Yesterday the Scottish Parliament chose its First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon was always going to win, although she is one short of an overall majority. Willie Rennie announced his intention to stand against her because “Most people did not vote for the largest party and it is important that their voices are heard.” Conservative leader Douglas Ross followed suit.
Willie gave a really strong speech, setting out the sort of country he wanted Scotland to be. He addressed the deep divisions in the country, which is pretty much split down the middle on independence and attacked both SNP and Conservatives for reinforcing these divisions.
The Conservatives, he said, were the biggest threat to the Union, rather than defenders of it.
That is certainly true. The SNP and the Conservatives need each other to take attention away from their failing governments and on to a bitter fight over the Constitution. Willie was right to call it out and to give a vision of what Scotland really could be like.
Nicola Sturgeon was pretty graceless, to be honest, attacking both of the leaders who dared to oppose her personally rather than on ideas. She proved Willie’s point, really. And his generous words when she was elected are a stark contrast to her disrespect:
It has been an extraordinary time with extraordinary pressures, both Covid and political. I have admired Nicola Sturgeon’s personal leadership through the pandemic; she has made life-and-death decisions every day. I was impressed by the clarity of the communications and I agreed with the caution, too.
The fact that we have political differences in the chamber should not prevent us from respecting each other, and we should appreciate the personal sacrifice that comes with public service and office. Of course, that personal sacrifice pales in comparison with the many struggles that our constituents face every day, but it is sacrifice nonetheless, so I thank Nicola Sturgeon for that service and offer my support as well.
I suspect Scotland will look back on Willie’s speech in 5 years’ time and realise that there was a lot of truth in his words.
I want Scotland to be a liberal country where everyone can live as they wish, not held back by prejudice or expectations, and where every person can achieve their potential, lifted up by a healthy body and an educated mind.
I want an open and outward-looking Scotland, not one that blames its neighbours for our problems. I want a country that looks to the needs of people next door and around the world, and of people in the future, and not just to our own interests today. I want a Scotland with people who come together to overcome the enormous challenges that time throws our way. That would be my driving philosophy as First Minister.
I would start by putting recovery first. The people who are waiting up to three years for mental health treatment need recovery to come first. The friends and family of the 1,256 people who lost their lives in a single year to drugs deserve our attention. Those who are looking for work cannot wait. Those who are desperate for a hip replacement or cancer treatment cannot wait, nor can those who wait for a good education and nor can future generations who want a healthy planet. They all deserve our focus, because they cannot wait behind another debate on the constitution. That is why I would put recovery first.
When no single party has a majority, no one should assume a right to the office of First Minister. Most people did not vote for the largest party, so it is important that their voices be heard today. I stand for nomination as First Minister with great hope, but with a liberal dose of realism.
This country is divided like never before—right down the middle, according to the polls and the election. Yet the situation is worse than that: hardened supporters on both sides cannot understand each other any more. They have stopped listening to each other, and the election campaign entrenched those differences. The Scottish National Party’s materials often featured Boris Johnson more than Nicola Sturgeon. The Conservatives were more interested in attacking Labour and the Liberal Democrats than in trying to win over SNP supporters. They both stoked up people’s fear, which resulted in thousands of people voting for one extreme for fear of the other.
In that race to the bottom we lost out, but so did the country, as the chasm grew. Ever greater radicalisation of the hard-core support on each side is not sustainable, regardless of whether Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, because we will need the skills and the talents of everyone to overcome the enormous challenges that we face.
There is an important lesson for those who want to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom—especially for the Conservative Party. Many people have yet to make up their minds about independence. We must reach out to them and to others, and we must listen, understand and act. In the election campaign, I reached out across the constitutional divide. Anas Sarwar reached out, too, but the Conservatives did not. That might have held it together for the Conservatives this time, but that strategy will not keep Scotland in the United Kingdom, and looking after their Conservative friends through Government contracts, cutting international aid, taking a cavalier approach to Northern Ireland and picking fights with Europe does not help, either. Far from being the defenders of the union, the Conservatives are the biggest threat to the union.
However, Boris Johnson and the Conservatives are not the United Kingdom; it is bigger and better than that. I refuse to walk away from a partnership of the peoples of the UK because of the Conservatives. I am here to work for a liberal country—an open, internationalist, reformed, caring, fair and green country that is packed with opportunity for everyone, no matter their background. That is the country that I want to live in, and that is the country that I will always work for.
* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron’s Musings