Alex Cole-Hamilton has confirmed he wants to lead the Scottish Liberal Democrats with “new hope”, claiming he can offer a way out of the “clash of nationalisms”.
The Edinburgh Western MSP is the first to enter the contest he is widely expected to win unchallenged.
If successful, he would take over a group reduced at the Holyrood election in May to just four in the party’s worst Scottish Parliament election result.
Here, we take a look at his plans for the troubled party, where he stands on independence, possible coalitions, his background – and his controversies in Holyrood.
What’s the pitch?
Announcing his move on July 28, he placed himself as an alternative leader to the SNP and Tories, who dominate Scottish politics.
“After everything we’ve been through, Scotland needs new hope, right now,” he claimed.
“A massive opportunity exists for an alternative kind of thinking to break through in Scottish politics. One that can capture the votes of Scots who are tired of having to choose between those extremes.
“I want to drive that alternative, so I’m putting my name forward as a candidate to be the next leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.”
Some news from me: 👇 pic.twitter.com/EB3CMyNktM
— Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP🔶 (@agcolehamilton) July 27, 2021
Mr Cole-Hamilton, who was elected in 2016 to Edinburgh Western, is the party’s spokesman for health and sport and was immediately regarded as the strong favourite after Mr Rennie announced he would stand down.
Looking towards the top job in the party, Mr Cole-Hamilton added: “People often underestimate the Lib Dems and we keep surprising them. In the Chesham and Amersham by-election, we took one of the safest Tory seats in the country and did so by a country mile.
“It shows that if you want a Liberal Democrat parliamentarian, you can have one. In Scotland, Willie Rennie has ended any question over our party’s survival by building fortresses in our constituencies. It’s now time for us to look beyond those boundaries and reconnect with those Scots who stand where we do.”
‘No mandate’ for independence
Despite the SNP’s dominance and recent election victory, Mr Cole-Hamilton says the First Minister only has a “tainted” mandate for a second referendum.
He also assured voters he’d have no part in a “wildcat” vote, like in Catalonia.
“They would not forgive us if we embarked on this vainglorious attempt to rig some kind of result in the same way that they did in the north of Spain,” he said.
Mr Cole-Hamilton’s party was condemned to years in the opposition wilderness after ex- UK party leader Nick Clegg to them into a deal with David Cameron’s Conservatives.
Since then, the fortunes have declined rapidly.
But he positioned himself as a “new generation” which did not have the legacy of the so-called ConDem coalition years.
We need to seek out a progressive alternative. And that might be a coalition with Labour.”
– Alex Cole-Hamilton
Instead, he harked back to the first two terms of devolution at Holyrood where the Liberals held power as junior partners with Scottish Labour.
In a hint of direction to come, he said: “If we are to see a change in government from the SNP, who have stagnated for 14 years in power, then we need to seek out a progressive alternative. And that might be a coalition with Labour.”
Right now, that’s far off. Their combined total at Holyrood is 26 of 129 seats – far short of a majority.
Journey from Madras to Holyrood
A former pupil of Madras College in St Andrews and student at Aberdeen University, he was employed as a children’s charity worker before entering politics and says the experience shaped his sense of social justice and guided him as a father and activist.
That work also saw him appear before several parliamentary committees and in 2014, he received a number of awards for helping to bring about new legislation that allowed looked after children to stay in care up to the age of 21.
He stood unsuccessfully for the Lib Dems as a candidate at the 2003 Scottish Parliament election for Kirkcaldy, at the 2005 General Election for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, in 2007 for Stirling and in 2011 for Edinburgh Central.
His political breakthrough came in 2016 as he was elected to the Scottish Parliament for the first time in Edinburgh Western, being chosen as the party’s spokesman for health and sport shortly thereafter.
It was not all smooth sailing though as his election expenses for the campaign were investigated by police following an allegation that he had breached the legal spending cap and filed an incorrect and illegal election return.
While Mr Cole-Hamilton was later cleared of any wrongdoing, the party was fined for failing to accurately file its national spending return.
He was also criticised last year by a charity for care experienced young people after he suggested Nicola Sturgeon did not deserve the moniker of “chief mammy” – a reference to her role as a corporate parent for young people in care.
Who Cares? Scotland said it was “disappointing” to see Mr Cole-Hamilton “co-opt the experiences of those who are or have been in care to score political points” and that it was “especially confusing” given his strong credentials working in care.
In February, he apologised after being caught on camera mouthing swear words at children’s minister Maree Todd during a parliamentary committee and faced further criticism for appearing to blame Ms Todd for provoking the outburst.
Hands up, I lost my temper here. I was frustrated by your government backsliding on children’s rights once again (as long-grassing UNCRC incorporation would have been). Nevertheless I muttered something under my breath that I shouldn’t have and I apologise. https://t.co/xNrUJayMLa
— Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP🔶 (@agcolehamilton) February 13, 2021
Mr Cole-Hamilton apologised as Holyrood met for the first time since the incident, stating: “On Thursday in an exchange on children’s rights with the minister Maree Todd I was captured on camera mouthing language that was neither parliamentary nor respectful.
“I apologise unreservedly to the minister.
“Each of us in this chamber should strive to reflect the better natures of the people we are sent here to serve. I am very sorry and I will reflect on that.”
This is the footage in which Alex Cole-Hamilton has confirmed that he behaved inappropriately. Make up your own mind if you think this is acceptable behaviour from an MSP. pic.twitter.com/qIU2sIBJAP
— Ross Colquhoun (@rosscolquhoun) February 13, 2021
Mr Cole-Hamilton saw his profile rise during the Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond but described the process as one of the “darkest periods” of his time in parliament.
The Edinburgh Western MSP, who is married to former Dunfermline and West Fife General Election candidate Gillian Cole-Hamilton, with whom he has three children, has also spoken of his close personal friendship with Willie Rennie.
Saved from oblivion
In a statement on Twitter, he said he was “profoundly glad” Mr Rennie is staying on as an MSP “as I still have much to learn from him”.
He added: “There are few people in my life who have had as much influence over it as he has, and he is one of my best friends.
“When people think about Willie, more often than not they think of the most recognisable smile in Scottish politics. They are right to do so; his positivity is irrepressible.”