'We Don’t do God’: Religion, Progressive Politics and the Future of the SNP
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
In 2003, Tony Blair was famously prevented from answering an interview question about his religious beliefs by his Director of Communications Alistair Campbell who interrupted: ‘We don’t do God.’
Campbell grasped that for parties of the left, religion is a no-go zone. In the years since Blair left office, it’s not just progressives who are choosing to abstain from religion— a poll last year found that for the first time in its history, more people in Britain identify as
Kate Forbes, the finance minister who is one of the frontrunners in the race to replace Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland’s first minister, is about as devout a Christian as they come. She is the child of missionary parents and a committed member of the Free Church of Scotland – an evangelical Christian sect which opposes abortion and gay marriage.
Whereas her former boss made progressive reform one of the government’s top priorities, Forbes has said that she is not opposed to maintaining the practice of gay conversion therapy and claims that had she been an MSP at the time, she would not have voted in favour of the 2014 legislation on equal marriage (Forbes was elected in 2016).
In addition, despite committing to uphold the law guaranteeing access to an abortion, on multiple occasions Forbes has stopped short of agreeing with the principle of a woman’s right to choose. For a party whose voters are aligned with progressive causes, the ambivalence of her approach on the issue could be a deal-breaker. Since Sturgeon’s leadership, the party’s voters are now more likely to be young and female— both groups that are in general more progressive than the average voter. In 2021, 58% of those aged 16-34 and 52% of all female voters backed the SNP.
20 years later, Forbes has seen for herself the truth behind Campbell’s warning to Blair— religion and progressive politics just don’t mix. This was a problem that Tim Farron encountered as leader of the Liberal Democrats between 2015 and 2017. Farron was asked countless times during the 2017 campaign whether he believed gay sex was a sin, and eventually resigned on the grounds that he felt unable to reconcile the job with his Christian faith. Forbes and Farron have both faced scrutiny of their religious views because it puts them further to the right on many social issues.
More widely, there is a tension at the heart of the SNP. The bitterness of the conflict between the leadership candidates has exposed the difficulty that arises when a single-issue movement is faced with the task of governing. The candidates share a commitment to the principle of independence but have traded blows on almost everything else, from the Gender Recognition Act – the legislation passed by Sturgeon’s government in December making it easier for an individual to change their legal sex – to what Scotland’s route towards independence should look like.
Nicola Sturgeon successfully overcame this difficulty, primarily by treating the party that placed her in power as a vessel for her own personal brand. Her dominance of Scottish politics helped temporarily suppress the party’s differences because the prospect of her removal seemed so improbable. Yet none of those vying to be her successor have her star power and, given that the possibility of an independent Scotland still looks far off, the divisions that the contest have exposed will only become more pronounced.
Whether or not Forbes is elected leader, the controversy surrounding her religious views points towards the profound ambiguity in the SNP regarding every issue other than independence. As the party moves into its next era, the biggest challenge it will face will be how to reconcile these deep-set differences as it tries to get on with the task of government.