WATCH: Alex Cole-Hamilton’s speech to Scottish Conference

Susan Murray will, we all hope, be the MP for Mid Dunbartonshire in a few months’ time. So she was the right person to introduce Alex Cole-Hamilton ahead of his leader’s speech to Scottish Conference on Sunday.

Alex talked about our future relationship with the SNP Government – working with them in a grown up fashion where we could make a difference for our constituents, but looking forward to being able to get rid of them in an election.

He looked forward to replacing them as the third party in the House of Commons too and set out our plans to improve mental health, give people access to GP appointments and deal with sewage. He also spoke about his support for Liam McArthur’s bill which would allow assisted dying in limited circumstances. The next great social reform, he called it, while also acknowledging that not everyone in the party felt like that and that no Lib Dem would be compelled to vote for it.

Watch the speech in full here.

The text is below:

Conference, Susan Murray’s journey into politics is enough to make any Liberal Democrat proud. She joined our party to make a tangible difference to the lives of the people around her.

Susan raised half-a-million pounds to build a skate park in Kirkintilloch, before she was even elected as a councillor. Public service runs through her veins.

She gets business, she knows what it means to be a carer.

The people of Mid Dunbartonshire are going to be so well served when Susan is sworn in as their new MP at the next General Election.

And conference, her team have knocked every door, rung every door bell, had thousands of meaningful conversations with the people who matter most.

And every leaflet squeezed through every letterbox, moves us one step closer to winning back Mid Dunbartonshire from the nationalists.

Conference this is the last time we will meet before that General Election.

Liberal Democrats are knocking on thousands of doors every week.

Listening to people whose housing costs are skyrocketing.

Who are worried about the cuts being made to their children’s schools, and the sewage being dumped in their rivers.

People have had enough and are telling us it’s time for change.

It’s why, under Ed’s leadership this month, we beat the Conservatives into third place at the English local elections, for the first time in a generation.

Taking control of true blue councils.

And it’s why we will be taking a brush to the acid yellow wall of the SNP and repainting it good old Lib Dem gold.

To return Alistair Carmichael, Jamie Stone, Wendy Chamberlain and Christine Jardine.

And at either end of the iconic West Highland Way, you’ll find Susan Murray and Angus MacDonald.

I know what it means to pour your time and energies into a campaign. So I want to thank all of our amazing candidates for everything you’ve done already, and everything you will do before polling day. And I want to thank the families and friends around you, supporting you on this journey.

Conference, we’ve beaten the SNP before, and together we will do it again.

More liberal voices,

For carers and teachers,

For small business owners and islanders without ferries,

For long Covid sufferers and young people struggling with their mental health,

For everyone who can’t get a GP appointment or see an NHS dentist.

We will be your voice. For a fairer deal.

And as we grow, I will tell you now Conference, with your help, with the help of Liberal Democrats across the UK, it is absolutely within our grasp to overtake the Scottish National Party, with more liberals than nationalists in the Parliament to come.

Let us take those green benches from the SNP so that liberal voices are once again heard at the very front of the House of Commons.

If we misspeak in Parliament we have to correct the record. Well in Dundee last year, I misspoke. I told you that Humza Yousaf would be the last nationalist First Minister of Scotland. Honestly, the lengths he’ll go to prove me wrong.

Conference, no matter how they try to spin it, the newest leader of the Scottish National Party is anything but.

John Swinney didn’t know it when he relinquished the reins of the SNP 20 years ago, but his party was on the threshold of power.

Now, as he picks those reins back up, he may not know it or believe it, but the SNP stand on the threshold of defeat. No wonder they won’t call an election.

Just like the Conservatives, the SNP have been in power too long. Anyone will tell you that.

My message to John Swinney is this. I’m in politics to get things done. To change things for the better.

We will only meet you on the issues that matter to our communities and our values as liberals.

There will be areas where we can find common ground and I hope we find it.

Because, I love my country, and I want the very best for it.

For me, sitting on the opposition benches doesn’t mean opposing for opposition’s sake.

But my party will hold your government to account where it falls short. And in a Parliament of minorities, where every vote matters, we will never shy away from exercising our voices.

We will hold you to the standards that you say you will keep, and Conference at the very top of that list will be the protection of our hard-won progress on equalities and human rights.

Remember, for every day, from 2004 to 2024, John Swinney has been party to, and complicit in, every significant decision taken by SNP high command and round the Cabinet table of the Scottish Government. Wingman to Nicola Sturgeon. He was wingman to Alex Salmond.

On education standards, on access to healthcare, on missed climate targets, on the ferries fiasco. Failing to get the basics right.

The SNP’s failures in government, are John Swinney’s failures in government.

Conference, it was he who attended Gold Command – the secretive central committee at the heart of the government’s response to the pandemic, for which there is barely any record.

And it was John Swinney who deleted his pandemic messages, alongside Nicola Sturgeon and other members of their top team.

With that deletion of evidence, they undermined the work of both the UK and Scottish Covid Inquiries.

With that deletion of evidence, they deprived bereaved families of the answers they are searching for.

This may yet be the biggest scandal of devolution and a day of reckoning will come for the new First Minister.

Conference, across these islands, a culture of sleaze, cronyism and rule-breaking is undermining faith in our democracy.

Ministers never take responsibility for their actions any more.

We need to tackle that head on.

I’m proud that our manifesto will be the only one that contains commitments to long-held beliefs like:

• Reforming the House of Lords

• Introducing proportional representation

• And a written constitution for a federal United Kingdom.

And after 25 years of devolution, it’s time we refreshed Holyrood as well.

It’s having a quarter life crisis – I’m told by millennials that’s a thing.

It’s why Scottish Liberal Democrats will campaign for a new Accountability Act.

To:

• Break open the scandal of Government by WhatsApp

• Expand freedom of information

• And create the right for people to recall their MSPs

Let’s put power back in the hands of the voters, end the culture of secrecy and spin, and fix our broken politics.

Conference, this isn’t empty talk.

Because we’ve been there, done that and got the t-shirt.

Remember, we’re the party that switched Scotland’s council elections to PR.

And it was the signature of Jim Wallace on the statute book that broke the ground on freedom of information.

That was Scottish Liberal Democrats delivering good, open government. That was devolution delivering. Getting the basics right.

It made me so proud to listen to Jim’s speech earlier today. It gave me such hope. And it offers us lessons that we are going to need. Because we will be part of what’s next.

Conference, when our Parliament reconvened, some of the challenges we now face would have seemed almost inconceivable.

The climate emergency, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, long Covid, and the insidious reach of abused technology. I’m talking about cyberattacks on our health service, deepfake AI in our politics and hostile state surveillance.

For Scotland to play its part, we need to go back to being the Parliament that its creators like Jim Wallace and Donald Dewar first envisaged.

A place of ideas and challenge. Of co-operation and compromise.

A cathedral of public debate in which the priorities of the people always come first.

And Conference, we should be proud of what we’ve achieved in the last 25 years of devolution.

Free personal care, eye tests, dental checks, bus passes. That was us.

The smoking ban and the abolition of student fees. That was us too.

And the great liberal principles of land reform, and fair votes for local government. All us.

Getting the basics right.

And we have so much more to do. Our parliamentary party at Holyrood might be small for now, but we are mighty.

We have some of the hardest working MSPs in Parliament. Willie tops the speakers table, having made more than 150 contributions in the past year. Which you know… I am pleased for him…not competitive about it…in the slightest.

But Conference, as that first Parliament dawned, Jim Wallace spoke of our belief in the “basic worth, merit and integrity of every individual”.

He spoke of tapping the reservoir of enterprise and to tackle the vicious circle of deprivation and underachievement.

He concluded “Those are fundamental principles to me and to my party. They are such important principles that I do not want just to talk about them, I want to do something about them.”

That challenge, that liberal challenge, exists today as much as it did 25 years ago, and we will rise to it.

Conference, my father-in-law slipped away from us six years ago, on a day not unlike this one.

He succumbed to a kind of liver cancer that was mercifully painless and took him very swiftly after diagnosis. We’d managed to get him home from hospital and when it was clear the end was coming, Gill and her siblings moved back into the house to support their parents through the final week of his life.

I would go out there whenever I could, it wasn’t a chore, it was lovely. They had created a bubble around him filled with love and light and laughter. We took turns to spend precious time with him. There was such unexpected joy in those days and then one morning he was gone. It was a very gentle passing.

If I could choose the manner of my own death, it would certainly be that.

But we don’t get to choose,

At several points in my life, I’ve been brought hard up against that visceral reality. All too many people are denied a good death and depart this world in pain and in distress.

For me the Assisted Dying Bill currently before the Scottish Parliament represents the next big liberal reform. It will join the advance of progressive change that has defined our movement, led by Liberal giants like Lynne Featherston in her introduction of same sex marriage, David Steel when he legislated to allow safe access to abortion services, Ed Davey moving the amendment that ended Section 28 in England and Wales.

Only one parliamentarian was trusted by campaigners to build bridges across the Chamber to achieve this vital change, and his name is Liam McArthur.

We have human rights designed to protect and safeguard every aspect of our life, save one and that is our departure from it.

Endings matter, in stories and in life, and I want to know that if I’m dying in agony, beyond the reach of palliative care or I know that moment is coming, then I’ll have the right to say ‘this far and no further’ and leave this world in dignity.

Let me reassure you that no Liberal will be compelled to act against their conscience and vote for it. I know that not everyone in this hall will be persuaded. I understand that – but our plurality as a movement sets us apart from all other parties.

There are many paths to a liberal vision for Scotland.

And I am proud that there is a Liberal at the helm of this legislation.

Thank you Liam.

Whether it is end of life palliative care nurses, or your community GP, we are blessed with some of the finest clinicians in the world.

But I don’t think I need to tell you that there is a crisis in our NHS. It’s self-evident.

There was a time you could see your GP at the first time of asking. But that’s almost unheard of now.

I met someone in Caithness at the weekend who rang their surgery 200 times when the phonelines opened at 8.30, before she eventually got through. 200 times. She was offered an appointment for the end of the month.

Her story is not unique. It’s happening everywhere.

New parents being told that they could only get an appointment for their sick baby if it was urgent, otherwise they have to wait two weeks.

And it’s the same with NHS dentistry. It’s been left to rot.

Patients ordering tools off Amazon to do the job themselves. Flying back to war-torn Ukraine. Conference, it says everything about the state of NHS dentistry that someone has to brave the drones and cruise missiles of downtown Kyiv for basic dental care.

Be absolutely clear, none of this is the fault of our hardworking staff. They deserve better.

We need a government that won’t make empty promises but will get the basics right.

Scottish Liberal Democrats will create world class mental health services by taxing the social media giants who cause so much of the problem.

That’ll help get you faster access to your GP.

We’ll make sure everyone can see an NHS dentist by overhauling the failed Recovery Plan and making it easier for qualified foreign dentists to practice here.

We would scrap the ministerial takeover of social care and dedicate the billion pounds it would cost into making social care a profession of choice.

And introduce a new higher minimum wage for all care workers across the UK, relieving pressure on our hospitals.

Make no mistake, our National Health Service is on the line. If the SNP can’t see that, or refuse to deal with it, they need to make way for somebody who will.

Valuing our staff isn’t just about pay, safe staffing on every shift, or even just ministerial attention. It’s housing too – because health boards and care homes can’t get the staff they need if there are no homes for them.

John Swinney, along with Kate Forbes, Patrick Harvie and everyone else in their parties recently voted for a budget that cut £200m from housing.

At a time when homelessness is at a record high, there are 10,000 children living in temporary accommodation, and hundreds of thousands of people on housing waiting lists.

What hope do those people have?

Councils and now finally Parliament have declared a housing emergency.

But it’s getting even harder to build a house in Scotland.

Because on top skills shortages, Brexit, inflation, Liz Truss, we’ve got Scottish ministers scaring off the investment Scotland needs.

They’ve ramped up the rhetoric, moved goalposts, meddled more and more, and claimed Scotland will be independent by 2029. And the effect? Undermining market confidence in house building all across Scotland.

Industry experts tell me that £3.3 billion of reliable investment in housebuilding has either been lost or put on hold, some of it shovel-ready, because of the decisions of the SNP/Green Government. It’s one of the key reasons that affordable housebuilding has collapsed, dragging Scotland back to Thatcherite levels.

Conference, this morning you called for a new National Housing Plan – one that will stand up to the housing emergency and make lives better.

To get more houses built, give people a home to call their own and get the basics right.

That starts with winning back the confidence of those people who were champing at the bit to build homes in Scotland.

So today I am committing to working with business and our council group leaders to develop a new programme for key worker housing.

Attractive sustainable housing, reserved for the key workers our communities need.

Conference on the day I became the leader of our party, I told you about the three words that I believe are more important than any others in the English language, for a person to understand about themselves and to believe to be true: “You are loved”.

When Stephen Lawrence lay dying in the street, he was cradled by a passer-by unknown to him. As she held him, she said those words to him over and over again until he died in her arms. “You are loved”.

What an amazing act of compassion.

I’m in politics in large part because after 20 years in youthwork I have met too many children, in the care of this state who will never fully understand the meaning of those words or know them to be true. Like the young boy I met in a care home who’d been through 37 failed placements before he was 8. That memory still keeps me awake at night.

Liberals are united by that sense of love and compassion for people in our society who have experienced the worst possible start in life, and those half a world away that we will never meet, fighting climate injustice, poverty or state-sponsored oppression.

It’s why Gill and I took in a Ukrainian refugee for 9 months. It’s why I’ve been working with the Russian dissident community to establish a permanent memorial to Alexei Navalny and demanding our country seize Kremlin money wherever we can find it. Putin will not be lifting my sanction any time soon.

The considered, selfless response of Liberals the world over to strife and iniquity was why I joined this party.

I know that there will be many in this room, and across the country, deeply worried about the increasing prominence of regressive and intolerant voices here and around the world. I share that concern profoundly.

I have at every stage of my career upheld our party’s commitments to equalities, sometimes at political cost, and sometimes against the prevailing winds of public opinion. I have done so proudly. That will never change.

I have strived to be an Ally since growing up in the 1980s under Thatcher. And let me say this, I will always fight for the rights of every part of the LGBT+ community, always. It’s partly why I’m in politics now and why I am and always will be a proud member of this party.

Just imagine what can happen with more Liberal Democrats in the next Parliament.

First-class MPs who will fight the cost of living emergency by repairing the welfare safety net, protecting the pensions triple lock, by expanding employment rights for new mums and dads, and by cutting bills and emissions by making homes warmer.

Local champions who’ll fight for a fair deal for every part of these islands:

fund mental health by taxing social media giants, improve access to local health services, value our carers, deliver a billion pounds more for farming, and get the sewage out our rivers.

Conference with every Liberal Lion we elect to the House of Commons we can help Britain stand taller on the world stage once again.

We’ll end the scandals and sleaze, restore our international aid budget,

fix our broken relationship with our nearest neighbours and point our compass back to our true North, back towards the Single Market, back towards the heart of Europe.

Conference, that’s the prize. That’s what we’re here for.

So let’s kick the Conservatives out of Number Ten and smash the blue wall.

Get change for Scotland by tearing down the acid yellow wall of the SNP as well.

Because now, more than ever, people deserve a fair deal.

From Milngavie to Mallaig, Cupar to Cape Wrath – people are choosing the Scottish Liberal Democrats to make that change happen.

Scotland is ready for change, Scotland is desperate for change.

And we are here for it.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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