As expected, Alex Cole-Hamilton has put himself forward to lead the Scottish Lib Dems, announcing his candidacy with an obligatory walking-and-talking video introducing himself to party members. It’s unclear whether anyone else will stand before the August 20 nominations deadline and it could well be that Cole-Hamilton wins by default. The rules certainly favour that outcome, with only Members of the Scottish Parliament allowed to stand, and the party having only four of those.
Cole-Hamilton represents a generational shift from outgoing leader Willie Rennie, an old-fashioned social democrat at a loss to keep up with — or, frankly, understand — the lively array of identity-centric grievances threatening to replace liberalism as the party’s guiding philosophy. Cole-Hamilton is very much part of that development but he is also capable, fluent, energetic and not above a bit of partisan shin-kicking.
Assuming he wins, he’ll have a full plate on the go. May’s local elections saw the Scottish Lib Dems turn in their worst performance of the Holyrood era, down on the first-past-the-post vote, the regional list and total seat tally. It could have been worse, of course. Beatrice Wishart saw her majority halved in Shetland, a one-time Lib Dem heartland where the SNP has grown its vote share by 30 percentage points over the last decade. The continuing electoral health of Nicola Sturgeon’s Nationalists, plus the upwards creep in support for her Green adjunct, has the potential to be lethal for the Lib Dems. Cole-Hamilton cannot afford to be complacent about these pressures. Political parties can and do die and often it happens because they no longer have a clear reason for existing.
Deciding the Scottish Lib Dems’ reason for existing will have to be a priority for the next leader.