Alex Cole-Hamilton: 'I regret my involvement in the Alex Salmond inquiry'

The new leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats has expressed regret at his role in the Scottish Parliament’s inquiry into how the government handled sexual harassment allegations against Alex Salmond, and spoken of the “visceral human cost” he witnessed, revealing he was offering support to one of the women involved.

Alex Cole-Hamilton, who was recently elected to replace Willie Rennie after the party was reduced to just four MSPs in Holyrood at the May election, also said the committee had taken a toll on his mental health.

In an interview with Scotland on Sunday he said with hindsight he wished he had asked for another LibDem colleague to be assigned to the committee. “It was awful, it was tawdry. It was it was full of smoke and heat, and not a lot of light,” he said.

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“At the end of the day, I don't think we achieved a great deal. I think that it probably harmed and upset the women at the heart of it more, even more, if that's possible. And I, I regret my involvement in it… I would rather not have been part of it.”

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the new leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

At times the Edinburgh Western MSP was accused by some of being aggressive in his questioning on the committee and he admits he found the process “stressful”.

"It was high pressure. I mean, it took up so much oxygen, so much time. But also, I'd been supporting a complainer privately who approached me, and I could see what every twist and turn of it was doing to her.

"And I thought, well, that must be happening to all of the women at the heart of this. And you know, I think when you realise that you're locked into this process, which is taking twists and turns and subject to massive media speculation and intrigue and you see privately the visceral human cost of that… it was just... it was awful.

"I realised quite quickly what it was doing to people. And that takes its toll.”

The committee was launched by MSPs after the Scottish Government lost a judicial review to Mr Salmond over how it had conducted an internal inquiry into two allegations of sexual harassment against him, and had to pay the former first minister more than £500,000. However it was only got underway after the 2020 high court trial of Mr Salmond, which resulted in a jury clearing him of all charges.

Asked if he believed Mr Salmond should now be the leader of the Alba party, which is holding its first conference this weekend, he said: “No.

“I think that's the worst part of it. I mean, Alex Salmond is a man desperate to clear his reputation. I'm not sure that he deserves that opportunity, because irrespective of court judgements, and the rest of it, this is the man who has admitted some terrible, terrible behaviour and caused a lot of upset and heartache to women who deserve to be able to move on with their lives.”

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First elected to Holyrood in 2016, Cole-Hamilton was returned with the highest number of votes ever cast for an MSP with 25,578 in May, while at the same time he saw his party fail to break through elsewhere in Scotland and indeed ultimately lose one MSP from its Holyrood group, reducing its influence as a main party in the parliament.

He admitted sitting on the harassment committee probably raised his profile across Scotland, “but whether that was good or bad I don’t know.”

He is obviously frustrated by the May results, but he said: “We went backwards, we lost an MSP, but nobody's talking about extinction for us any more.

"I mean, take my own feat, you know, I got more votes in my constituency than any candidate in the history of the Scottish parliament. And Willie did the same. We are, I think, consolidated at what I hope is the lowest level but I don’t think anyone is talking about taking our seats anymore.

"And from that, you know, I think there's a period to grow. But I'm under no illusions that the challenge ahead.”

He said his party had been squeezed by a “toxic clash of nationalisms” between the SNP and the Brexit-supporting Conservatives but added: “I can't accept that's all there is and if this boils down to a choice between Nicola and Boris, then everybody loses. So I'm excited about offering a new hope. I think the country needs new hope right now. People are tired of the constitutional washing machine."

He rejects the idea the SNP has a mandate for a second independence referendum – despite their new deal with the Scottish Greens, and believes there is room for liberalism in Scottish politics.

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“Despite poll after poll after poll saying the SNP will get an easy overall majority, they underperformed on that. So did the Greens,” he said. “And also, I think that any sort of claim of a mandate has been tainted by the fact that halfway through the election, Nicola pivoted from independence to who do you want to lead you through Covid?

“Lots of people I know voted SNP who don't want independence, but didn't want to change horses during an international crisis. I think that there's going to be a period ahead now where people really ask what do they want – a government who will focus on the warning lights that are blinking across the dashboard of public policy, whether that's child and adolescent mental health waits, hospital waiting times, people getting letters saying they'll be seen in 12 weeks when there isn't a hope they'll be seen in 50, the threadbare state of our police force, the economy and the fact that our national deficit is going through the roof… all of these things matter to people, I think, more than a 10 year old discussion about the constitution.”

He believes Nicola Sturgeon benefited at the polls from her daily televised Covid briefings and handling of the pandemic compared to "the buffoonery of Boris in Westminster”

"I don't agree with that assessment. I think the SNP made almost as many mistakes as as the Conservative Party in terms of the handling of the coronavirus emergency, but the presentation was far better.”

On the possibility of a new referendum he doesn’t believe there will be a legal vote in the life of this parliament. “I think there might be a referendum without the necessary constitutional consent from London,” he said.

"Whether that's upheld as legal by the courts, only they know that, but I think that's just a dispiriting and depressing reality because because, frankly, we know what the last referendum did to political attention and and policy oxygen.

"It was the Alpha and the Omega of public policy debate in this country for the best part for years. This Parliament needs to be about recovery. It needs to be about getting Scotland back on track, you know, catching our kids up on what they've missed, dealing with the mental health catastrophe, the jobs crisis… all of these things should be occupying the time and attention of our politicians, not another divisive referendum.”

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Despite rhetoric from Nicola Sturgeon that other parties were approached for consensual working this parliament – and just the Greens took that opportunity – he said: “There was no approach that I'm aware of. I mean we don't oppose for the sake of opposing .

“We backed the last Scottish budget because of the massive wall of money we got for mental health. You know, we didn't have a problem. It was also the budget just before an election. We don't calculate based on political fortunes, we calculate what's right for the people we serve. But we've not had any overtures. There was never any offer on the table for us to come and join the government.

"And, frankly, you know, I cannot see a circumstance where we would want to entertain that. It's not because we fear power it's because after all this time, the SNP have shown themselves completely wanting in terms of delivery of effective government.”

He is sanguine about his party’s chances of getting anything out of the next budget given the SNP-Green agreement.

“That's okay. I mean, I hope, you know, I think it would be a sign of big grown up politics, if they still felt they could reach out across the aisle. We will happily entertain talks on budgets if it's in the interest of liberal policies and the focus of where public policy attention should be. I suspect that's unlikely because I think this government's all about driving home an independence referendum again.

"It’s inexplicable to me the Greens have signed up but good luck to them. They will soon realise that as the smaller partner they're gonna have to carry the can for some pretty unpopular stuff. They will be the midwives to the illiberal policy of vaccine passports.”

One area where his party will back the SNP and Greens is in reform of the Gender Recognition Act, but he is concerned about the “toxic debate” and believes there could be a way of bringing opposing sides together.

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"I understand that there are people who have particular questions and concerns about things in reforming the GRA means in terms of how easy it is to change your gender. One of the things we can learn from other countries is how you deal with the concept of false identification or false declaration of your gender based on an intent to abuse.

“If you have a very punitive sentence attached to that, then I think both sides would agree that would be a good thing. If you throw the book at somebody that falsely declared their gender identity with the practice of accessing females spaces with an intention of abuse, then that would be an offence aggravated, and they could be put in prison for many, many years.

"The trans community would support it because they don't want people faking it or, or using it to abuse women. And I would hope that women would feel a little bit more confident that they are being listened to by the political classes.”

Outside of Holyrood he hopes LibDem fortunes can be revived at next year’s local council elections. “I literally just got the job but I'm optimistic about growth, as well as gains in the elections.

“We won two council by elections in the Highlands outside of Holyrood constituencies that we hold, and did so emphatically, when nobody saw us coming. I don't think that we're out of this clash of nationalist voting yet and so it might take a bit of time, but I'm still ready to believe that we could do something quite extraordinary.

"The elections might just come a bit too soon, but I'm going to shoot for the moon on this.”

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