Kate Forbes on her 'dream job' as Scots finance secretary

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Kate ForbesImage source, Getty Images

Kate Forbes is set to become the first woman to pass a budget bill at Holyrood, having been dropped into the job on the very day the plans were to be set out.

The new finance secretary spoke to BBC Scotland about her "dream job", the moment she was asked to deliver a budget with seven hours notice, and bookies making her one of the favourites to become first minister.

In many ways, Kate Forbes already had her dream job - as MSP for her local area.

"I love the Highlands," she said. "I love its language, its culture, its heritage, and its a great privilege for me to represent the people I love in these communities."

However her rapid rise through the ranks of government has seen the former accountant promoted to the top of the finance portfolio before her 30th birthday - and already has some at Holyrood tipping her even higher office.

Image source, Kate Forbes
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Ms Forbes was raised in the west of Scotland, in the area she now represents

Ms Forbes had an unusual upbringing, split between the west of Scotland and India, where her father worked for charities providing healthcare through mission hospitals.

She went to a Gaelic-medium school in Scotland, and said becoming "accidentally bilingual" had "enriched" her life and opened up new opportunities to her.

Meanwhile her two spells in India during her "formative" years were "a shock to the system".

"There were 60 in a class, all sat in rows, where you still got the belt if you didn't do well," she said. "I had some exposure to that, which was very different to kids who have grown up just in the Scottish education system".

Image source, Kate Forbes
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Ms Forbes (centre) had two spells being schooled in India during her "formative years"

Ms Forbes went from Dingwall Academy to Cambridge University - partly because "somebody told me I'd never get in, so I thought I'd prove them wrong".

At a university with few if any Highland students she was often the "odd one out", but she said she "absolutely loved it".

She said: "I thrive on that. I love building bridges and meeting people that are different to me, and Cambridge was just another sphere in which to do that."

After working as an accountant in the banking sector, she got into politics "by accident" - although one of her teachers in India wrote on her report card when she was 13 that the only job that would every satisfy her would be "debating in the Scottish Parliament".

Image source, Kate Forbes
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Ms Forbes "loved" her time at Cambridge University

Ms Forbes had worked as an assistant to Dave Thomson, the MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch. When he announced he was stepping down from Holyrood in 2016, she was selected to replace him as SNP candidate.

The 26-year-old increased the SNP's share of the vote in the seat, holding it with a comfortable 24.8% majority.

As a backbencher, she quickly made a name for herself by campaigning to ban plastic straws and by delivering a speech in the Holyrood chamber entirely in Gaelic.

She entered government as public finance minister in 2018 - working alongside Derek Mackay, the man she would go on to succeed as finance secretary.

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Ms Forbes increased the SNP's share of the vote in her local seat

The one area where Ms Forbes seemed at odds with her party's leadership was when she signed a letter urging the government not to "rush" into changes to the Gender Recognition Act.

She is keeping her options open on that reform while consultations continue, saying that "my view is you wait and see what the bill is before you make your mind up on how you vote on it".

Ms Forbes said her Christian faith is "an integral part of my identity" and "core to who I am" - but rejects that it should have any bearing on how people view her politics.

She said: "People are perfectly entitled to scrutinise me, to question me, but ultimately they should look at the decisions I make.

"I would think it's a very dangerous world to be in if anybody by virtue of a protected characteristic like religion is essentially told they can't stand for public office or can't be in the public square."

Image source, Getty Images
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Ms Forbes worked closely with Derek Mackay before having to step into his job on budget day

It was 07:00 on budget day that Ms Forbes got the call from Nicola Sturgeon asking if she could give the big speech in the wake of Mr Mackay's resignation.

The finance secretary had stepped down just hours before his biggest set-piece event of the year after it emerged he had sent hundreds of social media messages to a 16-year-old boy - and it was up to the junior minister to fill in.

"In that moment I realised I didn't necessarily have a choice," she said. "And in the next seven hours I had to wrap my head around every line of the budget and deliver the statement and answer questions.

"There was no way other parties were going to go easy on me because I had just picked it up a few hours prior to that. I knew all the press were in the gallery watching, so there was a lot of pressure.

"I realised that I was probably the best placed to do it, and I didn't necessarily in my own mind think I could decline when my government, my party and the parliament needed me.

"Who wouldn't be worried about delivering a budget with a few hours notice? It was a case of tunnel vision, focus, and get ready to deliver."

Image source, Getty Images
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Ms Forbes only discovered she was making the budget speech seven hours before standing up in the chamber

Ms Forbes' performance on budget day was praised by opposition MSPs and colleagues alike, and provided a silver lining for the SNP amid the storm of Mr Mackay's departure.

The finance secretary's sudden fall from grace took many at Holyrood by surprise - not least Ms Forbes, who had worked closely with him since she had been elected, first as a parliamentary liaison officer and then as a junior minister.

Asked if she felt let down by Mr Mackay, she said: "I don't think it's as simple as that.

"The last two weeks have been focused on getting to grips with a new job, so in a sense I haven't had capacity to think about much else. I've still got to deliver the budget in full and get it across the line - and there's been a reshuffle. That's been the focus of my attention.

"It was a shocking outcome that I don't think any of us saw coming. I certainly didn't see it coming. And if you layer that on top of the fact I had a big job to do, it was a challenging day and it's been a challenging few weeks."

Image source, Getty Images
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Ms Forbes says she is fully focused on enjoying her current job

That "big job" was quickly given to Ms Forbes full time - but as one of the SNP's fastest-rising stars, the Holyrood gossip mill has already turned to what she might do next.

Bookmakers have installed her as one of the favourites to someday replace Ms Sturgeon as first minister, but she insists she is focused entirely on her new job.

She said: "I don't have an ultimate goal just now. Probably if you'd asked a few years ago about what my dream would be, it would be being in the finance portfolio in government.

"So having got this job I think my task is to do a good job and actually enjoy it - because there are a lot of opportunities as well as the inevitable challenges that come from trying to deliver a balanced budget with limited resources."

While she would not rule out someday targeting the top job, Ms Forbes says she has learned from watching Ms Sturgeon that it is a "phenomenally difficult" role.

She said: "I don't envy her the task she has when it comes to dealing with public scrutiny, some of the challenges that come from being a woman in the public eye - the more I see up close of her role in terms of some of the abuse she suffers and the offensive comments, it's not a particularly attractive proposition.

"I'm somebody who's probably more inclined to hide from that public abuse, and at the moment just doing this job is a task enough."