By Nicola Sturgeon MSP
These are good days in which to become First Minister and leader of the SNP.
When Alex Salmond became leader in 1990, the SNP had just four MPs at Westminster. There was no Scottish Parliament, or even the prospect of one, and Scotland was governed by Tory Secretary of State Malcolm Rifkind.
Changed days indeed, and a huge amount of the credit for that goes to Alex. I am fortunate enough to be about to lead a majority SNP government, we are the third biggest political party in the UK in terms of membership, and the last three polls have all put the SNP ahead of Labour for next year’s General Election.
And yet core tasks remain the same. Working day in and day out – now with the huge benefits of being in government – to advance the interests of the people of Scotland, and moving our country towards independence.
As I look forward to assuming the leadership at this week’s conference, I am fortunate enough to stand on a solid platform of achievement in government since 2007.
Thanks, in part, to the work of the Scottish Government, Scotland now has lower unemployment and higher employment than the rest of the UK. We have the lowest level of youth unemployment for six years.
Our Scottish Welfare Fund has given support to more than 100,000 vulnerable households hit by Westminster austerity, and we’ve taken action to cancel out the impact of the iniquitous Bedroom Tax.
We have restored free education, and are protecting the vital policy of free personal care for elderly people.
These policies reflect my commitment to fairness and social solidarity.
Any government led by me will have a relentless focus on improving the public services and economy of Scotland, and tackling inequality. As a former Health Secretary, I will ensure that the NHS in particular will continue to command the highest priority, as a publicly owned and publicly funded service. That’s why in our budget published last month we increased health funding by £80 million more than originally planned.
Scotland is moving forward, and I am pledged to use every power I have at my disposal at any point in time to keep building on this record.
Politics is changing in Scotland, and the pace of that change was hastened by the referendum. Old loyalties are shifting, often very quickly, as we have seen with the rapid reduction in support for Labour in the weeks since. When push came to shove, Labour showed in the referendum that its first loyalty was to the Westminster system, even to the extent of working hand in glove with a Tory government to keep power there.
In that sense, Labour showed itself to be a party with an over-riding constitutional objective to at least the same extent as the SNP.
Traditionally, the SNP has been viewed as mainly focused on the Scottish constitution, and of course an independent Scotland remains our objective for all the many reasons set out in the referendum.
The SNP will always be seen as the party of progress for Scotland – and I believe that will be a powerful and mobilising message in the forthcoming General Election campaign. But under my leadership I also want the SNP to be regarded as the party of social and economic progress for people. That was the province of the old Liberal Party in 19th century Scotland, and then of a radically reforming Labour Party in the 20th century.
But that is no more. The social democratic record of the SNP administration is strong, and one that I want to continually improve. And the reputational damage done to the Labour Party by its referendum alliance with the Tories – when it showed that it has far more in common with the interests of a right-wing Westminster administration than its own core voters in Scotland – will last for a generation or more.
Labour abandoned the social justice agenda in Scotland, preferring to align itself with the transient trappings of Westminster power – which yet again could prove to be a fool’s errand next May. By contrast, that agenda of a fair society bolstered by a strong economy is one that will be the daily business of the party and government I look forward to leading.
People are looking at Scotland anew since 18 September. Many folk are reassessing where they stand in terms of political allegiance, and many more are engaging with party politics for the very first time. This new thinking is creating new opportunities for the SNP and Scotland.
So these are good days for my party and my country – but I believe the best are yet to come.
This article is based on a forthcoming speech to be made by First Minister-in-waiting Nicola Sturgeon as she prepares to take over the leadership of the SNP.