Alex Cole-Hamilton's speech to Scottish Lib Dem Conference

Conference, this is the first time I have addressed you in this capacity and I am proud beyond measure to stand before you, as the leader of our party.

I have attended every spring and autumn conference of the Scottish Liberal Democrats since I joined our party over 20 years ago. I have watched and participated in debates and in speeches that have shaped our policies, defined our responses to terrorism and the climate emergency and those that have kept us marching along the rocky road we have walked together in pursuit of a liberal society. I have sat among you, grieving the loss of liberal giants.

Our conference is like a shot in the arm for me, I love everything about it - right down to the curly sandwiches at the fringe meetings. But it is in the speeches of our leaders that I have always found the symmetry of my own values in the words of another. Those words have opened my eyes and my heart to what our movement can achieve.

Whether that’s through delivering a Liberal agenda through our role in government in Scotland under Jim and then Nicol, or in fighting for our very survival under Tavish. They have each offered us hope and vision and, at times a necessary light in dark places.

But it is in the speeches of Willie Rennie, that I have felt my strongest commitment to our movement. Willie has scooped us up off the mat more times than I can remember. At a time when we were without a federal leader, and being written off by commentators, he sent shockwaves through the landscape of British politics by winning the Dunfermline by-election. It’s a victory he barely ever mentions, apart from all the times he mentions it.

That would not be the last time that Willie saved our party. In the Shetland By-election the SNP threw everything at a victory that would have given them a parliamentary majority. But under Willie’s leadership we saw off that challenge and added the strong and Liberal voice of Beatrice Wishart to our ranks.

Willie, your leadership has been characterised by energy, resilience and good humour, it has earned you a warmth among the citizens of this country. In your victories you have consolidated the future of our party. While American Presidents get a dreary library when they step down, I’m quite excited by the prospect of the Willie Rennie memorial petting zoo that we have in mind. Willie, I am heartily glad that you are there beside me, already attacking the education brief with gusto and radical thought. I’m quite certain there will still be llamas for you to worry as we move forward together. Thank you, Willie.

Conference, leader’s speeches in our party have been characterised by another constant these past 20 years, and that can be found in the penmanship of Matthew Clark. Matthew led our Scottish Parliamentary operation since the first days of devolution. He was principal adviser to every leader that has gone before me and took the decision to retire this year. He leaves a yawning gulf in his wake. When I worked for the party 20 years ago, Matthew was one of the first bosses that I ever had, I learned so much from him and I continue to do so. He is my friend and he is one of the smartest political operators that I know. We will miss him keenly in the group and we wish him well.

Conference, this is I hope the last time that I have to address you principally online, but we thought we’d take advantage of the set up to do something different. To come together with our Welsh Liberal family, and reflect on the ties that bind us – and I’m not just talking about mystical animals as national mascots and early exits from international football tournaments.

My ties to Wales are strong. My grandfather was born in Llangattock in the shadow of the Sugar loaf mountain. He was the son of a parson and joined the Royal Navy out of Dartmouth Naval College on the eve of the Second World War. He saw much of that conflict from the bridge of a destroyer, in the North Atlantic. He witnessed the sinking of HMS Hood by the Bismarck first hand and lost 2 siblings in the course of that war.

From an early age he taught me the value and importance of public service and he is in part the reason for the life choices I have made. And so it was that I was delighted in 2019 to walk the streets of his home village with a bundle of Lib Dem leaflets for Jane Dodds in pursuit of her wonderful win in Brecon and Radnorshire. I am so proud that she has been returned to frontline politics in the Senedd and it is wonderful to have our Welsh friends with us today.

My family has always shaped me. I grew up in a North East Fife farming village, the son of a speech therapist and a university lecturer. Our table was always filled with laughter and political discussion to the point where I became politically aware at a very early age.

I was 13 years old when a British expeditionary force joined America in the liberation of Kuwait. And it was at that time and around that issue, that I first became deeply concerned with the state of global politics. At my mum’s suggestion I started attending Quaker meetings, and I became a member of the Quakers 2 years later. Now I’m not a particularly religious person, but my values as a Quaker are the roots from where my liberalism stem: A respect and tolerance for other faiths and beliefs; A hunger for equality and social justice; Conflict resolution through forging partnerships.

Conference, I am the sum of my parts, an English boy with Welsh and Canadian roots, who moved to Scotland when I was very little. A teenager who took on a set of values that are about bridge building, partnerships and conflict resolution. My life is a tapestry of identities.

So my position on the constitution comes not from muscular unionism, but from a genuine belief that the answer to none of the problems we face can be found in borders or in flags. I just don’t get it. The story of our island family is one of the oldest and most successful collaborations in human history, from the abolitionist movement and the Kindertransport to the NHS and the world class universities that put us at the forefront of global vaccine research and the science of the climate emergency.

That is the Britain that I recognise, one that is pioneering, open, internationalist of outlook. You can subscribe to the best in the story of our islands, without accepting that Boris Johnson’s bitter and sloppy government is the limit of what Britain can be again.

And conference, they’re not making things easy. It feels like there are sleeper agents for the SNP at work within Number 10 right now. Every single week, the Conservatives seem to come up with innovative ways to drive people into the arms of the Nationalists.

Don’t forget that on top of everything: On top of its mishandling of the pandemic; On top of the Universal Credit cut; On top of the cut to foreign aid; On top of all of that, this is the UK Government which decided that nine months into a global pandemic was the ideal moment to end the Brexit transition period.

But Conference, Brexit isn’t a reason for independence, it’s a warning against it. Let’s not forget that, Nicola Sturgeon decided that six months into a global pandemic was the ideal moment to restart her independence campaign.

She put civil servants back to work on fresh legislation, about the mechanics of a second referendum, when the Covid death toll was less than half of what it is today.

We have been trapped between two destructive nationalisms for the better part of a decade. Each criticising the other for drawing new borders while quietly sketching their own. A promise for the NHS on the side of bus is just as empty and devoid of reality as the promises you’ll find on the side of a Yes Scotland lamppost sticker.

Conference, I oppose a second independence referendum, not because I fear the will of the people, but because I will not ask them to take yet another leap in the dark towards a destination nobody can properly define. With so many unanswered questions I would not ask them to write a blank cheque.

The direction may be wrong, the values of its governments may need recalibration, but the fundamentals of our United Kingdom are sound. Conference I know that I am not alone in my belief that with reform, with federalism and above all with liberalism the best days of this United Kingdom can lie ahead of it.

Our children are growing up in a world on fire. The climate crisis is all they’ve known. A storm that Scottish Water thought could only happen every thousand years now arrives with us each June in Scotland’s new monsoon season and we’re getting off lightly. Catastrophic weather events seem normal now. The news reports of the wildfires, the floods, the droughts… It’s constant.

I want to be honest with you. This really scares me. The scale of the challenge is like nothing we have ever dealt with before.  Real damage has already been done to our planet – and to the people in it. It’s easy to feel as though it’s too late. But I don’t accept that. And conference, I know you are by my side on this. Because the issue of the climate crisis cuts to the core of what binds us in this party.

Liberal Democrats have always felt a sense of duty for the people we will never meet, who live on the other side of the world. Those experiencing the worst of the climate emergency, despite having contributed the least to it. Like the country of Kiribati. Its 100,000 people are battling to stay above the rising Pacific. They might be the first to lose their country entirely to the climate emergency.

There is perhaps no starker example of how a country can be punished despite doing so little to contribute to the climate emergency. People from the Pacific to Greenland have every right to ask so much more of developed, industrialised countries such as our own. The World Bank recently estimated that 216 million people could be displaced from their homes by 2050 because of climate change.

That is why my first mission as leader of this party has been to build policies that are radical, credible – and actionable. I want to offer New Hope for the Climate Emergency with fresh ideas for every part of the crisis facing our planet. Because while I don’t accept that it’s too late now, we’re not far off. But when sensible policies are implemented, real, systemic change can happen.

And Scotland has the capability and the capacity to do incredible things. I’ve shared some of what I want to see for electric vehicles. Because we can’t wait until 2030 to get serious about removing fossil fuel-powered vehicles from our roads. Although the Conservatives might manage to do that through the petrol panic by next Tuesday.

Its why I’ve proposed: A new government-funded rental scheme so that everyone has the opportunity to try one out for a weekend; New longer government-backed interest free loans to make them more affordable once people have been convinced; And a complete switch over of all public sector vehicles to electric power. I want to fix fast fashion, and build a circular economy. Today I’ll add to the list.

The pandemic means people are nervous about using public transport again. Rail services are being cut as a result, and the government is just sitting idly by. We need to give people a reason to go back.

So I want to see a new railcard entitlement for everyone, built on the model used in London and the South East. That means railcard prices…for everyone. For those who already saw discounts, I want to go further. What was a third off, should now become half price. Because that’s the scale we should be talking about to meet this crisis head on. Rail can bring down road miles. And it must bring down airmiles too.

The Scottish Government has just admitted that our climate targets cannot be met if everyone flies as much as they used to. It says aviation will need to fall by a third. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a bold statement. But it’s just that – a statement. Because the very same Scottish Government holds a contract with the single biggest polluter in the entire United Kingdom – that’s Heathrow Airport. The SNP talk the language of environmentalism but their economic policy is predicated on maximum extraction of fossil fuels from the North Sea and 75,000 extra flights between Scotland and London by 2040. So I have three words for Nicola Sturgeon: RIP IT UP

Rip up your contract in support of a third runway at Heathrow. And do it before COP26 lands in Glasgow. Because unless you do First Minister, I can’t take your commitment to the climate emergency seriously, and neither should the watching world.

Conference, stopping this huge expansion in domestic air travel won’t be enough. So I want today to announce another instalment of my plan to give New Hope for the Climate Emergency. Air Passenger Duty is a serious tax power that is being devolved, albeit at a snail’s pace. So far, the only thing the Scottish Government has actually changed in six years is the name

The SNP’s plan all along was to abolish this revenue altogether to give a £250 million tax break to aviation when the industry was soaring. We put a stop to that for the sake of the climate emergency. Now I want to really put these powers to work. I think taxation that increases as people fly more and fly further makes sense. The UK Citizens Assembly on the Climate agrees.

So I want radical government action now. And by radical action I don’t mean by putting a Green party into government only to see it abandon its traditions, and swap environmentalism for nationalism. How could you trust a party that has abandoned its opposition to an illiberal assault on medical privacy by backing covid ID cards, to deliver on the other things it has said that it will do? The Greens won’t be the thorn in the government’s side but we will.

Of course, ministerial disinterest applies to long-held powers too. For the impact of that, conference, we need look no further than the health service. This Conference has already passed policy on the drug death emergency. Things have got so bad, with our drug mortality the worst in the world, that we’ve had to call in the United Nations, but it doesn’t stop there.

On ambulances, A&E, mental health services, the SNP’s approach has been if ain’t broke…break it. Just this week we saw a dramatic intervention from Professor Paul Gray – the Chief Executive of NHS Scotland for six years under Nicola Sturgeon’s government. He said the NHS is “overwhelmed”, but he also said it would have happened with or without Covid. “The virus has simply brought the date of that event forward” he said.

The foundations of this crisis were there for years before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19:  The A&E target unmet for three years straight; The Treatment Time Guarantee missed hundreds of thousands of times; Patients routinely sent letters telling them they will be seen in 12 weeks when they won’t be seen in a year

Conference, I want to tell you about Catherine Whyte. In August, Catherine was forced to wait 15 hours for an ambulance after suffering a fall. Well last month she fell again and was forced to wait 8 hours for an ambulance. She was suffering from fractured feet, a fractured pelvis and delirium. Only when my constituent warned “my mum is dying” did an ambulance eventually arrive – another hour later. Catherine is a retired nurse of 40 years, she’s given her life’s work to the care and comfort of others. But our health service could not be there when she most needed them.

None of this is the fault of the heroic paramedics, technicians or call handlers. It’s the fault of the ministers who palmed off their warnings of shortages for years. Because the impact of 14 years of mismanagement can be seen right there, in Catherine Whyte’s kitchen.

While the Health Secretary dances around scrutiny, berating anyone who dares to hold him and his Government to account, people are hurting, people are dying.

That is why Scottish Liberal Democrats are pushing for an independent inquiry into all unnecessary deaths connected to the ambulance waiting times crisis, with the findings published. And the government must start weekly reporting of ambulance waiting times.  They are a symptom of an overrun and understaffed healthcare service, ignored for too long by a government with other priorities.

Conference, I fear this winter will be the hardest winter the NHS and its staff have ever known. Staff need cast iron guarantees that the health service will look after them, just as they have looked after us. Otherwise staff will leave, and the NHS will be in even more trouble.

People are suffering waiting for mental health care too. I recently told the First Minister about the 2,100 children waiting over a year to start treatment. And someone got in touch. After struggling with suicidal thoughts and depression for 8 years, this young man was told that one-to-one help wasn’t available because staff had been let go. Group therapy was the only option.

A year later, he went back to his GP to ask what options were now available. And it was at this point that he was told something that no one in his position should ever have to hear: ‘There is nothing else we can offer you.’ He reached out to me because, after listening to Nicola Sturgeon’s Programme for Government, he said he felt abandoned and insignificant.

Conference, I’m proud our party has stood up for mental health for the last decade. I’m proud we got £120 million more for mental health in the budget for this year. I’m proud we led the Parliament in declaring a mental health crisis. Because I don’t want anyone, ever, to hear the words ‘there is nothing more we can offer you’.

The pandemic confirmed just how much we need first class mental health services and first class social care. Each is a monumental challenge. Yet the First Minister diluted her government’s focus on both, combining the departments for mental health and social care. But she could still find room for Green ministers that bring with them pro-independence votes.

Conference, I will resist the National Care Service, even its name is deceptive. It leans into the title of the National Health Service that we all hold so dear. But unlike the NHS it won’t offer care that is free at the point of delivery. And it does so to hide what it truly is - another SNP ministerial power grab.

The ministers who now want to seize control of social care are the same ministers who oversaw the discharge of thousands of untested and covid-positive patients into care homes - despite pleas from care homes themselves. And they’ve got a track record of disastrous centralisations, among them Police Scotland. That botched centralisation left two people dying unaided by the side of the M9 for three days. Three days.

Rather than building another brand-new organisation at their beck-and-call, Scotland should be focusing on improving care with national standards and entitlements for users and by ensuring that the hard work of staff is recognised with a step change in pay and conditions.

Because we should never ask our key workers to work for poverty wages, and that has continued for far too long. It’s not restricted to health and social care workers either. In work poverty is one of the principle reasons that nearly a third of children in this country exist below the breadline and with the cut to universal credit, those out of work will be hit hardest.

If that great liberal William Beveridge could see us now, he would think his transformational work at the end of the war had been for nothing. We are the inheritors of his legacy and we need to do something about it. That is why I am today announcing a Commission for a Just Economy, to re set our liberal vision for Scotland. This will be chaired by Jeremy Purvis and will present recommendations to our conference in a year’s time. This will be rooted in liberal values, like social justice, sustainability and above all human rights.

Conference, if there is a movement in the political firmament that exists to safeguard human rights, then it is ours. But we live in country where legislation guarantees rights that cover every aspect of your life, apart from one and that is your departure from it. Too many Scots are denied a good death, wracked by pain and indignity.

I want to know that if I am terminally ill and in agony beyond the reach of palliative care that I could say “this far and no further” and be supported to end that suffering in comfort and dignity.

I am so proud that my good friend and colleague, Liam McArthur is stewarding the Assisted Dying Bill though parliament in his name. A Liberal parliamentarian, who may finally allow Scotland to join the ranks of other progressive nations that already offer their citizens this final act of compassion.

Some of you may disagree with me. And you know what, that’s fine. I only ask that if we disagree on this or on other things, that we disagree well. Because one of the things that I love about our party is its plurality.

We don’t discourage discourse or shut down questions, we celebrate them. We recognise the many paths to a Liberal and open society and we make space for them in our movement. No other party offers that freedom, it is a freedom we would extend to the society we are trying to build.

And the next stage in that construction project comes in the council elections next May. I think about that opportunity every day. Because across this country, in the villages and towns of Scotland, people are crying out for what we deal in and that is hope.

Already and everywhere, I see engines starting and canvass teams assembling, for new candidates like Jill Tilt, Molly Nolan and Colin Aitken; Drummond Begg and Louise Spence. The length and breadth of this country we’re fired up and ready to go. So, let’s go.

Conference, do you ever get that feeling of being exactly where you’re meant to be? Well I feel that;

Leading our party, right here and right now. I feel it in the canvass sessions I join and in the local party meetings I attend; I feel it when I lead for our party in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament. I would not be anywhere else. We’ve been written off and counted out every step of my political career, we’ve come back stronger and we’ve come back harder; I would not be anywhere else. I’ve been told that this is the toughest job in Scottish Politics, well I’m already loving it and I’m just getting started. And I would not be anywhere else.

Thank you.

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