The year ahead has the potential to be one of the most significant in Scotland’s recent history. I believe that it will be a year in which a new Scotland continues to emerge – an emboldened, more confident and more assertive nation.
That is perhaps not the most obvious conclusion to draw from the ongoing horror show of the Tories’ inept and chaotic Brexit plans, which threaten to do deep and lasting damage to our economy and society.
But it is precisely because of that overarching threat that I believe that a new spirit of Scottish assertiveness is needed – and will come to the fore.
Brexit will remain the dominant political issue we face as a nation. The Scottish Government will continue to oppose Brexit in principle and, in practice, we will resist as fiercely as possible the Tories’ plans for an extreme Brexit, outside the single market and customs union.
Indeed, that vision pursued by the hard-line Brexiteers may just now be starting to drift from their grasp. Boxed in by the EU in phase one of the negotiations, facing the realisation of the importance of the single market in resolving issues on the island of Ireland, and with a business community ever more vocal in its opposition to the economic harm that is about to be done, there is now a more than evens chance that a hard Brexit can be stopped.
Both the Scottish Government and the SNP at Westminster will be at the forefront of efforts to achieve that in the year ahead.
And while we continue to fight that battle, there will be no let-up in our actions on the domestic front.
Over the festive period, we have again been reminded of just how precious our NHS is – the Scottish Government will continue to back it with record investment.
The next year will also see continued focus on our efforts to improve our schools and close the attainment gap.
Meanwhile our new social security service will help those in need to access the support they are entitled to, with dignity and respect. We will also begin to deliver a new package of support for young carers and prepare to take over from the UK government responsibility for the assessment and payment of disability benefits.
Minimum pricing for alcohol – now seen as a model for other countries to follow – will be introduced as just one of the measures we are taking to tackle health inequalities.
We will continue to support business – ground will be broken on the new National Manufacturing Institute for Scotland; new trade hubs will open in Berlin and Paris, our Brussels base will be expanded; and plans to establish a new Scottish National Investment Bank will be progressed.
And we will invest further in the moves towards electric vehicles, as Scotland remains at the forefront of global efforts to deliver a low carbon economy.
This is alongside a continued guarantee of free university education, the most competitive business rates package in the UK, digital infrastructure for all, and an inclusive economy, underpinned by a progressive approach to tax and a constant drive to tackle inequality.
Meanwhile, Labour in Scotland profess to rail against Tory injustices while colluding in their London leadership’s shamefully ambivalent attitude to Brexit – and after having fought tooth and nail to prevent Scotland getting the powers which would help further mitigate Tory damage. Under their latest leader, the “branch office” mentality is very much alive and well again in Scottish Labour.
As for the Scottish Tories, their MPs at Westminster have done little to protect the nation’s interests, acting instead only as lobby fodder for Theresa May.
The threat of Brexit, including the prospect of a declining working age population in Scotland and the inability to boost it through immigration, shows that the reckless ideology of Tory Brexiteers at Westminster is a direct and growing threat to our economic well-being. And it means that sitting back and doing nothing is simply not an option for Scotland.
Later this month, the Scottish Government will publish an updated paper on our future place in Europe, and it will include the current assessment of the likely economic impact of Brexit on Scotland.
Last year I made clear that we will scrutinise the detail of any final Brexit deal negotiated by the UK Government before deciding the next steps in terms of giving people a choice on Scotland’s future.
However, I have been clear all along that the threat to Scotland’s interests means that independence must remain an option. As I observed recently when Dublin used its diplomatic clout to extract significant concessions in Brexit talks, Ireland has demonstrated very clearly the value of being an independent country in Europe.
Being torn out of the world’s biggest single market against our democratic will – a market around eight times bigger than the UK’s alone – threatens to do untold damage to Scotland as a nation.
That this is even a possibility simply reflects the fact we face an increasingly arrogant Tory government which thinks it can do what it likes to Scotland and get away with it.
This year, 2018, can be one in which a newly assertive Scotland makes clear to them that they can’t – and mustn’t – get away with it.
This article originally appeared in the Sunday Herald.