Alex Cole-Hamilton: People are tired of the clash of nationalisms on either side of the border
I’m tempted to nominate the past year in Scottish politics for a BAFTA.
Truly, the level of drama has been stream-able, perhaps even binge-worthy. The resignation of Nicola Sturgeon, dominant in Scottish politics for more than a decade, triggered a bitter leadership race to replace her. The plot thickened when she, alongside the SNP’s chief executive and treasurer, were arrested as part of a finance probe into the party.
The scandal of the governing party radiated into the wider scandals of government. Ferries still in dry dock that are now many years overdue and overbudget, with accusations that the government contract to build them was rigged. Humiliating climbdowns over the botched bottle return scheme. Abandoning plans for highly protected marine areas which would have thrown businesses and island communities under the bus.
In a desperate bid to shore up their falling popularity and re-energise their flagging membership, all the nationalists can do is stomp their feet and shout about the colour our passports might become if they ever realise their dream of separation.
And just when the SNP thought they could hit the reset button, Humza Yousaf’s first days in office were torpedoed by the chaos that hung spectre-like over the party he was now leading.
I should probably have realised that things were heading for the stuff of soap operas when SNP leadership hopeful Ash Regan proposed building a readiness thermometer to gauge support for independence in Glasgow’s George Square.
In all seriousness, it is becoming inescapably clear to me that people are tired. They are tired of the clash of nationalisms on both sides of the border. Successive SNP and Conservative governments share the same divisiveness, the same fixation with national identity, the same stagnation.
For the first time in a long time, change is in the air, and my party is seizing that with both hands.
Earlier this year, we showed what was possible. We won more than 50 per cent of the vote in the Corstorphine/Murrayfield by-election in Edinburgh, getting more votes than every other party combined and delivering the biggest local authority by-election victory in our history.
Just over a month ago, in Somerton and Frome, we showed what was possible again. We overturned a massive 19,000 Conservative majority to see Sarah Dyke elected as an MP.
And this is what is possible: a liberal vision in which the interests of people and the needs of communities come first. That has really resonated.
As we look towards the general election, I want to make sure that constituencies like East Dunbartonshire and Ross, Skye and Lochaber which used to have a Liberal Democrat MP fighting for them, get that excellent local representation again.
When I’ve been out on the doors in Ross, Skye and Lochaber, I’ve been thinking a lot about the man who used to hold that seat. As public servants, we should endeavour to reflect the better natures of the people we seek to serve. Nobody did that with more decency and grace than Charles Kennedy.
That is why it is my intention to bring Charles’ former constituency back into the Liberal Democrat fold by electing local businessman and councillor Angus MacDonald to Westminster.
These electoral successes and ambitions haven’t been plucked from thin air. They come from hard work, from drive, from determination – qualities my party has in spades.
Over the past year, we’ve been taking the government to task on a range of issues that have felt the crushing weight of SNP neglect and offering up positive solutions.
Waiting lists across our NHS are spiralling, the number of people stuck in hospital is soaring and hardworking staff are left to carry the ever-growing burden.
While SNP ministers spin the stats and stall on solutions, my party has been busy devising a blueprint. We want to create safe staffing levels by focusing on retention and recruitment and invest in more training places.
We were the first party to oppose the centralisation of social care right from the start, and our opposition holds true today. If there is a billion pounds available for a vast and unnecessary bureaucracy, we should be investing it in frontline services and staff instead.
Mental health has, and will always be, a subject that is close to my heart. Humza Yousaf’s NHS Recovery Plan promised the eradication of mental health waiting lists by March 2023, but that date has come and gone. Thousands of children and adults are still waiting over a year for treatment.
My party wants to cut routine waiting times in half, reverse devastating cuts to the mental health budget and ramp up training so that every school and workplace benefits from a mental health first aider.
Over the past year, the crisis in NHS dentistry has given me particular cause for concern. On the SNP’s watch, we are seeing NHS dental work drop dramatically across the country, falling by as much as 50 per cent in some areas.
That’s why my party led a parliamentary debate on repairing that crisis. We are continuing to call for a reform to funding structures so dentists know that it is worth their while to take on NHS patients. Toothcare should not just be for those who can afford to go private.
The cost-of-living crisis has been biting. That’s why we want a Mortgage Protection Fund to prevent families falling into arrears or facing repossession, paid for by reversing Conservative tax cuts for the big banks.
All too often, the Scottish Government tries to get off the hook with the cost of living, batting the problem back to the Westminster bogeyman. But we know they can do something about it, so we’re calling for a national insulation programme to heat every home, bring down bills and meet our climate ambitions.
Standing up for communities means standing up for those whose voices don’t always get heard. We’ve also been taking up the cause of issues that have been long ignored.
Every day, sewage is dumped in our rivers and waterways. Last year, it happened more than 14,000 times. It is a national scandal.
We want the government to record every sewage dump, introduce the first legally binding targets for those dumps and upgrade our Victorian sewage system. So far, not a single SNP MSP has backed our proposals.
The safety of our communities is paramount. Tragedies like Grenfell lay bare the devastation that happens when we don’t take this seriously.
To that end, my party has been investigating the use of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) in public sector buildings. In NHS Scotland’s own words, buildings made from this material are at “risk of catastrophic structural failure” which could occur “suddenly” and “without warning”.
This is the kind of good work that we will build on as we head into the next parliament. If you want to win the trust of voters, you’ve got to do the work, you’ve got to have the drive, you’ve got to have the ideas.
Fortunately, my party is crackling with all of that.
As for the SNP, they’ve resorted to wasting civil service time and reams of paper on fanciful accounts of what a separate Scotland might look like. Since they’re stuck in a rut, they’re distracting us with fantasy, while offering up some therapy to the wider nationalist movement.
Even SNP politicians don’t have much enthusiasm for these papers. Their movement lacks any kind of energy, any kind of momentum. Sturgeon’s resignation was the final nail in that coffin.
For too long, the SNP have force-fed us the idea that the only choice is between a UK stuck in outdated ways, or a Scotland cut off from opportunity and partnership.
Like so many things in life, the way forward lies somewhere in the middle, and make no mistake, we want to see reform to our United Kingdom. After all, we have always been the party of reform.
But before we have those constitutional discussions, we must get the basics right. We must listen to people, listen to communities, understand what they need and work out how we can help them in the here and now.
If my party is devoted to one thing, it is to a politics of public service. That is where our eyes will be firmly fixed in the year ahead.
This article appears in Holyrood's Annual Review 2022/23