As we enter the new year I expect that the economy and constitution will feature just as prominently as they did in 2011.
While the economy has a direct effect on the lives of everyone it is normally the case that constitutional debate only really concerns those of us in the world of politics and the media. That is about to change as Scotland leaves 2011 knowing that we will soon need to make a decision on whether we wish to remain part of the UK.
We have seen the second year of the coalition government working towards getting the economy back on track. The global economic picture has been difficult, particularly within the Eurozone, but we have stayed our course and will be the better for it. The UK economy has remained stable against that backdrop, underlining the fact we made the right choices at the right time. That is what good government should be - making a choice and sticking with it.
Our deficit reduction plan has helped restore confidence in th UK economy and kept interest rates low but we are by no means immune to the issues facing our trading partners in the euro zone. Our borrowing costs have fallen to record lows, which shows the UK government debt is seen as a safe bet in the global debt crisis and our credit rating has been restored to its previous highest possible level.
But there is still much to do, particularly when it comes to employment. With the Scottish unemployment rate higher than the rest of the UK, both of Scotland’s governments must focus on the issue in 2012. It will not be easy but we have already put major initiatives such as the Youth Contract in place and will continue to do all we can to get people back into work.
There are few issues of more importance to us all and I want to see all our powers, both reserved and devolved, brought to bear on it. That includes the pressing issue of youth unemployment which continues to affect cities and towns across Scotland. After a series of local events this year, in March I will host a national summit bringing together politicians, agencies, employers and others as we continue to put our collective effort into the fight to get young people into the job market.
But there is another issue facing Scotland which now looms large. The Scottish election result in May means that all of us across Scotland will soon need to decide where we stand on staying in the UK or becoming a separate country. It will be the most important political decision that the Scottish people will ever make.
I am confident that people will listen to the arguments and make the right choice, but I want to make two important points on how we conduct this debate in 2012.
Firstly, we must have an open and frank debate. Everyone is entitled to their view and it is particularly important that experts in different fields are listened to respectfully, even if they are not agreed with.
I do not believe people will be neutral on this issue next year, given the great uncertainty it generates. It is too important - and potentially irreversible - a subject for silence. We saw a number of strong opinions and arguments in favour of Scotland’s place in the UK this year but I know many others hold similar views. Next year is the time to air them and choose to enter the debate: at stake is Scotland’s place in the world and our future prosperity.
Secondly, we need clarity in the next few months on how this important decision is to be arrived at. Since May the Scottish Government has not been clear. As it stands we might have a referendum in 2014, 2015 or 2016. There is talk of multiple questions, different options and creating a whole new body to run the poll. It’s only fair for people in Scotland to be able to understand the plan.
I believe it is right that there now should be a referendum. But equally, the Scottish people have the right to expect a referendum that is legal, fair and decisive. There are still many questions for the Scottish Government to answer.
Next year will also see the UK Government complete the legislation that transfers the largest ever set of financial powers to the Scottish Parliament. This will trigger a different kind of devolution with much greater financial accountability for MSPs at Holyrood.
There are still some important milestones to pass. There are numerous amendments tabled in the House of Lords for the Committee stage which begins in late January. The Scottish Government want to see some changes, but we still need to see more detail from them. We will continue to work to fulfil this key coalition pledge to transfer much greater powers to the Scottish Parliament.
I look forward to fighting hard for Scotland in 2012 and its continuing place in the UK, the most successful partnership of nations in history.
The Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee will also provide much for Scots everywhere to enjoy and celebrate in 2012.
I wish you all a very happy and prosperous New Year.