Alex Cole-Hamilton has told how he wants to return the Scottish Liberal Democrats to a “credible party of Government” by the time of the 2026 Holyrood elections – as he hinted at a possible coalition with Scottish Labour under the leadership of his “friend” Anas Sarwar.
Cole-Hamilton described Sarwar as “one of my best friends in the Parliament”.
The new Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, who only took over the post in August, said of his Labour counterpart: “We speak the same language and I always enjoy working with him.”
While he stressed “we’re not formalising anything”, Cole-Hamilton told PA Scotland: “I think there is enough common ground to build something there which could be quite formidable.”
However, he dismissed any prospect of a deal with the Scottish Conservatives – led by Douglas Ross – insisting that the “Brexit nationalism” of the Tories was part of the “clash of two nationalisms” that have dominated politics north of the border for the last decade.
“The Tories are part of the problem there,” he stated.
“So while I would work with them in making the case for a reformed United Kingdom, it is very difficult to see a space where we could do any formal deal.”
His comments about a possible future arrangement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats came more than two decades on from the coalition between the two parties that saw them share power after the first Scottish Parliament elections in 1999 – with the parties going on to once again form the Government in 2003.
But with the SNP having been in power since 2007, Cole-Hamilton spoke about how he wanted “the Lib Dems to be seen as a credible alternative to Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP government.
In May’s election, they won just four seats in the Scottish Parliament, with Willie Rennie stepping down as leader in the wake of that result.
The Liberal Democrats are the smallest of the five political parties at Holyrood, with Cole-Hamilton stating: “We all got into politics to change the world, and that is much harder from fourth or fifth place in Scottish politics.”
Looking ahead to the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2026, he declared: “I want us to take a position where we are a credible party of Government again.
“My task now is to set out my stall for the country and earn a hearing with them again.”
He said that was easier because he was not an elected politician when the UK Liberal Democrats went into coalition at Westminster with David Cameron’s Conservatives back in 2010.
In that coalition “there were mistakes made, of course,” he accepted.
But Cole-Hamilton stated: “It was before my time, and I think that that means I am getting a hearing the party has been without for a while.”
He went on to argue his party could offer voters an alternative to the “constitutional Punch and Judy show we see between the Tories and the SNP”.
With the agenda in Scottish politics heavily focused on the issue of independence, the MSP said: “Scotland is trapped between the two nationalisms – the nationalism of the SNP and the Brexit nationalism of Douglas Ross’ Conservative Party.”
Cole-Hamilton said: “I just think people want to know there’s something more, that we can stop talking about the constitution, because it is actually getting in the way of everything else, it is starving every other issue of oxygen.
“There are warning lights blinking across the dashboard of public policy that have been left unattended to for so long, on mental health, on the educational attainment gap, on hospital waiting times, on the threadbare state of our police service.”
Speaking about the Tories and the SNP, he added: “I think actually by the end of this Parliament the public will be sick of both of those nationalisms and will be looking for something different.”
With Friday marking the start of his first Scottish conference since becoming leader, he told of the “tremendous weight of responsibility” he felt after succeeding Mr Rennie.
And he praised his predecessor for his efforts, describing him as a “force of nature” who had helped the Lib Dems “built citadels in our constituencies”.
Cole-Hamilton said: “Nobody is talking about the extinction of the party any more because we have the biggest majorities, and that is all down to him.”