This year marks two decades since the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament. In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of discussion about the campaign for devolution, the progress made since 1999, and, of course, what might come next in Scotland’s journey.
In many of these conversations, what has struck me most is how quickly the Scottish Parliament has become an unquestioned part of the fabric of Scottish society and of people’s day to day lives. Indeed young people today have never known a country without Holyrood and always look a bit askance when those of us old enough to remember that time talk about it. The Parliament has reinvigorated Scottish democracy and it has brought decisions closer to the people – something we should all celebrate.
This year is also my 20th anniversary of being an MSP. It has been and continues to be a great privilege to represent the people of the Southside of Glasgow in our national parliament.
A desire for greater social justice was central to the campaign for a Scottish Parliament and it has dominated many of our debates in the twenty years since. Indeed, my first speech as an MSP focused on the importance of free access to university education.
This is an issue which remains close to my heart – given how important it has been in my own life – and I take great pride in the fact it was an SNP government that would go on to abolish tuition fees. Indeed the fact that other parties, not least Labour and the Lib Dems, now try to falsely claim credit for that is a good thing. It shows that free tuition is one of the greatest achievements of the parliament, and one that will hopefully endure.
Today, the policy benefits more than 120,000 students every year and without our own parliament, it wouldn’t have happened.
It’s just one of many socially progressive policies delivered by a parliament which, from its outset, has sought to improve the lives of the people of Scotland.
Free personal care for the elderly was introduced in the very early years of the parliament. It was a substantial commitment and a clear signal that Holyrood was underpinned by the values Scotland as a nation holds dearly. As the parliament has progressed so too has the policy – the SNP recently extended free personal care to anyone who is assessed as needing it, regardless of age.
The Scottish Parliament has also led the way in implementing bold public health policies such as the smoking ban and minimum alcohol pricing – the latter of which I spent many years working on as Health Secretary.
We’ve also passed some of the toughest legislation in the world on tackling climate change and domestic abuse.
Over the years the parliament has gained new powers in areas such as income tax and social security. These too have resulted in fairer policies for people in Scotland, with those who can most afford it paying a bit more in income tax, while most people pay less than their counterparts in England. Our new benefits system is also being designed with dignity and respect at its heart.
In short, Scotland is a safer, more progressive, more equal country as a result of having our own parliament.
However, there is no room for complacency. The next six months could prove to be the most challenging Scotland has faced in many years.
Westminster is crumbling. The UK Government has ridden roughshod over the powers our parliament already has, and in Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson, Scotland is on the brink of getting a reckless Prime Minister we didn’t vote for, intent on delivering a hard Brexit that we voted against.
The SNP is clear – Scotland must have an alternative choice. However the candidates for Tory leader are seeking to deny our right to choose, instead insisting that they will not ‘allow’ us to have that option.
That is a deeply undemocratic position and it will not prevail. The Scottish Parliament has already backed calls for a referendum on independence and regardless of our different political persuasions, we should come together and remind the Tories that Scotland’s future should always be decided by the people who live here, not imposed upon us by an unelected Prime Minister of a party which has lost every election in Scotland since the 1950s.
Over the past twenty years the Scottish Parliament has managed to chart a dramatically different course to that of the rest of the UK. However for all of the successes of devolution, we will always be limited in what we can achieve as a nation as long as we are restricted by the choices of Westminster.
I believe Scotland to be an outward-looking, caring country, rich with talent and resource. We have much to offer Europe and the world, as well as the people who live here.
With our own parliament we have managed to achieve an extraordinary amount in just twenty years. With independence and all the powers other countries take for granted in the hands of our own parliament, we can and will achieve even more.