direction of policy. They may well deny such a thing but are such denials credible when the first thing that Forbes does is to wear her religion on her sleeve and state clearly that she does not agree with what is settled policy both in Scotland and in the UK as a whole?

It doesn’t have to be like that.

Tony Blair was a Catholic. He devoted a lot of effort to ensure that there was never any hint that his own personal belief system would influence the direction of policy. He thought that religion was a private matter and had no role in the discharge of his duty in affairs of state.

At the time, many advised Farron to adopt the same approach. He refused. He wanted to make his religious beliefs one of the centrepieces of his leadership. With predictably disastrous consequences. Forbes is Farron revisited.

The British people are not, in general, religious bigots. They largely accept everyone’s right to hold and practice their own beliefs.

But where they do tend to draw the line is when they believe that such personal religious beliefs risk being imposed upon them by their political leaders. It all raises the spectre of revived pre-Enlightenment thinking.

Ben asks: “Don’t we want to know what is driving our political leaders?”

That is exactly the problem. We do!

When Forbes launches her campaign with policy statements explicitly rooted in her religion, the assumption (or at least the concern) is that her personal religious beliefs will drive her policy agenda. When she denies that, people are confused and unconvinced.

The combination of religious strutting followed by denial of its potential impact on policy direction means that voters are left with no idea of what is really driving such political leaders.

They stop trusting them. And maybe rightly so.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. dermot2105 says

    Just to note that Blair did not become a Catholic until after he left office and as far as I know no Catholic has ever been a Prime Minister and I am not sure if it is allowed under our legislation. However, your argument against Forbes (who seems to be topping the polls in spite of the controversy this week or perhaps because of it or maybe she is seen as a more powerful pro-independence leader than the other candidates) I think misses the point. She said that she would have voted against same-sex marriage. I don’t see how that comes anywhere close to trying to impose a religious view on the country given that hers was only one vote.

  2. Ben Rich says

    At no stage did Tim (or Kate to the best of my knowledge) seek to “make their religious beliefs the centrepieces of their leaderships”. I can assure you Tim would rather not have discussed his religious beliefs at all but he wouldn’t lie about his theology either even though that would have been the easy way out. Furthermore Tim, unlike Forbes, was very very clear that people should be “free to live how they wanted to live and love who they loved” and has a record of voting accordingly, regardless of his personal theology. He was explicit that his religious beliefs were not the basis for his political policies. Despite this time and again the media obsessively asked him about his religious beliefs and when he refused to answer on the basis that he was “not running to be Archbishop of Canterbury” they criticised him for that.

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