This year, 2016, will be another big and important year for Scotland.
We’ll have the fifth Scottish parliament election – the next point of decision for a country still enjoying a democratic renaissance after 300 long years without a parliament of our own.
On May 5, you will decide what party you want to lead the Scottish Government for the next five years and who, of all the party leaders, you want to be your First Minister.
And the decision we face, for all its many complexities, and regardless of how each of us voted in the referendum, has this simple choice at its heart. Will we choose to keep Scotland moving forward, growing in confidence, and governed by a party that believes, above all else, in our country’s limitless potential?
Or will we choose to revert back to business as usual, with the Westminster parties free to ignore us again, reassured that Scotland won’t upset their Westminster apple-carts?
Not surprisingly, the SNP will be on the side of keeping our country moving forward.
As a party we go into this new year flying high in the polls – a reality that both motivates and humbles us.
My response to polls is always to remind my party that we must never take a single vote for granted – a point I will make again today.
But increasingly in Scotland we see, from opposition parties and certain commentators, another response – one that cites the scale of SNP support as evidence that the country has abandoned its critical faculties in favour of blind loyalty.
I can understand why the opposition parties find that notion comforting – it’s easier than having to face up to their own shortcomings. But as an analysis, it is profoundly insulting to the Scottish people.
The truth is that Scottish political discourse has never been livelier, more informed, more challenging or more questioning than it is now. Any politician who doesn’t experience the evidence of this, each and every day, needs to get out more.
The Scottish people are engaged in politics like never before. They are making informed choices. Those who support the SNP have not been brainwashed, they are not blind to our imperfections – instead, they are weighing them against our strengths and achievements, and against the other parties, and deciding that the SNP is the party they most closely identify with, the people they trust most to stand up for Scotland.
And it strikes me that – party loyalties aside – all of us who care about democracy should see something positive in this. In so many other countries, it is cynicism and disillusionment that defines politics. In Scotland, by contrast, a significant proportion of the population is prepared to invest their hopes in politics and put their trust in a political party. Perhaps other parties should spend less time deriding it and more time working out how they too can tap into this democratic awakening and win the trust of an electorate that is willing to believe that politics can be a vehicle for change.
Of course, it is right that the SNP is constantly challenged to demonstrate that we are worthy of the trust that people place in us. Indeed, I am determined that we challenge ourselves on this, each and every day. I really do mean it when I say we will not take a single vote for granted.
That’s why, when I stand up in the Scottish parliament on Tuesday to lead a new year debate, I will make clear that our responsibility over the next four months is not to assume success, but to earn the right to a third term as Scotland’s government.
I will set out why I believe that our record in government is a strong one – delivered in tough circumstances – and that Scotland is a better place today than it was when we took office.
Our NHS has a record budget and record numbers of staff and is delivering some of the best and fastest care anywhere in the UK.
We have world-class universities. Despite what our critics say, they are accessible to growing numbers of students from deprived backgrounds. And we have ensured that their success hasn’t been achieved at the expense of free tuition.
We have significantly extended the provision of free childcare.
We have a reformed school curriculum. According to the OECD, we have the opportunity now to become a world leader in education.
We have met our target to build 30,000 affordable homes – and are now planning to build 50,000 in the next parliament.
We have taken tough but necessary decisions to reform our police and fire services. And we have seen crime fall to a 41-year low.
We have built new colleges, schools, hospitals and health centres in every part of our country.
And, less tangibly but just as importantly, by trusting the country to decide its own future, we have helped to create a flourishing of democratic debate and played our part in building a renewed national confidence.
So we are proud of our record. But the job is far from finished and we won’t rest on our laurels.
The plans that we will set out over the next three months will – as I will also make clear on Tuesday – have the potential, over the next five years, to transform Scotland.
In the weeks to come, we will set out how we will build on the council tax freeze with a reformed, fairer and more progressive system of local taxation.
We will detail plans, not just to invest more money in our NHS, but to fundamentally reshape it – alongside social care – so that it is fit for the future.
We will outline how we will use new tax and social security powers to help build a stronger economy and a fairer society, where people are helped out of poverty.
We will make clear how we intend to further extend the living wage and advance gender equality.
We will set out in detail the actions we will take to close the attainment gap in our schools.
We will outline an approach to economic growth based on fair work, innovation and internationalisation.
And we will make clear our determination to win the new powers – all of the new powers – that our parliament needs to build an even better Scotland.
I’ve said already that a second referendum should only happen if there is a material change of circumstances or when we have evidence of a significant change of opinion from that expressed in September 2014.
Whether or not we see a material change of circumstances is not entirely within our control. Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will may well constitute such a change, but I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope that the UK as a whole will vote, decisively, to stay in the EU. However, whether or not we see a shift in opinion will be, to a large extent, down to the strength of the case we make. For almost 80 years, the SNP was the only champion of independence. One of the great successes of recent years is that this is no longer so. But as Scotland’s largest party, we still carry a special responsibility to make the argument. It is our job now to lead a renewed debate about how the enduring principle of the independence case – that decisions about Scotland are best taken by people who live here – is relevant to, indeed demanded by, the circumstances of the world we live in today. It is by making the case, positively and powerfully – and in a realistic and relevant way – that we will persuade those we didn’t persuade in 2014 and, over the next few years, turn 45% into a majority.
As we enter 2016, I am looking forward to – and excited about – the election campaign that lies ahead.
I hope all parties and each of the leaders will rise to the challenge of making it a campaign that Scotland can be proud of.
I hope that my party will emerge from it as Scotland’s re-elected government and that on May 6, I will be our country’s re-elected First Minister. But, no matter what the polls say, we will not take that success for granted.
My pledge is to work every day, between now and then, to prove beyond any doubt that I am the best person, and that the SNP is the best party, to lead Scotland into the next decade.