Scotland must have the right to decide its own future

A very happy new year. I hope 2023 brings much health and happiness.

Many of us will have spent cherished time over the past couple of weeks with family, and friends, perhaps enjoying the first full festive celebrations in almost three years.

Wherever and however you spent the festivities, I hope you enjoyed it.

Thinking back to this time last year reminds us just how much progress we have made in our recovery from the darkest days of the pandemic.

Vaccines gave us renewed hope and continue to provide us with life-saving protection even as the virus continues to challenge us.

And thanks to the extraordinary efforts of health service staff, all those who helped to deliver vaccines, and everyone who came forward to be vaccinated and boosted, we are now living much more normally again.

However, all that said, I know this year has still been extremely difficult for many people. The pandemic has cast a long shadow over many areas of life and its impacts are still with us, and the cost of living crisis is having a devastating impact on people across Scotland.

We are currently facing what many experts believe to be the most severe cost crisis in our lifetimes.

It is pushing millions across the UK into poverty; threatening the viability of businesses; and has already pushed the UK economy into recession.

The Scottish Government has a heavy responsibility to do all we can to help. We are already committed to measures worth almost £3 billion that will help with rising costs and mitigate some of the harm being caused by sky-high inflation.

That money includes initiatives to tackle child poverty – such as the Scottish Child Payment, not available elsewhere in the UK – and a range of measures to help with energy and other costs.

But the magnitude of what is being experienced by people and businesses across the UK means that mitigation is nowhere near sufficient, and we also need further action from the UK government to help people through this crisis, and to deal with its root causes.

For our part, as the Scottish Government continues to provide support for those who need it now, we will also look forward to the longer term.

We will continue to prioritise public services. This is an acutely difficult time for the NHS and, while there are no instant fixes for some of the challenges it faces, we will continue to support it with record investment and necessary reform, so that it can recover from the pandemic and achieve sustainability for the future.

We also recognise that the NHS is nothing without those who work in it and so we will do all we can to deliver fair pay increases.

We will invest in the transformation of the economy, as we transition to a net-zero future, ensuring that Scotland’s huge renewable resources deliver clean, affordable energy and new jobs.

While unfair tax rises and spending cuts seem to be the way of things from Westminster, the Scottish Government will focus on fair taxation, practical help for those who need it now, and investment for the long term.

Of course, there is now another new Prime Minister in place. My political differences with Rishi Sunak are significant but, as I sought to do with his predecessors, I hope to establish a good working relationship with him in 2023.

Indeed, it is in that spirit of co-operation that I hope the Scottish and UK governments can reach agreement – as we did in 2014 – to allow the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland to be heard and respected.

In the 2021 Holyrood elections, the SNP won the highest number of constituency seats ever, the most votes ever cast for a single party in the history of devolution, and the largest percentage share of the vote in any Holyrood election.

There is also a clear majority of MSPs who support independence and Scotland’s right to choose.

The United Kingdom had always been considered a voluntary union of nations and, until recently no-one seriously challenged the right of the people in Scotland to choose whether or not we wished to become independent.

However, Westminster’s determination to deny Scotland’s right to choose is now destroying the very basis of the UK as a voluntary partnership.

Frankly, it is not up to a Westminster government to decide our future without the consent of the people who live here.

As an independent country, co-operation between Scotland and our friends across the rest of the UK will continue – indeed it will, in my view, become even stronger because it will be on the basis of Scotland as an equal partner.

Over the last year, Westminster has shown it is incapable of delivering the real and lasting change that is required for Scotland.

It is a basic principle of democracy that people in Scotland must have the right to decide our own future, so that we can build the kind of country we want.

In 2023, that is a principle we must work to secure – for the sake of this and future generations.