In years to come, it is likely that 2016 is not a year which many of us will look back on with great fondness. The last 12 months have provided a collective jolt to the system and to what many had assumed to be the political certainties underpinning our lives.
Brexit looms large over everything, and while the full effects of the vote on June 23 have yet to become apparent, what we do know for certain is that being taken out of the EU, and out of the world’s biggest single market, against our will, would be potentially disastrous for Scotland.
Independent research shows that the cost to Scotland could be up to 80,000 jobs lost over a decade, with average earnings per head around £2,000 lower after that same time period. Further analysis shows that the overall cost to Scotland’s economy could amount to more than £11billion a year by 2030.
I said on the morning of the EU referendum result that it had made an independence referendum highly likely, and that remains the case. For Scotland to vote overwhelmingly to stay in Europe and yet still be faced with being dragged out of the EU against our will is democratically unacceptable. The SNP’s manifesto, on which we were overwhelmingly re-elected in May, made clear that our Parliament should have the right to decide on an independence referendum in those circumstances.
At the same time, I also made clear that I was determined to do all I could to keep Scotland’s place in Europe and that I would try to bring as much consensus as possible to the issue. It is in that spirit that the Scottish Government published our proposals, shortly before Christmas, to keep us in the European single market, whether or not the rest of the UK does so.
I hope the UK as a whole does stay in the single market – removing yourself from the biggest free trade area on the globe makes no economic sense whatsoever. But given the rhetoric emanating from Theresa May’s government, which is increasingly in thrall to the hard-right Brexiteers who have gripped the Tory party, the signs are not good.
Instead, they seem determined to drive full speed ahead over the cliff-edge of a hard Brexit, with all the economic damage that would entail.
I am determined that, whatever happens, Scotland will not be dragged over that cliff-edge, too.
The proposals we have published – which would allow Scotland to remain in the single market in what has been described as the “Norway-style” option, are not without their challenges or complexities.
I do not pretend that it will be easy – but this is not a situation of our making, and we are the first and so far only government in the UK to bring forward concrete proposals in the wake of the Brexit vote.
Theresa May has pledged to give them serious consideration in the New Year, ahead of the triggering of Article 50, and I intend to hold her to that commitment.
But it is clear that people across the UK – and in Scotland in particular – believe that Brexit poses a real threat to the economy and to their own livelihoods and living standards.
Those fears are only set to become more pronounced as 2017 dawns and the realities of Brexit start to bite. Because, for all of the chaos and confusion caused by the referendum result and Westminster’s inability to deal with it over the last six months, the truth is Brexit and its economic fallout haven’t even properly begun yet.
Of all my wishes for the New Year, one is that the Prime Minister will finally do the right thing by guaranteeing the residency status of all EU nationals currently living in the UK. The failure to do so to date has been disgraceful, and addressing this as soon as possible in the New Year would send a positive signal to European partners, while also helping guarantee the status of the many UK nationals who have made their homes in other EU countries.
Every new year begins full of challenges, but the one now looming ahead of us is perhaps the most important in a generation – for Scotland, the UK, Europe and the world as a whole.
The last 12 months have seen a narrative develop that the established political and social order is under threat as never before in modern times. Reactionary forces, some of them fuelled by intolerance and xenophobia, have been seen to be in the ascendency.
But if 2016 was a year of fear, let the next year be one of hope. And let us all hope that, in time, 2017 will be seen to have been a turning point – one in which the values of liberal democracy were able to show that they can and will prevail over the forces which would draw us all backwards.
– This article was originally published in The National on 27 December 2016