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Alex Cole-Hamilton: Background and controversies of former Aberdeen University student tipped to replace Willie Rennie

Alex Cole-Hamilton, Scottish Liberal Democrats

Alex Cole-Hamilton has emerged as the frontrunner to become the new leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats following the resignation of Willie Rennie after more than a decade in the role.

Mr Cole-Hamilton, who was elected in 2016 to Edinburgh Western, is the party’s spokesman for health and sport and is regarded as the strong favourite after Mr Rennie announced on Monday that he would stand down.

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.

Scottish Liberal Democrat Alex Cole-Hamilton in the main chamber of the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh.

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.

Controversies

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.

Mr Cole-Hamilton argued the first minister did not deserve the title because of the Scottish Government’s record on issues such as raising the age of criminal responsibility and controversy over the handling of SQA exam results.

He also claimed the SNP leader – who used the chief mammy moniker in a speech at the 2018 Global Care Gathering – had sought to use children’s issues to “soften her sometimes frosty personality”.

‘I apologise unreservedly’

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.

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.”

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.

In an interview with Holyrood’s Politically Speaking podcast, he said his initial optimism about the committee’s work had faded over time and that he had now seen “the worst of government, and parliament and party politics”.

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.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie (right) and Alex Cole-Hamilton in Edinburgh.

“It has carried both me and the Liberal Democrats through some of our darkest moments and it is not overstating things to say that he has saved our party from oblivion and obscurity on more than one occasion.

“Scotland needs politicians of profound substance and integrity. Willie has both of those things and some to spare.

“Were it not for him, mental health and early years education would not enjoy the prominence they do in the corridors of Parliament and of Government today.

“His legacy as leader will be vast and long-lasting, principally focused on those at the margins of society while ensuring that Scotland has had, and will continue to have, strong liberal voices at every level of public life in our country.”

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