Humza Yousaf: With one hand tied behind our back, the SNP has built a fairer, more equal Scotland
When I read last year’s Holyrood Annual Review, I couldn’t have imagined that I would be contributing to the 2023 edition as Scotland’s first minister.
Not one of us could have predicted the twists and turns of our political landscape over the last 12 months. In all seriousness, my time as first minister has clearly not been without its challenges.
It is, however, the honour of my life to serve in this role and every single day I feel privileged to lead the country that I love.
The day I was nominated to become the sixth first minister of Scotland was a really proud moment for my family and me.
But it should also serve as a proud day for Scotland, as we became the first western European nation to have a Muslim lead it.
But the country that we all call home faces genuinely difficult challenges – few countries, if any, do not at present.
The damage caused by a hard Brexit, the impact of the global Covid pandemic and the effect of the war in Ukraine, have placed unprecedented pressure on our economy and public services.
Liz Truss, prime minister for 44 days, and Kwasi Kwarteng, chancellor for 38 days, wilfully threw petrol on the fire – burning any remaining economic stability to the ground.
Households across Scotland continue to suffer greatly from the consequences – with sky-high mortgage costs, energy bills and food costs to name only a few.
Let’s be absolutely clear, we are in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis of Westminster’s making.
As a result, the Scottish Government faces the most challenging spending environment in the history of our devolved parliament and our ability to deal with these immense pressures is impeded by our lack of significant borrowing powers.
I have already made tough decisions about Scotland’s fiscal priorities. More lie ahead.
But with fresh leadership, also comes a fresh perspective and new approach to government.
During the SNP leadership contest, I committed myself to a radical, ambitious and progressive policy agenda – my Cabinet and ministerial team reflects that and they will deliver this commitment.
In particular, the counsel and experience offered by Deputy First Minister Shona Robison has been incredibly valuable to me so far, and we will continue to work closely together to deliver for the people of Scotland.
Early in my time as first minister I outlined that the Scottish Government I lead will be defined by three distinct and interdependent missions.
The new look Scottish Government’s missions of equality, opportunity and community will lead us, in turn, to tackle poverty, build a fairer, greener economy, and to recover and transform our public services.
Over 13 years of Westminster austerity has pushed thousands of Scottish households into poverty and even more onto the breadline. These cruel Tory policies are now also backed by Labour – a party that has lost its way so badly that its leader, Keir Starmer, has said the rape clause can be implemented “fairly”.
We must protect those most at harm from poverty, and we will choose to target spending to help those who need it most.
That’s why I increased the Fuel Insecurity Fund to £30m. We’ll invest a further £1.3bn in the Scottish Child Payment over the next three years.
The latter is a social security benefit described as “game-changing” by leading anti-poverty charities that, let’s not forget, is not available to families in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.
My government will expand the provision of free school meals and we will continue to work with local government to reduce the number of people living in temporary homeless accommodation.
Local authorities will be intrinsic to our ambitions to tackle poverty in Scotland.
That’s one of the reasons the Scottish Government has committed to a stronger relationship with local government, with mutual trust at its core, through the landmark Verity House Agreement.
This new deal for local government is based on the premise that often local councils know best how to serve their local communities.
Scotland’s just transition to net zero presents Scotland with a huge opportunity.
We need to play our part in addressing the global crises of climate change and nature loss. But decisions on oil and gas exploration sadly remain reserved to Westminster, which has rinsed the industry dry to the tune of £350bn, squandering the cash and giving next to nothing back to local communities.
Right now, Westminster risks allowing Scotland to fall further behind other global energy superpowers in the race to reap the rewards of a net zero economy.
Workers, and trade unions, will be at the heart of everything the Scottish Government does on our journey to net zero. That is why we have committed £500m to accelerate the just transition. It is a shame that Westminster refuses to match our commitment.
Together, if the political determination is there, we can build a green, wellbeing economy where prosperity and fairness go hand in hand.
I will use the powers of devolution to their maximum to deliver services and improve the lives of the people of Scotland, but we know that it is only with independence that we can truly unlock Scotland’s future as a global renewables capital of the world.
In this vein of opportunity, my government will involve businesses at an early stage of policy development. We have established the New Deal for Business Group to solidify this commitment and deepen links with the private sector in the shared interest of our economic prosperity.
The third of our missions, community, will focus on the delivery of key public services.
The Scottish Government will continue to invest in the NHS to help it recover from the pandemic and over the next three years, waiting lists will fall and the outcomes for cancer treatment will improve.
We are also committed to radically improving social care services and reducing delayed discharges.
We will improve childcare for school age children. I’ll accelerate the expansion of childcare for one and two year olds, and consider ways in which we can empower parents to determine the best care for their children.
We will continue to focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap in schools, while raising attainment for all.
With limited powers and a fixed budget, the Scottish Government is, of course, already tackling child poverty head on.
Ninety thousand fewer children live in poverty as a result of our action and focus. The Scottish Government has lifted an estimated 50,000 children out of hardship through the Scottish Child Payment.
It is important to remember what else the SNP has achieved in government. We have record health and social care funding with NHS staffing at historically high levels; record investment in education and more teachers per pupil than any other UK nation; recorded crime is at one of the lowest levels since 1974 and we have more police per head than England and Wales; unemployment is close to record lows; we’ve delivered free tuition fees; the baby box; free prescriptions; free personal care to those who need it; free bus travel for under 22s; delivered over 122,000 affordable homes, and established a new social security service that delivers 13 benefits – seven of which are brand new and only available in Scotland.
I could go on, and on.
With one hand tied behind our back, the SNP has helped build a fairer, more equal Scotland.
As first minister, I will build on that impressive record and go further. In the words of the late Bashir Ahmad, “it isn’t important where you come from, what matters is where we are going together as a nation”.
I have no doubt that with the full powers of independence Scotland will become a prosperous, progressive and greener nation – and retake our place at the heart of the European Union.
In contrast to the status quo on offer at Westminster, that’s the positive vision I will share as first minister and SNP leader.
This article appears in Holyrood's Annual Review 2022/23