A busy and eventful 12 months
2015 has absolutely flown in and it’s hard to believe that I’m sitting down to write my final column of the year, looking back on a very busy and eventful 12 months.
Internationally, the news was dominated by appalling terror attacks and the terrible and complex conflict in Syria, as well as by the ongoing refugee crisis it has created.
In the midst of such tragedy it can be really hard to find positives, but we should be heartened by the response of ordinary people around the world – including many here in Scotland – in standing in solidarity with those affected by terror and also in doing what we can to welcome refugees and help with what can often seem like an overwhelming and insoluble situation.
That said, there is much more that governments across the world need to do – both in securing peace in Syria and in supporting those displaced by the conflict.
Closer to home, much has changed in the last 12 months.
May’s general election was an historic one, and having such a large block of SNP MPs means Scotland has a much stronger voice in Westminster – leading opposition to a wide range of Tory plans from tax credit cuts to scrapping the Human Rights Act.
2015 will also be remembered for the opening of some long-awaited infrastructure projects in Scotland.
Glasgow’s new Queen Elizabeth University Hospital will provide our city with fantastic healthcare facilities for years to come.
And the Borders Railway – the longest new domestic railway line built in the UK for over a century – opened in September.
Already it’s providing a huge boost for tourism and commuters in the Borders.Of course, many commuters in Central Scotland have had to deal much more challenging news recently with the closure of the Forth Road Bridge, and I’d like to thank everyone affected for their cooperation and their patience.
I’m also extremely grateful to the engineers who have worked 24/7 to get the bridge open – two weeks earlier than anticipated, and in time for Christmas.
Unfortunately it’ll stay closed to HGVs for a few more weeks, and the Scottish Government is in discussions with the haulage industry about what support we can offer them.
2015 certainly was an eventful year – and already there are a number of big issues on the horizon for 2016.
Just before Parliament broke off, we announced next year’s budget plans – and you’ll be hearing a lot more about these early in the new year as Parliament scrutinises them.
A central debate will be on income tax – from April, Scotland will have some limited new powers.
But we’ll protect family incomes by not only maintaining the freeze on the unfair council tax for another year, but also freezing income tax next year.
The other parties have the chance to propose changes to our spending plans but, if they do so, they will have to tell you where the money will come from – either they will have to cut spending elsewhere, or put up the basic rate of income tax.
Another big issue that looks set to face us next year is the Tories’ EU referendum.
This has always been more about David Cameron pandering to Eurosceptics in the Tory party rather any meaningful reform of the EU – and the split among senior Tories is becoming increasingly acrimonious.
I’m really concerned that Scotland – or any other nation of the UK – could be dragged out of the EU against its will.
Scotland benefits enormously from the access to the EU’s single market of half a billion people, and the SNP will make that positive case over the next few months.
Finally, Scotland will be going to the polls again in May for the Scottish election.
The SNP will be fighting this on a record of achievement in the face of continued Westminster austerity.
We’ve seen recorded crime at its lowest level in decades, hospital waiting times at historically low levels, record exam results, a living wage extended, vulnerable Scots protected from the Bedroom Tax and much more.
We have ambitious plans for Scotland in healthcare, education and much more, and I am determined to earn the trust of voters for another term as First Minister.
These are just some of the issues we’ll be debating in 2016.
Looking back on 2015, Scotland is clearly still energised from the referendum debate – and one thing I think we all want to see is that high level of political engagement continue into what will be another very important year.
So let me wish all of you a very happy new year.
Originally published in the Evening Times, Tuesday 29th December 2015