Alex Cole-Hamilton has launched his campaign to become the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
The Edinburgh Western MSP, who was first elected to Holyrood in 2016, said he has witnessed Scotland going backwards on the key issues of education, child poverty, mental health, drug deaths and cancelled operations during his time in parliament.
Speaking to the PA news agency at his campaign launch outside the Boardwalk Beach Club in Edinburgh, Cole-Hamilton said Scotland was “gripped” by the nationalisms of the SNP and “Boris Johnson’s Brexiteers”.
“After everything Scotland’s been through we need new hope right now, that’s why I’m announcing my candidacy for the leadership of the Scottish Liberal Democrats,” he said.
“I got involved in politics because I couldn’t sleep at night and that was because I was working in the youth work sector with hard to reach young people at the hardest edges of society.
“What I saw of their lot in life lit a fire under me and it made me want to change things.
“That was years and years ago but the dial has not moved on any of those issues – on child poverty, mental health, drug deaths, cancelled operations.
“All of this is because we have a government asleep at the wheel and Scotland has been gripped by two nationalisms: the Scottish nationalism of the SNP in Scotland and the British nationalism of the Brexiteer Tory party.
“I don’t accept that those are the only choices available to us and I think there is an alternative in the Scottish Liberal Democrats.”
The leadership contest was triggered after Willie Rennie announced he was standing down after 10 years at the top of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
No other candidate has yet come forward to succeed the departing Rennie, with nominations closing on August 20.
Paying tribute to his would-be predecessor, Cole-Hamilton said Rennie is his “best friend” and the man who encouraged him to enter politics, but he would have his own “very distinct style of leadership”.
“We are very much of the same stable in terms of our political thinking about wanting the best for people in terms of stopping government intrusion in people’s private lives, pushing back on centralisation, fighting climate change without the baggage of nationalism that seems to come with the Scottish Greens,” he said.
The Scottish Lib Dems lost one seat in May’s Holyrood election, leaving the party with just four representatives.
However, Cole-Hamilton secured the highest number of votes of any candidate in the history of the Scottish Parliament, with 25,578 people casting their constituency ballot for him.
He cited his election success as a model of how the party can seek to improve its fortunes and said: “When people understand we have a chance of winning, when we reconnect with them, we build belief in them, they come to us in massive numbers.
“My challenge will be to reach out beyond the fortresses that we’ve built and speak to greater parts of the country.”
Addressing the SNP’s calls for a second independence referendum, Cole-Hamilton argued that the SNP “pivoted” during the last election campaign to focus on leading the country out of the pandemic rather than framing it as securing a mandate for another vote.
“For all the questions that Scotland faces right now, the answer to none of them is another divisive independence referendum,” he said.
“Let’s remember also, Nicola Sturgeon talks about a mandate for a second independence referendum – that mandate is tainted, it’s no good.”
He added: “Any way you slice it, the SNP don’t have a mandate. They need to get on with the day job.
“Our public will not forgive this parliament if we spend all the next five years navel-gazing about the constitution.”
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