If the people of Scotland were to have a say, I don’t think we would choose either Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss
It feels like a long time since I wrote my annual review for Holyrood last year, when I spoke at length about restrictions, variants, lockdowns, and key workers – words and phrases that most of us had never heard before the Covid-19 pandemic, but now form part of our usual vocabulary.
Much has changed since this time last year. We were still facing tight restrictions in all parts of the country then, and the Covid virus was disrupting and dominating many aspects of our lives.
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine had not yet begun. Nor had the cost-of-living crisis that people across the country are deeply concerned about. And Boris Johnson was, of course, still the Prime Minister.
At the beginning of the year, we woke to the horror of a completely unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and to a reality that we had all hoped unthinkable – a land war in Europe.
At the time, our Scottish Parliament condemned Russia’s violent assault on Ukraine unreservedly, and we continue to offer our unqualified support for Ukrainian sovereignty, democracy, independence, and territorial integrity.
In the six months since the invasion of Ukraine, we have applied sanctions against the Russian regime, offered our solidarity to the people, government, and parliament of Ukraine, and welcomed with open arms the tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees who have arrived here in Scotland.
And we will continue to work with colleagues across the UK and Europe to support Ukraine as best we can. In an increasingly globalised world, conflict in one region has impacts across the globe, and the United Nations has warned that the ripple effects of the war in Ukraine will exacerbate the global cost-of-living crisis by escalating food and energy prices.
Indeed, the most pressing challenge facing households across Scotland right now is, without doubt, the rapidly and steeply increasing cost of living.
It is extremely concerning that the change of Tory leader seems certain to be accompanied by a shift in policy even further to the right. And, of course, a shift to the right from the Tories means a shift even further away from the mainstream of Scottish opinion.
On Boris Johnson’s watch –– for his government still holds most of the levers to address these pressures – the cost-of-living crisis is spiralling out of control here. Food prices are rapidly increasing, energy bills soaring, wages are stagnating, and the OECD is forecasting that the UK is set to have the lowest economic growth performance of all G20 economies bar Russia.
Additionally, the Bank of England has forecast that inflation will peak at 13 per cent this year, and that the UK is soon heading for a recession.
We are facing an extreme cost-of-living crisis, caused in part by years of Tory policy failures. Attacks on benefits, pay freezes, and of course, Brexit, have all taken their toll on household budgets, and left too many people with little financial resilience.
While the Scottish Government will continue to take all actions available to us within devolved responsibilities and budgets – including investing almost £3bn this year in a range of measures which will help address the cost-of-living pressures – it is a statement of fact that many of the levers which would make the biggest difference lie with the UK Government.
The current crisis requires clear, focused, and determined leadership to develop and deliver a package of interventions to protect those most impacted – and quickly. Currently, with the UK Government stuck in a state of paralysis and the Prime Minister missing in action, that is not happening.
I am sure that many of us will have breathed a sigh of relief at the resignation of the Prime Minister in July. It was clear that he was manifestly unfit to remain in 10 Downing Street for any longer. Although the chaos of Boris Johnson’s tenure is coming to an end, the fact remains that one prime minister Scotland did not vote for is about to be replaced by yet another.
The successful applicant for this most crucial of job vacancies will be chosen by Conservative party members. If the people of Scotland were to have a say, I don’t think we would choose either Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss. Our answer would be “none of the above”.
It is also extremely concerning that the change of Tory leader seems certain to be accompanied by a shift in policy even further to the right. And, of course, a shift to the right from the Tories means a shift even further away from the mainstream of Scottish opinion.
So far, we have seen the candidates for prime minister promise tax cuts for the rich, cuts to public spending and public services. They have also launched blatant attacks on devolution and the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
The front-runner in the contest has gone so far as to claim that she will “ignore” the democratically elected government of Scotland.
Of course, I will do my best to work constructively on key issues with whoever becomes the prime minister, because that is in the interests of our country. But if we were expecting any dramatic change of direction from the damaging Westminster policies of the last few years, I won’t hold my breath.
Despite the challenges of Brexit, Covid, the cost-of-living crisis, and the consequences of decisions being taken on our behalf by a Westminster government we didn’t vote for, we can and should be optimistic about Scotland’s future and our ability to meet both the challenges and opportunities of our time.
In August last year – ahead of the COP26 summit taking place in Glasgow – the Scottish Government entered into a ground-breaking agreement with the Scottish Green Party to work together on shared areas of interest such as the climate emergency, economic recovery, child poverty, the natural environment, energy, and the constitution.
The Bute House Agreement between the two parties is about the spirit of co-operation and consensus-building – something which is often missing in today’s political environment – and finding the solutions needed to solve the problems confronting the world today.
Although the SNP and the Scottish Greens do not agree on everything, the co-operation agreement we entered into last year has forced us to come out of our comfort zones, compromise on some issues, and focus on what we do agree on.
That is how we will continue to deliver bold policy action on pressing issues, and ensure that, as we move forward, Scotland is one of the very best places in the world to grow up in and a country where everyone has the chance to flourish and reach their full potential.
However, it is clearer than ever that we simply cannot do that as part of a broken Westminster system, without the full powers needed to create a better country.
The current crisis requires clear, focused, and determined leadership to develop and deliver a package of interventions to protect those most impacted – and quickly. Currently, with the UK Government stuck in a state of paralysis and the Prime Minister missing in action, that is not happening
Last year, the people of Scotland determined that they want a say on Scotland’s constitutional future. We are committed to offering that choice, but also ensuring that it will be a fully informed one.
To that end, we have started publishing an updated prospectus to contribute to a full, frank, and constructive discussion on Scotland’s future, and outline the opportunities that independence can offer Scotland.
Scotland is a very wealthy country. We have an abundance of human resources and natural talent to build a fairer, more prosperous, and greener Scotland, and have a positive role on the global stage to help address the common challenges of the 21st century.
And crucially, in an independent Scotland, decision-making power will rest with the people who live here – not with Westminster governments that do not command the support of people in Scotland, and which pursue policies that are deeply damaging to our interests.
Scotland has come a long way since the last independence referendum in 2014. Since then, a great deal of nation building has been done. For example, in Revenue Scotland we now have our own tax agency and, in Social Security Scotland, our own social security agency.
We also have the independent Scottish Fiscal Commission and the Scottish National Investment Bank. In other words, substantial parts of the institutional infrastructure that an independent country would need, and which did not exist in 2014, are now in place.
We should be positive and ambitious about Scotland’s future. In the year ahead, the firm focus of my government will be to continue building a fairer, wealthier, happier country, and paving the way for an independent Scotland which plays our full part on the global stage.
This article is taken from Holyrood's Annual Review: A look back on the parliamentary year