WHEN I first became involved in the campaign for a Scottish Parliament and independence, I remember there being a fair amount of dark humour as we looked, with just a hint of envy, towards nations such as Estonia, Slovenia and Slovakia as they claimed their independence. Fearing that history might be passing us by, we joked that when the independence train arrived, Scotland had been waiting at the airport.

Now, more than a quarter of a century on, and 25 years into the life of our reconvened parliament, I have a more optimistic view. To turn the image on its head, there is an independence plane, it has taken off, and it is already well on the way to its final destination.

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Looking back, 2023 has certainly been a difficult year for the independence movement. As others have said, it doesn’t serve us well to downplay the difficulties, or indeed the challenges still to come – but there is also a bigger picture. If we allow ourselves to take a longer view, and choose to see things in the round, the turbulence we have been experiencing can be understood as just one stage of a journey that has taken us from almost nowhere to having a parliament with limited but still not insignificant autonomy. Scotland is not yet an independent state, but we have greater independence now than we have had for more than 300 years.

As we look forward to the coming year - and to what may be the most significant UK General Election for decades - we would be wise to recognise that the closer we get to our destination, the more complex and important the tasks at hand become. For a large part of the journey, all that we really needed to achieve was forward movement in approximately the right direction. But successfully landing the independence plane requires something much more.

The National: Supporters at a Yes Rally in George Square ahead of voting in the Scottish Referendum on September18th..

Over the years, we have done well at setting the direction and creating momentum. I’ve described this previously as a focus on “campaign winning”, persuading people that independence is the right choice. Campaign winning is absolutely necessary. We won’t reach our destination without making the independence case powerfully and persuasively. However, campaigning is not enough. If our goal is not just an independent Scotland, but a flourishing independent Scotland, at peace with itself and on good terms with its neighbours, then we have a job also of conscious and actual nation-building.

For me, nation-building has three interconnected elements and getting these right means that we are more likely to become independent well. We will give ourselves the best possible circumstances for success as an independent country – and in doing so, I believe we will also answer many of the concerns of people who want a stronger Scottish Parliament but are not yet persuaded of the independence case.

First, we would be well advised to make the process of becoming independent as unifying as possible. Compare the 1979 and 1997 devolution referendums. By the time of the second vote, there was a much clearer sense of the parliament being the “settled will” - a consequence in part due to changed circumstances (the experience of the Thatcher years) but also a direct result of the multiple cross-party and non-party initiatives to build the case and confirm what it was that the people of Scotland wanted. I believe now is the time for a similar approach, with as broad a base as possible – bringing together people who want more and even full powers, which means the outcome at this stage may simply be "more independence" rather than full independence.

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Second, we should look to move forward in cooperation with the rest of the UK as much as we can. Deals will need to be done after a Yes vote on a whole range of issues – including cross-border trade, the division of the national debt, and the transfer or sharing of data and IT systems in areas like social security, tax and pensions to name just a few. Those agreements will be easier to reach if relationships have not broken down. That is one of the many lessons of Brexit. It is not easy to do, but it is important to try.

The Yes movement is at its best when we are open, and when we seek to engage constructively with those who have genuine concerns and questions about what independence would mean. For me, therefore, the most important task of 2024 is relationship building, both with the still-to-be-persuaded here in Scotland, but also with people elsewhere in the UK. Our success as an independent country will depend in large part on having a close and constructive ongoing relationship with England, our nearest neighbour, most important ally and biggest trading partner.

What might that mean in practice? I’ve long believed that there should be pro-independence voices in the House of Lords – a conclusion I reached in 1998 when the Scotland Bill passed from the Commons to the Lords and the SNP lost the ability to meaningfully engage with the legislation or influence the debate. The Lords is certainly a far from perfect institution, but it is also a forum with real power. Experienced and respected figures from across the Yes movement, sitting as crossbench peers, could become ambassadors for independence in the institutional heart of the UK. Operating outside the day-to-day tussles of party politics, they could be tasked with this important relationship-building role.

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Finally, putting in place the institutions of an independent country will require a great deal of work and effort. As we saw even with the transfer of just some of the social security powers, it took a few years to get the systems up and running. It will also take up a vast amount of political and governmental bandwidth. It will be a complex task, which is not an argument for not doing it, but rather an argument for doing it wisely and well, including in stages. For the most practical of reasons, the more we can have in place before independence, the better.

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That means the independence movement should welcome any and every opportunity to expand the powers of the Scottish Parliament. Not only because it allows us to do more in the here and now but also because it smooths the path for independence in the future. If, for example, we gain additional tax powers and social security powers in the short term, then that is the capacity we will have in place after independence. Every new power we get under our belt is one less we have to manage in an independence transition.

Independence is both an event and a journey. There will be a moment when we become independent, but Scotland’s post-independence path is firmly connected to our pre-independence one. We are creating that independent Scotland in and through the choices we make now, so in the year ahead, let’s decide to do it in a way that unifies, inspires, and gives us the strongest foundations upon which to build.