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The SNP is taking Scotland down a constitutional cul-de-sac

The SNP want to hold a second independence referendum next year | Credit: Alamy

The SNP is taking Scotland down a constitutional cul-de-sac

It’s now almost exactly a year since I took over as leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, and what a year it has been.  

I took over in the wake of a frustrating election. We won more votes than 2016, built fortresses in our held constituencies and ran a campaign – Put Recovery First – that tapped into the prevailing sentiment of the Scottish public but failed to make the big electoral breakthrough that we had hoped for.  

As morning dawned the day after the election, I was proud to have secured the most votes of any MSP ever elected to the Scottish Parliament, but devastated for the talented colleagues who would not be joining me.  

Over the past year, I have worked hard to rejuvenate the party, appointing new spokespeople and new staff behind the scenes, bringing in some of our largest-ever sums of donations, touring the country to recruit candidates and help local parties, and getting a new and liberal message out to voters.  

Our dedicated activists worked tirelessly, and at the local elections these efforts finally bore fruit. We won 87 seats, making the most gains of any opposition party and bringing liberal representation to corners of Scotland which have gone without it for decades.

Places like Linlithgow, Fort William and Buckie all now benefit from Scottish Liberal Democrat councillors who will fight tooth and nail for them. The healthy majorities in our Scottish Parliament constituencies show that once people see the benefit they get from a liberal representative, they flock to us in droves. So I have no doubt that the recent council results will be the bedrock on which our future electoral success will be built.  

One of the criticisms that has sometimes been levelled at our party is that people don’t know what it means to be a liberal. That’s why in my first 100 days I took the decision to focus on a series of key policy areas in which I felt the Scottish Government had failed and I thought that liberal thinking could be brought to bear.  

On the SNP’s watch we have seen record drug deaths, record waits for cancer treatment and children waiting more than a year for mental health support. Long Covid blights the lives of more than 100,000 Scots, yet those suffering its effects would be better off moving to England, such is the gulf in treatment made available.

After 15 years of SNP mismanagement, the NHS is on its knees. The doctors and nurses which are its lifeblood are being stretched beyond breaking point, whilst all too often patients are forced to wait in pain for treatment. We need new hope for health.  

Anyone who looks out their window can see that Scotland’s climate has changed. Once-in-a-generation monsoons now hit almost every year, while summer heat waves hit new heights. Despite the climate chaos and the fact that Green ministers have offices at St Andrews House for the first time in history, the Scottish Government has missed its emissions reduction targets year after year. We need new hope for our planet.  

Inspired by my background in youth work and children’s services, I want to right the injustices that hold Scottish youngsters back and make Scottish education the best in the world once again. We need new hope for children and young people.  

After 15 unimpressive years of government, the SNP have decided to fall back on their one familiar tune and take another tilt at breaking up the UK

With energy prices soaring and inflation eating into pay packets and pensions, the country needs urgent action to insulate homes, cut bills and get the sluggish Scottish economy firing on all cylinders. We need new hope for the cost-of-living crisis.  

That’s why I have already announced a host of new policies to tackle these existential challenges – expanding the number of counsellors and GPs, launching a new fund to help communities protect against climate change, an urgent programme to insulate every home, replacing the SNP’s failed education bosses and more.  

This is the fresh and dynamic thinking that Scotland needs after a decade of stagnation under the Salmond and Sturgeon regimes.   

Over the next 12 months we will pressure the SNP and their supine coalition partners to deliver real solutions for the people of Scotland, putting forward new ideas, holding the government to account, and championing the liberal reforms our country needs.  

One such example is my colleague Liam McArthur’s assisted dying bill. Liam is bidding to change the law to allow Scots with a terminal illness the choice of a death with dignity at a time of their choosing.  

This is the next great liberal reform and I am delighted that Liam has put together a cross-party alliance to make this happen. The final bill is some way off yet but we know that the bill consultation is one of the most responded to in the history of the Scottish Parliament.  

It is this ambition and invention that is too often missing from Scottish political life.  

For the government to admit that the educational curriculum needs reform, that our police service is over-centralised, or that the bodies tasked with putting boosters under the Scottish economy have frequently fallen short, is to admit that the SNP were wrong with their prescriptions.  

They will never fix the problems that ail Scotland, because the problems that ail Scotland are problems of their making.  

That means it is long past time we got rid of them.  

Nicola Sturgeon is already dropping hints that she is thinking of stepping away, which means that it will soon be time for the SNP to consider who comes next.  

Angus Robertson is a veteran of the same generation of SNP politicians as Sturgeon – hardly a fresh face. Humza Yousaf may be telegenic, but he’s been a woeful health secretary with almost every measure of performance heading in the wrong direction.

Kate Forbes is talented and eloquent but her vision of thousands of public sector job cuts will hardly seem appealing to the average Scot. Among her MPs, Ian Blackford is tarred by his decision to appoint a man accused of sexual harassment as chief whip, while the possibility of Joanna Cherry would surely horrify the SNP’s progressive activists.  

What they have in common is that none of them will strike fear into the hearts of opposition party members.   

It’s no surprise that after 15 unimpressive years of government and with a well-established party politburo starved of new thinking, the SNP have decided to fall back on their one familiar tune and take another tilt at breaking up the UK.  

While the public look on in horror at rising gas prices and soaring inflation, the SNP are throwing good money after bad and seeking to send Scotland down a constitutional cul-de-sac once more. They are totally out of touch.  

Even the Lord Advocate seems faintly embarrassed at the prospect of arguing Scotland can hold a referendum without the UK Parliament’s agreement, but even if that were not the case, now would clearly not be the time for taking us out of a partnership with our closest ally and biggest trading partner.   

I think even Nicola Sturgeon knows that independence is something of a zombie policy. During the last Scottish Parliament election campaign she pivoted to asking voters who they wanted to lead them through the recovery from Covid, rather than putting the case for separatism front and centre.

As soon as the votes were counted, every single vote was weaponised to aid her case for independence. Yet the polls remain stubbornly unmoved and so does the average voter.  

As the SNP shamble along, in thrall to their angriest online activists, it’s clear that this parliamentary term is an opportunity for the Scottish Liberal Democrats and others to press our case and demonstrate to the public that we can offer a credible alternative government in waiting.

The people of Scotland need new hope. I am determined to give it to them.  

Alex Cole-Hamilton is leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

This article is taken from Holyrood's Annual Review: A look back on the parliamentary year

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