Alex Salmond: Don’t wake up to what might have been

Only by choosing independence can we make Scotland the best place in the world to raise a family, writes Alex Salmond

Only by choosing independence can we make Scotland the best place in the world to raise a family, writes Alex Salmond

THIS is set to be a historic year for Scotland – our moment to shine. All eyes will be on us as we welcome the world to our Year of Homecoming, with more than 400 events taking place the length and breadth of the country.

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We will stage the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the largest sporting and cultural celebration ever held in Scotland. And we will host the Ryder Cup – an event which will be enjoyed by a quarter of a million spectators at Gleneagles and will be beamed to more than 180 countries around the planet.

The coming year gives us the opportunity to showcase Scotland’s modern achievements and promote to the world the very best of who we are, and what we have achieved.

As a small country we created, invented and then gifted to the world the television, the telephone, lifesaving penicillin, and Dolly the sheep.

These are only some of our amazing achievements. This year offers us a real opportunity to build a strong, just and wealthy nation by using our natural resources and by making the most of our talented people.

Just a few weeks ago, Professor Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University received the Nobel Prize for Physics for predicting the Higgs Boson, the particle that binds this universe together. We have just announced funding to help establish a new Higgs Centre and to promote postgraduate opportunities. We are using Professor Higgs’s legacy of achievement to inspire and support the next generation of great scientists in Scotland.

Scotland already has extraordinary strengths in fields such as life sciences, medicine, informatics and energy technology. This year, we have the ideal opportunity to showcase these modern achievements, together with our history, culture and landscape.

This will be a truly amazing year – one where the eyes of the world will be on Scotland. And, of course, on 18 September, we will decide whether to become an independent country. It is the opportunity of a lifetime.

It is a precious thing, to be able to debate and decide our own future through a civic and democratic process. Let’s ensure that the debate over the next nine months is a constructive one – where we respect each other’s views, regardless of how passionately we hold our own.

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Let’s also ensure that we take this chance to think about the sort of country we want Scotland to become. Let’s not wake up on the morning of 19 September and think to ourselves what might have been. Let’s wake up on that morning filled with hope and expectation – ready to build a just and prosperous nation.

Scotland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but we need to ensure that prosperity is shared more fairly. We have oil and gas resources for many decades to come, but we have to harness the green energy wealth which will last forever.

But, of course, the greatest asset of Scotland is the people of Scotland. So let’s transform childcare in this country, unleashing the full potential of all of our working age population, and helping us become the best place anywhere in the world to raise a family.

The Scottish Government has already put forward our proposals on these issues and many others in the “Scotland’s Future” white paper. It is a positive vision which will be read, considered and discussed many, many times over the next nine months.

It is the most detailed blueprint ever produced by a country moving to independence, with expert input across the most important areas such as currency, the welfare state and the tax system. But the point of independence is that Scotland will look like the sort of country we choose to build.

Ultimately, at the heart of that vision there is one fundamental point, one overwhelming argument, that the best people to take decisions about Scotland’s future must be the people who live and work in Scotland.

Today, I have written to David Cameron, following last week’s revelations that the Tories hatched a secret plan to cut Scotland’s budget in the 1980s. This confirmed what most Scots already knew – the Tories can’t be trusted with Scotland’s finances.

If there is a No vote in September, this is what they would do. Their target is to cut Scotland’s money by £4 billion. Cameron’s 18-month guarantee of just a few weeks ago is blown apart by these revelations.

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The evidence of the past should be taken as a warning for the future.

We believe that decisions about Scotland – decisions that affect us, our families, our communities and the future of our country – should be taken in Scotland, to reflect the views and concerns of the Scottish people, rather than by governments at Westminster with different priorities, often rejected by voters in Scotland.

We know that Scotland can afford to be independent. Scotland can pay for, and protect our public services. Even those who currently argue against independence accept that Scotland can be a successful independent country.

Independence will give Scotland the powers needed to build an even stronger economy. It will enable us to compete effectively in the global economy, rather than remain under Westminster, which has created an unequal society and an unbalanced economy.

Following a vote for independence in September, Scotland will then prepare to become an independent country. There will be negotiations with the rest of the UK, the EU, and other international partners.

Planning for independence in March 2016 allows realistic time to reach agreement in those discussions and to complete the legal processes to transfer powers to the Scottish Parliament.

The shape of Scotland in the future will be determined by how the people of Scotland vote in elections in 2016 and thereafter. The current Scottish Government will lead Scotland from a Yes vote in September 2014 to independence in March 2016 – and like other parties we will seek a mandate for the first democratic, independent parliament in the May election.

Independence will give the Scottish Parliament new powers in areas like the economy, taxation, welfare, energy and defence, and control over key national assets like the postal system.

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For example, thousands of women across Scotland are desperate to get into work and earn money to help their families. But the lack of childcare provision is the single biggest obstacle preventing it happening.

The Scottish Government knows this and that is why we have pledged a rad­ically overhaul of the provision of childcare. Our plan is to move to broadly the same number of hours of nursery education as children currently receive in primary school – the equivalent of 30 hours per week for 38 weeks, or 1,140 hours a year. That would allow most women with families the opportunity to get back into the workplace.

Currently in the UK, only 59% of women with children aged under six go out to work. Contrast that with Denmark, where they have an excellent childcare system. There, 79% of mothers go out to work.

Nearly all Scots mothers say that a lack of childcare is one of the main reasons they are unable to go out and find a job. In the past year, the number of Scots women in employment has risen by 61,000 – an increase of three per cent in a single year. But we need to do more to increase that number. So in the first budget of an independent Scotland we will commit £100 million to offer 600 hours of childcare a year to around 50% of Scotland’s two-year-olds.

This will be funded by policies such as reducing defence spending to £2.5 billion per year and ending the married couples tax allowance. Even this reduction in the defence budget would see more spent on defence in Scotland than the UK Government currently spends. But that is just the start. By the end of the first independent Parliament, around half of all two-year-olds and every three and four-year-old will be entitled to 1,140 hours of childcare a year, with an additional investment of £600 million. And in the longer term, we plan to provide 1,140 hours to all children from age one to when they start primary school aged five. This will save families up to £4,600 for every child every year.

People ask why we can’t simply introduce these plans now. The problem is that the increased tax revenues which would be generated by thousands of women returning to work – as well as the reduced level of welfare payments they currently receive – would be lost to Scotland and go to Westminster instead. Under independence, that money would stay in Scotland to help pay for the expansion of childcare on a sustainable basis.

An increase in the number of women in work of just two per cent, taking us above the number of women at work in the Netherlands, for example, would boost tax revenues by £200 million. If the female activity rate reached Swedish levels – a six per cent increase in the number of women at work – tax revenues would increase by £700 million and the number of women in the labour market would rise by 104,000.

In this area and in others, we have set out our vision of how we want to see Scotland’s future. Other parties will have their own ideas. The challenge for the Westminster parties is to come forward with their plans and explain what would happen to Scotland if we voted No.

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One of the exhibits currently on show at the National Library of Scotland, in Edinburgh, is one of the first ever published versions of “Auld Lang Syne”, a volume of songs that once belonged to Keir Hardie, Scottish founder of the Labour Party.

It is a Scots song which has been adopted as the New Year anthem for millions in every corner of the globe – yet another example of Scotland’s contributions to the world.

Scotland has already shaped much of the modern world we live in today. Let’s make sure that 2014 is the year when we take responsibility for shaping our own future. «