CAST your mind back to the elections last May. Thinking about the Covid restrictions under which that campaign took place, it already feels like a very different world. But even then we were already starting to think about what we wanted Scotland to look like after the pandemic.

And in the year since the people of Scotland overwhelmingly backed the SNP in that election, we have wasted no time in implementing our vision for that recovery.

We’ve laid out ambitious strategies to transform our economy, as well as plans to help our NHS and the education and justice systems recover.

We’ve unveiled further radical actions to tackle child poverty – and through policies such as our Scottish Child Payment, we are set on reducing child poverty in Scotland to the lowest levels in 30 years.

READ MORE: Andrew Wilson: Growth Commission is still relevant to indyref2 four years on

We have reached a major milestone in childcare expansion, with 1140 hours now available to all three and four-year-olds and increasing numbers of two-year-olds – double what it was in 2014.

We’ve taken bold steps to address the climate emergency and helped to host the crucial COP26 summit in Glasgow.

The National: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon officially opens the City of Glasgow College's International Maritime Hub, Riverside Campus, Glasgow, ahead of COP26. Picture date: Friday October 29, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story ENVIRONMENT. Photo credit should read:

We’ve announced the world’s biggest commercial programme of floating offshore wind development, helping cement Scotland’s place as a world-leader in renewables.

And of course, our ground-breaking co-operation agreement with the Scottish Green Party is bringing a more constructive kind of politics to Scotland.

The SNP will always stand up for Scotland’s best interests, and we will always use every power at our disposal to build a better country.

Over the last few years, as well as introducing bold policies to transform the lives of people of Scotland, we have also been building the foundations for a successful independent state.

When I became First Minister, Scotland had no independent social security system, no independent tax authority and no national investment bank – since then, we have built all of these institutions from scratch.

We have a social security agency, Social Security Scotland, built on the principles of dignity, fairness and respect. The 12 benefits it is already delivering – seven of which are new and unique to Scotland – are showing their true worth in the cost of living crisis.

The Scottish Child Payment has been described as a “game-changer” by anti-poverty campaigners, and our new Adult Disability Payment marks the beginning of the end of the DWP’s often shameful legacy of degrading assessments and inhumane bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, our new independent tax authority, Revenue Scotland, is administering a tax policy for Scotland which is decided in Scotland – and which is the fairest and most progressive in the UK.

And the new publicly-owned Scottish National Investment Bank, which will invest at least £2 billion in its first decade, has already made commitments of almost £200 million to 14 pioneering projects across the country – including Aberdeen Harbour, vital to our just transition to net zero.

These policies are undoubtedly making Scotland a better country to live in.

Piece by piece, they are building a new Scotland.

And this, of course, begs a very important question.

If we have been able to use the existing devolved powers to take significantly better decisions for Scotland, what more could we be achieving with the powers that remain in the hands of the Tories at Westminster?

What would Scotland be like today had we not been dragged out of the EU against our will, if we did not have Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, and if we were not living with a Tory government which has responded to the cost of living crisis with little more than indifference, inaction and insults?

The National: Boris Johnson during his Covid update on Monday, during which he signalled the end of restrictions in England

Last year, the people of Scotland determined that they want a say on Scotland’s constitutional future.

We are committed to offering that choice, and ensuring that it will be a fully informed one.

To that end, we will shortly begin publishing an updated prospectus on the opportunities that independence can offer Scotland. A prospectus that, yes, is up front about the challenges – but also one that does not shy away from the immense opportunities of independence.

That’s because we really should be optimistic about Scotland’s future. We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world – the combination of natural resources, a highly-educated population and a competitive edge in some of the global sectors of the future is almost incomparable.

With this new independence discussion, we will be raising Scotland’s ambition. Too often, political debate in Scotland seems dominated by how we mitigate the damage inflicted upon us by Westminster, when in fact we should be deciding how we manage and develop our extraordinary assets to build a better nation.

Growing up in the 1980s, I vividly remember how powerless people felt against the tide of Thatcherism. Times were tough then, as they are now.

There were many people – as there are today – who did not want us to raise our ambitions. They did not want us to debate our constitutional future; to dare consider whether we could do better than Westminster control.

But if we had listened back then to those who tried to shut down constitutional debate, where would we be now?

It was a constitutional debate that led to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, thus allowing Scotland to introduce, amongst many other policies, free personal care for the elderly, free university tuition, a ground-breaking minimum price for alcohol and world-leading climate change targets.

Constitutional debate has also led to new tax and social security powers – allowing us to build a fairer Scotland.

Far from being some abstract academic discussion, constitutional debate has ultimately led to policies which have made a real difference to the lives of millions of people.

And that’s why, in this rapidly changing world, this new discussion is so important.

There is no status quo. The only certainty is that it is better for us to have as much control over our own lives as possible; to not simply have to hope against hope – and against all previous evidence to the contrary – that Westminster will take the right decisions for us.

With the nation-building we have been undertaking in government, Scotland is more ready than ever to transition to independence and take its place among the family of independent nations.

The opportunity for us to play a positive role on the global stage has never been greater. And the need for us to govern ourselves has never been more pressing.

We should place no limits on our ambition for our future.

Instead, let us decide – together – what we want that future to look like.