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Comment: Scotland’s best days are still ahead

Willie Rennie - Image credit: Holyrood

Comment: Scotland’s best days are still ahead

I don’t think the past twelve months have unfolded quite how anyone expected.  

A year ago, Boris Johnson was a neophyte prime minister, with Vote Leave crony Dominic Cummings recently installed as his right-hand man.  

With 21 former Conservatives unceremoniously booted from their former party, there was no majority for the government’s plan but nor was there a majority for an alternative government.

Jeremy Corbyn had been warned that he should consider giving way to a grandee with cross-party support but alas his stubbornness proved too much.  

With Labour MPs in the red wall beginning to suggest that they would help to vote through the Conservatives’ Brexit deal, the opportunities to stop Brexit were narrowing.  

In the end Jo Swinson (alongside the SNP and others) had to take a calculated gamble and agree to an election.

We fought on a clear pitch of keeping Britain in the EU, expanding childcare and tackling the climate crisis and at the end of the campaign I was delighted to see Wendy Chamberlain become the new Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife.  

Sadly, despite increasing our vote share significantly, the Liberal Democrats did not make the breakthroughs elsewhere that our stellar European election performance had portended and on a difficult night, the toughest moment was the news that Jo Swinson had lost her seat in East Dunbartonshire.  

Yet again, thwarted by an electoral system that renders millions of votes worthless, the Liberal Democrats returned 11 MPs, though we once again overtook Scottish Labour north of the border.  

On Brexit in particular, I believe my party can be proud of the battle we fought.

Leaving the European Union will leave us poorer and more isolated in the world and I firmly believe that we will see the UK return to our rightful place in the European Union before too long.  

While constitutional issues dominated in Westminster, in the Scottish Parliament, the Liberal Democrats were shining a light on shocking statistics showing record numbers of children and young people waiting over a year for mental health treatment, exposing the shocking state of the police estate after years of SNP neglect and pushing for the government to be transparent about the long-promised expansion of childcare. 

However, as the country braced for Brexit to finally take place at the end of January 2021, something happened that few outside of medical facilities and research universities could initially recognise the significance of: China raised concerns at the World Health Organization about a new strain of coronavirus.  

Since then our vocabulary has expanded dramatically: contact tracing, social distancing, ‘eat out to help out’, community transmission and more.

As rising numbers of hospitalisations (and horror stories) began to emerge from first Wuhan and then Northern Italy, it became a matter of time before the UK would need to enter its own lockdown.

I have never experienced a casework load like the first few weeks and months.

People terrified for their loved ones working in hospitals on the front line, worried about how they would pay rent, scared for relatives in care homes.  

From the beginning of the crisis I have sought for the Liberal Democrats to be constructive partners and I am thankful for the time that Jeane Freeman, Jason Leitch and others have devoted to helping us to support concerned constituents.  

In a time of national emergency, people expect their political representatives to put party-political differences aside and I am pleased that Nicola Sturgeon and others have listened and acknowledged the contribution and interventions that we have made on everything from mental health support for frontline staff to expanded death-in-service schemes.

All the activists who have made phone calls, delivered shopping or checked in with neighbours deserve immense praise.  

Where necessary we have pressed robustly for improvements such as our campaign to ensure that all those who have to work, have access to the childcare they need, or Jamie Stone MP’s campaign on behalf of the three million freelancers and more excluded from the UK’s financial support schemes.

When it comes to the importance of testing in care homes and the SQA’s plans for moderating exams I do wish our concerns had been heeded earlier.   

At Westminster, the Liberal Democrats were the first party to secure a commitment to a public inquiry into the crisis.

This needs to be replicated in Scotland too ahead of a potential second wave.  

In many ways the 2021 election will be an election like no other.  

Even before the coronavirus crisis, 13 years of SNP rule had left our public services in a parlous state.  

Educational outcomes are heading in the wrong direction.  

Too many people are waiting too long for mental health. 

The numbers of drug deaths and suicides are on the rise.   

Yet the political courage to take bold steps to tackle these scourges is sadly lacking.   

What little legislation has passed in the past twelve months has mostly been on smaller issues where all the parties more-or-less agreed anyhow.

This is hardly the mark of a government with a clear vision for improving Scotland.  

From day one of the next parliament Liberal Democrats will get to work tackling the big challenges facing Scotland. 

We have a powerful set of tools at our disposal. We need to use them.

We need to make real inroads to cutting treatment wait times, lightening the load on overburdened NHS staff and A&E rooms and making sure people struggling with their mental health can get help fast when they ask for it.   

The dual economic shocks of Brexit and the coronavirus will be enormous. That’s why we need a comprehensive package of public investment to boost the green economy, reinvigorate high streets and keep people in work.

The new National Investment Bank must be prepared to take stakes in viable firms that are struggling and stretch out Scotland’s economic sinews.  

I have also suggested to the First Minister that we should be pursuing a universal basic income to ensure that everyone has access to the resources they need to keep a roof over their head and food on the table.    

We can build back better than before.  

Sadly, the real risk is that rather than a dedicated government committed to a green recovery and improving living standards, what we get is another nationalist administration focused on independence above all.

More than a million Scots have benefited from the financial support programmes put in place to help people through the coronavirus crisis.

This is the clearest evidence yet of the role that the broad shoulders of the UK economy play in helping to shelter Scotland through sweeping global catastrophes.   

At a moment of economic crisis, I think it is dangerously misguided to focus on independence – to quote the recently departed John Hume: “You can’t eat a flag”.  

Even in these dark times, I believe that Scotland’s best days are still ahead.   

The Black Lives Matter protests brought racial injustice across the globe to greater prominence.

Climate protesters inspired by Greta Thunberg are pressing governments to rethink their emissions policies and wasteful attitudes – Nicola, how about ditching your support for Heathrow expansion? 

And finally, the kids who saw their exam results and their futures marked down by an uncaring SNP government and rallied round to push the Education Secretary into changing course. 

As we hurtle towards another Scottish Parliament election, we can build a world that is better than what came before.

Scottish Liberal Democrats are determined to be at the forefront of that movement.

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