Now is the time to unite – to build a better Scotland

In recent days, as we mark the 25th anniversary of the first elections to the Scottish Parliament, I have read many thoughtful contributions from across the political spectrum about how it has changed Scotland.

People might not always know it, but the parliament will undoubtedly have made a difference to their lives. 

The Scottish Child Payment, for instance, provides £26.70 a week to families of eligible children, and is helping to keep 100,000 children in Scotland out of poverty. 

Other policies like free university tuition, free personal care are supporting our citizens, and the smoking ban and minimum pricing for alcohol are transforming the nation’s health. 

Recent stats show that thousands more people are moving to Scotland from the rest of the UK than going in the other direction, and we continue to be the top destination, outside of London, for foreign investment.  

As a proud member of the class of ’99, I have borne witness to – and helped play a part in – these successes. 

But for me, the biggest achievement is perhaps less quantifiable. It is the political voice it has given to Scotland, which has given us a confidence to take decisions about our own future. 

However, as our parliament opens a new chapter, I believe it is not performing as it should be.  

The time I have spent away from frontline politics has afforded me a new perspective. One of the reasons I decided to return is my concern at the increasing polarisation in politics.  

In any healthy democracy, there is going to be lively debate. 

But division need not – and should not – lead to acrimony. 

All of us in politics need to remember to listen, and we need to learn to be more comfortable with people disagreeing with us. 

But we must not overstate the extent to which our society is divided. We too easily forget that we have far more in common than not.  

We all care about Scotland’s future, and disagreeing on one issue does not mean we cannot work together on others.  

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic was one of the darkest chapters in Scotland’s recent history, but in many ways saw our parliament perform at its best. 

In the face of multiple challenges and emergencies, MSPs came together and worked at pace to ensure help and support got to those across Scotland who needed it. Barriers that for so seemed insurmountable were overcome rapidly.  

That spirit needs to be found in the face of those challenges that we face right now. Most people in Scotland know that Brexit has been a disaster, so we need to support the economy through tough times – in doing so helping us to eradicate child poverty, improve public services and tackle the climate emergency.  

It is that attitude, and those priorities, which I am bringing to the office of First Minister.  

I have started as I mean to go on. The Cabinet I have appointed, who met for the first time on Friday, represents the strengths and talents of team SNP, and they are now already working at pace to move Scotland forward. 

In a parliament of minorities, we need to work together – and under my leadership, I intend that we will. 

I know more than most about minority governments, having served in key cabinet roles after the 2007 and the 2016 elections – and perhaps I can offer a cautionary tale to opposition parties. 

In both those terms, the SNP worked tirelessly – and in good faith – to build bridges across the political spectrum in the interests of the people of Scotland.  

In doing so, we delivered many of our biggest successes, including the creation of a social security agency. 

However, there were also many occasions in which the opposition blocked for no good reason, such as blocking the first attempt to bring in minimum pricing for alcohol.  

At the end of both those minority terms, voters rewarded the SNP with landslide election victories – and severely punished those opposition parties they had seen to be obstructionist.

That should be a lesson to all of us. Times are tough, and people and businesses across Scotland are feeling tired and bruised after many years of austerity, Brexit, stagnant living standards and a global pandemic.

They are looking to their political representatives to provide solutions. My pledge as First Minister is to work across party lines with whomever can help build a better Scotland. 

I have campaigned for Scottish independence for all my adult life. I started doing so when the Scottish Parliament was a distant dream. When I look back over that time, it’s clear to me that constitutional change happens when Scotland feels at ease with itself and confident about its future. 

But independence-supporting or not, all politicians have a duty to foster that confidence – to remind Scotland’s citizens that, when all is said and done, they live in a successful country with diverse economic strengths. 

And that is something we can all unite behind. 

This article was originally published in the Sunday Herald, 12th May.