Should holding certain views bar someone from high office?

As Kate Forbes is discovering, many people wouldn’t support leaders with socially conservative opinions—and some would go even further

March 03, 2023
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Kate Forbes’s religious views have come under scrutiny during the SNP leadership election. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The race to become the next leader of the Scottish National Party, following Nicola Sturgeon’s abrupt departure in February, was never going to be a smooth one. Even so, many have been surprised at quite how quickly it has veered off course. The lead contender has struck one of the oldest and deepest potholes on the political road: religion. 

Kate Forbes, the Scottish finance minister, admitted that she is not a fan of same-sex marriage and would not have voted for it in 2014. She said she would not have voted for the highly controversial Gender Recognition Reform Bill had she not been on maternity leave. And she even confessed that she personally thinks sex and having children are for within marriage. In the process, she offered a striking example of how hard it is today for someone to combine traditional religious social views with the quest for high office. A senior politician being honest about her socially conservative views in a leadership race: what in God’s name was she thinking?

My guess is that the highly competent, widely respected minister and devoted member of the Free Church of Scotland was thinking that her personal social conservatism could be combined with her commitment to political liberalism in a way that wouldn’t scare the nationalist horses. She might have been thinking that people recognised that there was a difference between the moral and the political spheres; that, as John Locke put it 330 years ago, there is an important difference between a “sin” and a “crime”. She might have been thinking that her views were not inexcusably offensive, at least to the millions of voters who don’t consider themselves social liberals. She could even have been thinking that Scottish politics is big enough to tolerate such differences. And so she was honest about her views. How naïve.

Liberalism’s capacity to slide into its opposite is hardly news, but this story puts it under a particularly powerful lens. What should in principle debar someone from high office? How capacious is the political arena, that space where differing views can be articulated, contested, and modified?

Few claim that there are no boundaries. Giving office to someone who stands on an explicitly anti-democratic manifesto isn’t really an option. Liberal democracy is not a suicide pact. But in general, liberal democracies such as ours pride themselves in their political breadth and willingness to accommodate unpopular and minority views in public debate. We kneel before Milton’s Areopagitica, genuflect in front of Mill’s On Liberty, and regularly intone Voltaire’s apocryphal “I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” This who we are.

And yet, there may just be a smidgen of hypocrisy here. As the Forbes story was doing the rounds, the thinktank Theos commissioned YouGov to ask UK adults what beliefs and views they thought should on principle debar someone from holding senior public office. The exact question was: “Regardless of whether or not you believe with them, do you believe that people holding each of the following views should or should not be allowed to hold a top government job in the UK?” The results were instructive.

More than one in 10 of us—11 per cent—think being a Catholic means that you should not be allowed to hold a top government job. Perhaps oddly, given the historic anti-Catholicism in British culture, this position saw the lowest level of opposition. Even more—13 per cent—think the same way about Orthodox Jews, 16 per cent about Muslims, and 19 per cent about evangelical Christians. That’s worth repeating. Nearly a fifth of people say they believe that evangelicals should on principle not be allowed to hold senior government jobs. So much for political tolerance.

It gets worse. If “only” 11 per cent of people think that Catholics should be debarred from senior public office, a staggering 55 per cent say the same of people who oppose abortion. We are (relatively) happy with Catholics, it seems, just as long as they don’t hold Catholic beliefs. We are a bit more tolerant of people who are nuclear unilateralists (“only” 23 per cent say they should not be allowed to hold top government jobs), Remainers (24 per cent) and those who support gender self-identification (28 per cent). What really vexes people are conservative social issues, such as on abortion or same-sex marriage (50 per cent), and the two great secular religions of our age: climate change (61 per cent think climate deniers should not be allowed to hold office) and, out front, the NHS (63 per cent think those would privatise it should be barred from top government jobs). Nigel Lawson, it seems, was right. The NHS is the closest thing we have to a religion.

Having conducted research for over 25 years, I am not a fan of saying, “Well, people said this, but they really mean…” However, there surely must be an element of that at play here. Some people were presumably confusing the question asked with another one in their heads, along the lines of “which of these positions would prevent you from voting for a senior politician?” At least, that is what I hope. I refuse to believe my fellow voters are that illiberal because if they are, we really are in trouble. 

The idea that someone’s religion or their social views should on principle debar them from office is the very antipathy of liberal democracy. They may be minority, weird, objectionable, or even dangerous—the idea of a climate denier holding a top government job is dreadful—but that should not constitute an a priori barrier to standing for public office. Better, surely, to expose them to scrutiny and see them wither on the vine. That is certainly what classical liberals would have argued. 

The fact that so many people today think otherwise is a real cause for concern. In his recent book, IFS director Paul Johnson vents his frustration at the public attitude to the NHS. “Our worship of the NHS is positively damaging,” he claims. He’s not, of course, condemning health work professionals or advocating privatisation. Rather, he is pointing out that from an international perspective, the NHS doesn’t perform that well, and that treating such major institutions like national treasures often renders them blind to their own faults. “The more we treat the NHS as a national religion, the more likely it is to fail.”

As with the NHS, so with the institution of liberal democracy itself. We revere it as the heart, the glory, the triumph, of a free society in an increasingly unfree world. And we are right to do so. But the more we do, the less we may notice as well-meaning demands for sensitivity, sympathy, respect, and understanding constrict the space for painful disagreement and compromise that makes liberal democracy what it is.