As SNP star wanes, the Scottish Liberal Democrat revival shows we can be part of what's next – Alex Cole-Hamilton
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Donald Trump had just imposed a travel ban to the US, Boris Johnson was on every channel, instructing people to stay at homes, and Nicola Sturgeon took her podium in St Andrew’s House for the first time to deliver a series of lunchtime updates that would span much of the pandemic. Their parties were united and the media hung on their every word.
Fast forward to today and we have Johnson fighting a standards committee investigation into Partygate that could end his political career, Sturgeon doing a farewell chat-show tour while her party collapses, and Trump facing legal trouble. The sands of politics are shifting in big and unpredictable ways. I am here for it.
Last weekend, the Scottish Liberal Democrats gathered in Dundee for our spring conference. We did so off the back of the biggest local authority by-election win in our party’s history: Fiona Bennett took the Corstorphine/Murrayfield ward from the SNP with nearly 60 per cent of the vote in a nine-way contest, making us the city’s biggest pro-UK party. The nationalist vote fell by nearly a third.
In the run-up to conference, while thinking about my speech, I had a casual conversation with a senior journalist. He said something in passing that really stuck with me. “I want to know what you guys think because you’re going to be part of what’s next.” Those last four words formed the centrepiece of my remarks to conference.
All the signs are there. Scottish Liberal Democrats gained more seats than any other opposition party at the elections last May, increasing our number of councillors by nearly a third. As our vote share ticks up, the SNP seem to be on the opposite trajectory. Years of neglecting our health service, antagonising teachers and islanders, and starving councils of the funds they need have come back to bite them. All that's before the backbiting, recriminations and bitterness of their leadership contest.
The SNP have lost sight of what matters. Their priorities are not your priorities. It’s why they are haemorrhaging fair-minded, reasonable voters who aren’t fussed about the constitution. So what does "what's next" look like.
I want to deliver change for Scotland. Make sure people can see a dentist or get an operation when they need it. Make every home a warm one. Make Scottish education the world’s best again. Stop sewage pouring into rivers and onto beaches.
We’ve shown in Edinburgh, where we sustain a Labour minority from the opposition benches, that you don’t need to hold power to wield it. The leverage we have in the city meant Labour was forced to accept a Scottish Liberal Democrat budget just three weeks ago, blocking education cuts and putting extra money into upgrading our communities. It shows we can deliver big, important and liberal changes.
It’s remarkable how much the fortunes have reversed for all those who were in charge when the pandemic hit. The nationalist star is waning, and they know it. Change is coming, and with it the chance to transcend the worn-out divisions of the past and build something new. Any way you slice it, the Scottish Liberal Democrats will be part of what’s next.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western