Alex Salmond: Only the freedom of independence will allow our nation to succeed

SAINT Andrew's Day is a day of national celebration that allows all Scots to commemorate our patron saint and mark our distinctive place in the world.

But national optimism and good feeling cannot be fuelled on sentiment alone. We need to make sure our economy is given the best chance to ride out the tough times and emerge on the other side in as robust good health as possible.

For that to happen we need a stimulus package to galvanise our economy by focusing investment where it is most needed while at the same time offering targeted tax cuts. Above all, we need decisions taken in Scotland's best interests.

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The Scottish Government has already gone a long way to meeting the current challenges. Our six-point economic recovery plan includes 100m in funding that has been brought forward for much-needed spending on affordable housing.

However, the scale of the current downturn underlines how necessary it is for the Scottish Government to have the full range of fiscal levers which any normal independent country takes for granted.

But until the people of Scotland are given the chance to claim those powers in the democratic referendum that we are offering, the country remains adversely affected by decisions taken at Westminster.

Those decisions, as borne out conclusively by Labour's Pre-Budget Report last week, have been made with scant regard to Scotland's interests. How else can we explain the move to cut half a billion pounds – roughly equivalent to half the annual universities budget or the entire prisons budget – from our finances in 2010-11? That cut will be repeated the following year, resulting in a one billion pound double whammy to Scotland.

Labour does not even dispute that these massive cuts are coming. Their Holyrood leader, Iain Gray, has said Scotland "must take its share" of cutbacks.

This at a time when Scotland's oil revenues are propping up UK finances on an unprecedented scale. A record 13.2bn is set to flow into Treasury coffers from North Sea oil this financial year, while the total over the next six years will come to a massive 55bn, compared to 41bn over the last six years.

Of course, Labour's cuts are being proposed only because, as we now know, the Treasury needed a last-minute plan to try to balance the books after its decision not to push ahead with the plan to push up VAT to 18.5%. This is no way to run public finances.

The Treasury is already hoarding 1bn of Scotland's money – including around 120m in the fossil fuel levy – even before the looming cuts are taken into account. And if any further proof were needed of London Labour's indifference to Scotland's needs then we need look no further than the debacle over the hike in whisky duties.

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Alistair Darling may have recanted on his initial move to raise the tax by 8%, but the mere fact that his original intention to penalise one of our biggest industries was pushed through on the nod lays bare Labour's attitude to Scotland. Either it is monumental incompetence or it is monumental indifference.

Scotland is a country of vast potential, but is currently held back by its inability to take the crucial economic decisions needed in its own interests.

Control of all our own resources and the ability to borrow like any normal government would give us the chance to compete on a level playing field with the other countries currently able to use these tools to best suit them and see them through the global downturn.

Unlike the UK, some small independent European nations like Finland and Norway are projected to keep on growing, with marginal growth in the Euro area as a whole, while the UK plunges into the economic mire.

The SNP Government is determined that the people of Scotland should be given the choice to put our country on that level playing field. Our National Conversation on the country's constitutional future, which has so far gathered around 450,000 hits on its web pages, paves the way for the independence referendum we are proposing for 2010.

We believe independence offers the best future for Scotland, but we are open to suggestions as to what other options may be on that ballot paper. So far, however, all we have had from the London parties is obfuscation.

Their Calman Commission on the future of devolution has, in stark contrast to the inclusive nature of the National Conversation, deliberately excluded the option of independence. Calman is due to issue its interim report on Tuesday, but, based on what we have seen so far, no one should expect anything remotely matching the substantial new powers Scotland needs. There will yet again be more questions than answers.

Too often the debate on Scotland's future lapses into the politics of fear. Nowhere was that better demonstrated than in the fallout from the global financial crisis, which saw the resurrection of the old, discredited scare stories suggesting this country is incapable of governing itself.

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But, as Barack Obama's historic triumph in this month's US presidential election shows, hope can triumph over fear.

Our whole message as a Government is founded on hope and aspiration. We believe Scotland should look after its own affairs not because we are intrinsically better than any other nation but because we are as good as any other.

We look forward with hope to the New Year and to the one beyond, when we offer the people of Scotland the chance to choose the independent future that our nation needs to succeed.