Scotland has changed decisively in the past 18 months. As I said on the evening of the SNP’s election victory in May last year, we are a country that has moved on for good and for ever.
Part of that change is the new confidence in every part of the nation, among young and old alike. And allied to that confidence is that people no longer believe the scare stories put about by our Unionist opponents.
The Unionist argument has always been, at its very core, a dishonest and insidious one. In the absence of hard facts and cold logic it has instead relied on fear, smear and misinformation. That is why it was so disappointing to see The Times last week question the viability of an independent Scotland.
Contrary to the assertions in a leading article in this newspaper, the case for independence has always been on a sound financial footing. The events of recent weeks have merely strengthened the case for Scotland to be given more control of its economy to protect jobs, investment and stability.
The economic maelstrom now sweeping the globe is affecting all countries large and small. The US, the biggest and most powerful economy on the planet, has seen 17 of its banks laid low by the crisis. Germany, Japan and Russia are also hurting – size has offered them no protection or immunity.
Smaller European nations are among those predicted to come through in the best shape. Norway has not, as asserted in The Times last week, “gone cap in hand” to the US Federal Reserve. The $5 billion currency swap for Oslo was part of a co-ordinated international exchange to get markets moving and provide much-needed dollar liquidity. The UK, Japan and many other nations were similarly involved. The UK’s equivalent was $80 billion – that should not be described as the Bank of England going “cap in hand”.
Norway is forecast by the IMF to keep growing economically this year and next. So are Denmark, Finland and Sweden – all smaller European nations. The same IMF forecast predicts that the UK will move into recession. These Nordic nations regularly find themselves at the top of the international charts when it comes to standards of living.
Not that the Unionist case has seen fit to portray it that way.
Seizing on the particular problems of Iceland, the argument has lapsed from fear and smear into outright slander. The unedifying spectacle of Gordon Brown and Jim Murphy, the Secretary of State for Scotland, hitting the airwaves to besmirch the achievements of the likes of Ireland and Norway is surely the nadir of new Labour diplomacy.
For the Prime Minister, it also amounts to breathtaking hypocrisy. For it was Gordon Brown who, as Chancellor for a decade, presided over the age of irresponsibility in the City. That age has come to a shattering end. And Mr Brown’s boast of “no return to boom and bust” is left looking ridiculous.
But let us return to the smears levelled at our near neighbours. Norway, with a smaller population than Scotland, now has an oil fund worth £200 billion. That fund, started only in 1995, gives it a national pension pot that guarantees its wealth in perpetuity.
If only the same could be said for Scotland, whose North Sea oil wealth, which the Scottish Government wants to invest in a similar fund, has been frittered away.
When we look west to Ireland, it is incredible that UK ministers should traduce the achievements of a country that has been a model of how to successfully energise an economy. Ireland may have moved into recession – but only after many years of fantastic growth, easily outscoring the UK. As a result, it is now nearly 40 per cent more prosperous per head than the UK.
Ireland was also able to act quickly and decisively to bring stability to its banking sector by guaranteeing all deposits. It was to Ireland that many in Britain turned when the UK Government did not offer a parallel guarantee. Dublin’s actions were a clear demonstration of just how effective smaller independent nations can be when the going gets tough.
The age of irresponsibility, sadly, has not been confined to public finance. It has also given us the mother of all foreign policy disasters, the illegal invasion of Iraq. The financial costs of that debacle are gigantic, the human ones simply incalculable. And as with finance, so it is with foreign policy – it takes our small independent neighbours to show us the way.
Norway has been a shining light in its selfless and unstinting efforts to act as an honest arbiter and go-between in some of the globe’s most intractable conflicts, including in the Middle East. That is the kind of role that Scotland should aspire to.
I have never been one of those Scots who indulges in the “Wha’s Like Us” sentimentality. But neither am I one who, like Gordon Brown, Jim Murphy and their colleagues, seem to believe that we are uniquely incapable of looking after ourselves.
The age of irresponsibility has ended. In the new age of responsibility, Scotland will rejoin the international community as an independent nation.
Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland.