Interview
Change
6 min read

"Nobody is neutral": Kate Forbes on her Christian faith and political future

Politician Kate Forbes knows how it feels when public life misunderstands a faith-led life. Robert Wright interviews her as she reflects on that experience and what next.

Robert is a journalist at the Financial Times.

 

A women stands beside in a corridor beside a large window through which a wing of a building and a distant hillside can be see,
Kate Forbes at Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament.

When Scotland’s then first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, unexpectedly announced her resignation in February, Kate Forbes was on maternity leave from her job as Scotland’s finance secretary. As such, Forbes, a committed Christian, had not made any public statements about politics in six months. 

Yet, reflecting on the campaign earlier this month, Forbes recalled how social and mainstream media were immediately “awash” with comments about why her religious convictions made her unfit to succeed Sturgeon. The controversy, much of it centred on Forbes’ membership of the small, theologically conservative Free Church of Scotland, continued throughout the subsequent election campaign. Most involved her stance on gay marriage and Scotland’s gender recognition legislation. 

Forbes discussed the campaign in an interview in her small office in the Scottish parliament building in Edinburgh – one of her first since the often fractious campaign. Forbes secured an unexpectedly strong 47.9 per cent of the vote after the elimination of the third-placed candidate, Ash Regan, and the redistribution of her second-preference votes. She now sits as a backbench Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch. Forbes rejected an offer from Humza Yousaf, the victor, the clear choice of the party establishment, of a cabinet job far more junior than her previous role. 

She started the discussion by challenging the idea – which she thought motivated some criticisms she faced - that atheists, agnostics and other non-believers were neutrals on questions of religious conviction. It was one of many points where Forbes used her experience to paint a picture of a public life where issues of faith and faithful people were increasingly marginalised and misunderstood. 

“Nobody is neutral. There’s this perception, which is flawed, that there are some people who are neutral and some people who have faith.” 

Everyone viewed the world through a philosophical framework, Forbes went on. It was critical to ensure people were not shut out of public debate on the basis of their philosophies, she said – just as it was important to avoid excluding people for their race, sex, sexual orientation or any of the other characteristics protected in law. 

Her comments explain the unusually frank approach that she took to matters of faith when asked during the campaign about her convictions – which she insists represent a “mainstream” Christian perspective on issues of personal morality. 

“I think that people of faith are under immense pressure to compromise or to change their views in the public spotlight. I think we have to logically and rationally walk through how we can both believe in a personal faith which calls us to be public witnesses to that faith and at the same time serve those with other faiths or no faith.” 

Forbes, now 33 and first elected in 2016, has said that she would have voted against gay marriage if she had been a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) in 2014 when the Scottish parliament voted to introduce the measure. However, she has insisted that, with the provision now on the statute books, she will defend it. 

“By and large, I absolutely believe in… freedom of choice, freedom of belief and of expression. I don’t believe my views should be imposed on other people.” 

Forbes nevertheless argued that there were issues of conscience where politicians should be allowed to make choices free from the normal party-political considerations. Forbes was on maternity leave in December when the gender recognition legislation came before parliament. The SNP denied its MSPs a free vote on the measure – a decision with which Forbes disagreed. The vote split all the main parties in the parliament. 

Little of the commentary during the leadership election captured the nuances of her positions. 

“The vote on marriage in 2014 was deemed to be a vote of conscience. My party has always held that issues around abortion should be votes of conscience. So, I think it’s possible to both believe that you legislate on behalf of everyone and treat everyone equally and make space for some votes of conscience, which are a consequence of strongly held views and convictions.” 

Forbes added that “without a shadow of a doubt” MSPs should be given a free vote on one forthcoming piece of legislation - the Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill. The bill, likely to come before parliament in the next few months, would allow terminally ill people over the age of 16 to ask for help in dying. 

“Matters of life and death are hugely important, hugely personal but have big public implications. You might think that’s a tension. But I have always been able to accommodate that tension.” 

There had never been any suggestion that Forbes’ faith led her to exclude any group from receiving funds when she was finance secretary, she added. 

“Of course, it did inform my care and concern for those in poverty, for those who are under-represented in society, for those who need more help than others,” she said. 

As her office filled with the noise of children enjoying their lunch break at the neighbouring Royal Mile Primary School, Forbes mostly sounded relaxed when talking about the leadership campaign. But she insisted she had felt subject to disproportionate scrutiny, particularly pointing to a leadership debate staged by Channel 4 which included a segment on “faith in politics”. 

“If you watch that clip, it’s basically the interrogation of Kate Forbes. There are very few questions put to the other candidates.” 

The imbalance, she said, rested on the false assumption that Yousaf, a practising Muslim, and Regan, who has no religion, took essentially neutral positions on faith questions. She said, however, that she had won support from many people of faith because of her willingness to speak openly. 

“I can remember one imam saying to me, ‘It’s given us hope to see you being true and authentic to your faith even when it’s difficult’,” Forbes recalled. 

Forbes, who grew up partly in India where her parents were missionaries, recalled how living through the Gujarat earthquake of 2001, when she was 10, helped to bring her to her own faith. The earthquake is estimated to have killed between around 14,000 and 20,000 people. 

“It was coming face to face with the realities of life and the realities of death that I started my own faith journey,”

Forbes became noticeably more animated when talking about the nature of her personal faith than at other times, when she sounded far more guarded. 

Her faith was not “a hobby like knitting or playing the guitar”, she added. 

“It’s a truth that compels me to be loving and caring and be willing to sacrifice my own life.”

For the moment, however, the questions facing Forbes are more humdrum. Forbes gave her interview before Yousaf warned MSPs to back Sturgeon, the former first minister, following her arrest in June on suspicion of fraud in an inquiry over the SNP’s finances. Sturgeon, who was released without charge, has vigorously denied any wrongdoing. 

Peter Murrell, Sturgeon’s husband, the former SNP chief executive, the first person arrested, and Colin Beattie, the party’s former treasurer, have also been released without charge. Both also deny any wrongdoing. 

Forbes accepted the arrests had been a “huge shock”. 

“I said after the second arrest… that integrity should characterise everything we do – and not just the substance of integrity but the perception.”

She also accepted there were limits to the areas where faith could guide her thinking. 

She declined to say whether Jesus would prefer Scotland to be independent or remain part of the union. 

“There’s no 11th commandment that decrees whether or not Scotland should in the union. I think what [God] cares about really is the values by which we live. So, you’re going to get no answer from me on that.” 

She sounded still less certain, meanwhile, about where her future career path would lead. 

She would continue as an MSP “for the foreseeable future”, she said. 

But she went on: “The honest answer is that I don’t know what to do next.” 

She had previously said it was “highly, highly unlikely” she would ever stand to be leader again, she added. 

“I still hold to that position,” she said, adding that she had family and constituency commitments. 

She added, nevertheless, that a sense of sacrificial calling was “ingrained” in her by her parents’ decision to leave Scotland in their 20s to serve a marginalised, impoverished community in India. 

“I wait to see, really, what I can and should do next.”

Interview
Change
War and peace
11 min read

Eye witness: life and death in Gaza’s European Hospital

Returning plastic surgeon Tim Goodacre reports on the struggles, the despair and the dignity of the people and the medics of Gaza during their long nightmare.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Medical staff stand beside a bed in which a man lies with an amputated leg.
Medics confer about a patient in Gaza's European Hospital.
Tim Goodacre

Tim Goodacre is a vastly experienced plastic surgeon who recently spent two weeks in a hospital in Khan Younis treating the extensive injuries of the people of Gaza. I caught up with him to ask about his experience there.  

Graham: Let me start by asking what was it like getting into Gaza? What was the process and how difficult was it to actually get in in the first place? 

Tim: We went in as an emergency medical team under the under the auspices of the World Health Organisation, which is coordinated with UN OCHR. It was easy obviously to get to Cairo. Then we joined a convoy, a group of cars convening in the small hours of the morning in Cairo and then being escorted across the Sinai desert. We got to the border in time for dusk. What was staggering at that stage was seeing the number of lorries lined up, waiting on the Egyptian side to get in. They were two deep on one side, one deep on the other with a thin passageway through which we could drive through for mile after mile after mile of these lorries. 

Was this humanitarian aid sent from other nations? 

Absolutely. It was aid labelled from different countries or agencies. Crossing Rafah the next morning was all pretty haphazard and chaotic, but we met our driver on the other side. We then had to travel to Khan Yunis on the coast road because it was the safest part of the south Gaza strip. We went through a route called the Philadelphia Road, which is a gap between the two borders. As we drove along, we immediately were jumped on by some young lads who had put razor wire across the road. We picked up two of them who hung onto the car each side, with our window s firmly shut. As we sped along, they were our ‘protectors’, taking a pitiful sum to ensure that we would not be stopped at further razor wire and our vehicle plundered. It was our first experience of the lawlessness that's inherent at the moment in Gaza. 

All along that side of the road there were people putting up new tents after a recent further mass displacement, as far as the eye could see. It made a huge impact on me - the devastating plight of the people who were there. It looked like those pictures of Glastonbury or Woodstock, where as far as you could see, the rolling fields or sand dunes or whatever were totally covered in makeshift dwellings. It was pretty cold and windy. And subsequently, while we were there, it rained an awful lot and your heart just went out to these people.  

So these were people living in tents and temporary shelters? 

 Well, not really. They're barely tents. They're just finding flimsy bits of wood, putting them up and nailing them together. And these are not just the very poorest of the poor. This is everybody. Many of them were people from very well-to-do houses whose families have been displaced. I've worked in many parts of the world where there's poverty, but I’ve never seen so many people displaced.  

One of the things that's remarkable however is the relative cleanliness, the desire to maintain dignity in the most appalling circumstances. But a young lad who’s now a young doctor (who I have worked with for a decade now) came to see me and he was the most dejected person I've ever met. He said to me ‘they've taken away my dignity’. The abject pain in his face was something that I won't forget.  

You’ve been to Gaza many times before. What was different about this time? And you've seen it in the aftermath of previous wars and conflicts. What was what was particularly different this time? 

 It's utterly different – it’s the displaced population with nowhere to go and seeking shelter. When I first went in 2014 after Operation Protective Edge, I was taken to a huge neighbourhood of northeast Gaza, which had been flattened and at the time the impact on me was extraordinary. When I’ve visited subsequently over the last decade, they will show you this bombed out building and that flattened area, but I've never seen such vast numbers of displaced people. On the second day we moved into the European Gaza Hospital (EGH), which is where we were going to stay for the two weeks we were there. Inching slowly along amidst endless hordes of people walking around, seeing the dejection, despair, the hopelessness with nowhere to go - this for me is what defines this whole episode and makes it very different from others. This is in no way a diminution of other conflicts and human tragedies, but when there was bombing in Baghdad or in Kiev and Ukraine, people might go into underground shelters - there are places they can perhaps go to escape. Even in massacres such as in Darfur or Congo, there are places to run to. There is nothing like that in Gaza. 

Was there a pattern to the kind of medical emergencies and wounds that you were having to deal with? 

 The vast majority of injuries were the impact of high explosives, so we naturally saw quite a lot of burns, although the majority of severe burns alone were being managed by the Red Cross team also at EGH. Some of them were people who had been crushed and pulled out of buildings which had collapsed. But that was that was the minority. The majority of our cases were direct results of bomb blasts. Every time you hear a bomb, somebody is being killed, yet many others are caught on the fringe of that. Shrapnel travels at astronomical speeds and hits people in in a completely random way. These injuries are devastating. There were scores of people coming in with limbs missing. Seeing somebody with a leg off at the thigh, a leg off below the knee, an arm ripped off was all too common. It was hard to take in - you have to become somewhat immune to the backstory behind each dreadful injury, and concentrate on the carnage in front of you, to be able to deal with the constant onslaught of cases. 

How were the medics coping with it? You were there for two weeks. They are there for months, presumably on end? 

 I think it's incredibly important that we don't focus on the visiting medics. I usually peeled off at about 9pm or so in the evening - I had to go to bed and had to have a rest, but there were people trying to work through the night. What I want to focus on is the local people, particularly a young colleague, Ahmed, who was 36 years-old. He was statesmanlike in his ability to pull things together. His family are actually mostly in Dublin as they've got Irish passports. I cannot tell you how much admiration I have for that young Gazan man who shared his room with me.  

He has been managing to create a team who work alongside him, since many of the staff who had worked at the hospital before (some of whom we had trained over several years in limb reconstruction) were not there. That is because they might not be alive, or having to support their displaced families, or simply are afraid to travel in daily to the hospital, or whatever. It is a huge demand on individual doctors to leave a family group (who invariably try to stay together, so that if they are bombed, they all die together and do not have to be a sole survivor.) to then work away from such possible loss of all their family members. It's an incredible sacrifice to be working in medical care when your family are all huddled together in a place where they may all lose their life, and that gets to them in the end.  

The orthopaedic side is almost on its knees. Most of the system in the hospital is utterly on its knees. There were early years medical students who had been taught quickly how to manage wounds and to skin graft. They haven't got any pay, but some people have given a little money to my colleague’s account to try and give them some support. There were IT students and all sorts of others pulling together. How people can work in in such adversity and make things happen is quite a testament to the to the strength of humanity.  

It all begins to play on your mind, and you start thinking is there another one coming? And you get no warning when the attacks are unleashed. 

What was it like living under the bombardment, which was presumably pretty constant during your time there? 

There may have been the odd period of four or five hours when there was no sound of close bombardment at all, although during that time there was probably small arms fire going on somewhere. But otherwise, it was relentless. One became somewhat used to the bombs in the distance, but when they're close by… Every time one of these bombs goes off, there are people dying. And that really that played on your mind. So huge numbers were seeking shelter anywhere in the vicinity of the hospital. If you can imagine a hospital corridor where every route is full of makeshift shelters, and you just go up around a stairwell and on the corner of each stair, there will be a family which will be hanging drapes up, trying to find some sort of privacy and dignity among the utter destitution.  

I found it very difficult to sleep during those times. The hospital is in a quadrant, a square. On one corner there was a supermarket which latterly was hit by an F16 delivered weapon. You could hear the sound of the rocket go off alongside the scream of the low flying fighter jet, and the whole building shook. There's also the incessant sound of drones. It all begins to play on your mind, and you start thinking is there another one coming? And you get no warning when the attacks are unleashed.  

It made me realise what soldiers undergo when they get what used to be called shell shock. There, even if you're not injured yourself, this constant shocking damage gets to you. I knew we had the knowledge that after a short time, we would be getting out - but it made me realise how tough Ahmed and others working there have to be. It will be having a devastating impact on the population, and for a nation.  

I imagine the psychological effects of that are going to last for a long time in the lives of these people. You don't get over that quickly. If you live with that level of tension, thinking any moment now, I could die, that must stay with you and the marks of that stay for a long time. 

I'm sure that's true. I'm not an expert in PTSD and things like that. Ahmed is a Muslim and said to me more than once that when you believe in an afterlife, you believe that your time will come at some point, and you accept that. We don't know when it is or where it is, but it will come. I have frequently wondered whether any of the fighter jet pilots have ever experienced themselves what it’s like to be underneath the impact of one of their weapons? Having felt somewhat what it is like to be on the other side of such an onslaught, I do wonder whether very many of those involved in ordering conflict really have any kind of understanding of what devastation feels like, when there is nowhere to run? I fear for what this conflict does to the humanity of both sides. 

I genuinely don't feel brave, I don't. I'm not the kind of person who sees lights in the sky, but I know it was God’s calling to go there. It was simply the right thing, 

Did you see any sign of hope or anything that gave you a sense of the way out of this? 

 The sense of hope is within the people who are there. There are many people who say they still really don't want to leave. They feel this passionately. It's their land. They do want to see a new Gaza. I tried to be somebody who lifted spirits. Communities can be rebuilt and there may be a new future which will come from the dust. I've been in touch with people in my University Medical school in Oxford to see whether we can do something about getting these young people's education continued.  

You can imagine there wasn’t a lot of laughter in the whole environment, but on the few occasions when I did gather together with my colleague’s small group of young students and volunteers, usually late into the night, we would eat whatever food goodies they had to hand, and their sense of fun would burst out. Together there was a very strong sense of community amongst them. 

How did your Christian faith inform the way you interacted with the situation? How did your Christian faith help you process what you were seeing and experiencing there? 

 I must say it was a deeply spiritual time for me. It was absolutely powerful to me to know that God cares and loves each and every one of these people. I longed to organise a football game with the kids. I was told that they had tried to do that, and it had become too dangerous. So there seemed to be no organisation around looking after the well-being of the children, their education, or the deeper impact on them of this war. People were jammed into the hospital, obviously because it was seen as a safe space, and it was humbling to think that us (as foreign workers) being there made them feel somewhat safer. It humbled me immensely.  

I felt nothing but a sense of privilege in being a witness to all this. I was reading the Psalms regularly in daily prayer. There's also something about that land being the place where God himself suffered in Christ and went through his own agony, and that the Holy Family escaped through Gaza to Egypt.  

I genuinely don't feel brave, I don't. I'm not the kind of person who sees lights in the sky, but I know it was God’s calling to go there. It was simply the right thing, a privilege and an honour to have such access which comes with having my particular background of skills and past history with Gaza. God is over all these matters, and we are compelled to respond. 

 

Tim Goodacre is a Reconstructive Plastic Surgeon based in Oxford, with extensive experience of working in diverse environments outside the UK. He is immediate past Vice President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.