At a time when our politics feels more tribal than ever, it is important to acknowledge the ‘good guys’ wherever they are to be found on the political spectrum. Kate Forbes, the newly-appointed Scottish Finance Secretary, falls into that category, in my opinion.
Kate entered parliament at the last election in 2016, after retaining the Ross, Skye and Lochaber seat for the SNP. To find herself now in Cabinet, in the key role overseeing the country’s finances, represents a meteoric rise, by any measure.
It has also been something of a baptism of fire, having been landed with the task of presenting the government’s budget to parliament earlier this month at less than 24 hours’ notice. This followed the dramatic news that her predecessor, and then boss, Derek Mackay had been forced to resign after revelations emerged that he had been bombarding a 16-year old boy with wholly inappropriate texts and messages over a six month period.
As meteoric as Kate Forbes’ political ascent has been, the implosion of Derek Mackay’s career has been even more breathtaking. Consistently touted as Nicola Sturgeon’s most likely successor as leader of the SNP, Mr Mackay now finds himself out of the Cabinet, out of the SNP and, one strongly suspects, soon to be out of the Scottish Parliament. It is a spectacular turn of events that caught everyone at Holyrood by surprise.
By contrast, the promotion of Kate Forbes, if not the speed at which it has happened, has been no great surprise. Bright, articulate and, crucially, able to forge relationships with MSPs across all parties, the new Finance Secretary was quickly identified by most observers as an obvious rising star.
While undoubtedly committed to independence, Kate Forbes wears her nationalism lightly. Unlike some of her colleagues, including many ministers, she avoids using the constitutional divisions to bludgeon opponents when responding to questions or taking part in debates in the Chamber. In general, this has allowed her to focus on the substance of the argument and made her contributions all the more effective.
That said, Kate Forbes will need these skills and more, given the challenges that lie ahead. She has inherited a budget from Derek Mackay that she will struggle to shape and which leaves local councils £200m short of the revenue and capital funding they need just to meet the cost of additional duties being placed on them by the Scottish Government. As the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities highlighted this week, “Make no mistake, councils and the services which communities rely upon will be at risk as a result of this budget”.
Of course, Derek Mackay has also landed his successor with a commitment to fair funding for Orkney and Shetland’s internal ferry services. Having earlier stated that ‘the provision of transport services should not place a disproportionate financial burden on any council, particularly with reference to revenue support for ferry services”, Mr Mackay then accepted the principle of fair funding in the 2018 budget in return for my support and that of my former colleague, Tavish Scott.
Since then, however, the Scottish Government has repeatedly short-changed both island authorities, this year to the tune of £5m. It is simply not credible to claim that you accept the principle of fair funding but argue that this must be re-negotiated each year, as some SNP MSPs have suggested, including ones that are supposed to represent the Highlands & Islands. At the very least, this calls into question the ability of Ministers to negotiate in good faith.
It is a point I will be reinforcing with Kate Forbes, when my Shetland colleague, Beatrice Wishart and I meet her this week. As an MSP representing Ross, Skye and Lochaber, the Finance Secretary will know the importance of lifeline transport links to island communities. I hope she will also recognise the importance of government honouring its commitments and not being seen to hold communities like Orkney and Shetland to ransom year after year.
Kate Forbes has earned cross party respect as an MSP. Delivery of fair ferry funding and support for new vessels on Orkney’s lifeline internal routes will go some way to showing what kind of Finance Secretary she aims to be.