The leader of the Scottish Lib Dems has said Scotland is in the “end game of the clash of nationalisms” as he launched his party’s campaign for the 2027 council elections.
In his first conference speech as leader, Alex Cole-Hamilton made overt entreaties to Scottish Green voters, launched a commission on male violence – to be chaired by deputy leader and former police officer Wendy Chamberlain – and announced plans to return 150 councillors in the next local government elections in just under five years’ time.
Striking an optimistic tone after the party increased its seat tally in May’s council poll a year after dropping to four MSPs at Holyrood, Mr Cole-Hamilton said: “We will lift our vote across the country and in each of the coming parliamentary elections by starting our campaign for the 2027 council elections right here, right now.”
He added: “We will grow from the 87 councillors we won in May and return 150 or more in just four years’ time.
“We’ve identified the wards, we just need people to fill them.”
He also predicted a shift away from the focus on the constitution that has ruled Scottish politics since before the 2014 referendum.
“I believe that we are at last in the end game of the clash of nationalisms that has held this country back for so long,” he told the assembled delegates in Hamilton on Saturday, alluding to both the SNP and the Tories.
“We may finally be nearing a time where the constitution no longer suffocates our politics.”
But with the Scottish Government pursuing a case at the UK Supreme Court which could see Holyrood found to have the powers to hold a referendum and Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to run the next general election as a de facto referendum if the parliament cannot call another vote, independence looks set to continue to be a leading issue in Scotland’s political life in the coming years.
Despite his party’s opposition to independence, that does not mean they are comfortable with the status quo, the leader said, laying out the party’s long standing support for a federal UK.
Mr Cole-Hamilton said he predicts there will be “common ground” between he and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar on the issue.
Success for the party has, in recent years, been “out of reach”, the leader told party activists, with the Lib Dems spending most of the past decade fighting for survival after their time in coalition with the Conservatives at Westminster.
But, he added, “change is coming”.
“The old order of things is falling away and that better Britain is sight, we only have to reach for it,” he said.
“Our renewal has already started, we should leave this place with growing confidence in our message, our candidates, and in our strategy.”
The Lib Dem leader also pushed for Green voters who do not believe in independence to migrate to his party, saying: “I want to say something to the thousands of green voters who feel abandoned.
“Who care about social justice and sustainability, but reject the idea that the answer to any of the global problems we face can be found in a border or a flag.
“Look to the Scottish Liberal Democrats, you have a home with us.”
Mr Cole-Hamilton told the conference he had written to Ms Sturgeon, urging her to issue another appeal for hosts for Ukrainian families fleeing the Russian invasion, calling for all refugees to be given free bus travel and increasing council funding to improve the infrastructure of placing families in Scottish homes.
SNP MP Pete Wishart said: “People in Scotland haven’t forgotten the catastrophic damage the Lib Dems inflicted in coalition with the Tories – imposing devastating austerity cuts that continue to harm public services and hammer household incomes.
“While the Lib Dems have ditched their opposition to Brexit, and are itching to get back into bed with the Tories at Westminster, the SNP will continue to offer people in Scotland the opportunity of a fairer and more prosperous future in Europe as an independent country.”