Independence can help us achieve our ambitions for Scotland

In the years since devolution, Scotland has cemented its reputation as a world leader across a range of industries and public policies.

Scotland is a trailblazer in financial services, tech, medicine and life sciences, renewable energy and – although not many people know this – Glasgow is a key player in the space industry as Europe’s number one manufacturer of satellites.

In less than 20 years, the Scottish Parliament has achieved good and important progress in a range of areas – from public health measures such as the smoking ban and minimum unit pricing to establishing the toughest climate change targets in the world, and generating record amounts of clean, green energy to help meet those ambitious targets.

For a country of only 5 million people, there is no doubt whatsoever that we make an extraordinary contribution to the world.

Since the Scottish Parliament was established, our economy has also seen good progress. Employment has risen by 346,000 and now stands at 2.63 million, full-time real wages have grown by almost 17 per cent compared to just 12 per cent in the UK as a whole, and there are now a record number of registered businesses in Scotland.

However, while devolution has undoubtedly made a positive difference in and to people’s lives, the fact remains that economies of similar sized nations in Europe and elsewhere tended to perform even better than ours.

And when you consider that Scotland is blessed with human and natural resources that most of these countries could only dream of, the questions of why this is the case and what we do about it becomes even more pertinent.

Last week saw the publication of a major report by the Sustainable Growth Commission – which I established help answer these important questions.

With a membership that included senior figures from business, economics, politics and academia, its task was to look both at how we grow the economy now and in the future and how – if Scotland was to become independent – we could manage the financial position inherited from the UK government without damaging austerity and in a way that aligns with our values and priorities as a nation.

It was also asked to make recommendations on the different currency options that would be available to an independent Scotland.

After extensive consultation and a detailed comparison with other countries, the report concludes that Scotland does indeed have all the features of the world’s most successful advanced economies – whether we are talking about our highly-educated workforce, natural resources or strengths in both traditional and new industries.

The question is how we can match those other nations – creating more jobs and raising living standards, and providing a better future for everyone who lives here.

The Growth Commission is right that in order to raise our performance we must target increases in our population and ensure that everyone in our society is able to participate fully in the economy. We must also drive forward improvements in our productivity.

The Scottish Government is working hard to achieve that with the powers of devolution – but as well as offering new ideas for what we can do now, this report sets out how much more could be achieved with the enhanced powers of independence.

It rightly doesn’t shy away from the challenges we face – but presents ways in which those challenges can be addressed, and sets out recommendations and options on currency.

Of course, many political opponents argue against having a conversation about options for Scotland’s future – they love talking about the constitution on their own terms, they don’t want the case for independence to be heard.

But with Brexit making change inevitable, it is vital that we discuss and debate the best course for the future.

The fact is, we are in a very different position now than we were in 2014.

We all remember the categorical claim that voting no to independence was the only way to secure Scotland’s place in the EU. Fast forward to the present day, and we see that the Tory Government is completely ignoring the will of the Scottish people and ending our ties with the EU.

Independence is one of the options open to the people of Scotland to choose a different course – which is why it’s right that we have a debate on what an independent Scotland could look like and how independence can help us achieve our ambitions for the country.

Indeed, after two years of debating how we manage the real economic damage of Brexit – it is surely very refreshing to be discussing a positive vision of the future and the immense economic opportunity open to Scotland.

Importantly, this debate is not about overlooking or shying away from challenges – every country in the world faces challenges.

It’s about how Scotland could use the powers that would come with independence to fully address them, just like similar sized countries do – and in turn build a stronger economy, a fairer society, and achieve our full potential.

So, even though we might not all agree with each other about the best way forward, let’s have the debate – and let’s face the future with optimism. I have no doubt that if we get this debate right, we have a lot to be optimistic about.

This article previously appeared in the Evening Times.