THEY found it hard to get the words out, the Unionist leaders in our national Parliament.

Protocol and common decency dictated that they congratulate John Swinney on his election as the Parliament’s choice for First Minister. But after a few words dutifully acknowledging the result, the SNP-bad homilies poured out of them.

With all the grace of bar-room bullies and even less goodwill, Douglas, Anas and Alex tried to pretend simultaneously that no real change had taken place, yet it was outrageous that so much had changed without either the SNP or the electorate getting a vote. That paradox seemed lost on its proponents.

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I called for a General Election when Liz Truss became prime minister of the UK. So did many in my party. Why? Because on that occasion her appointment represented – by her own admission – a fundamental change in the government’s policy direction. This was not about implementing the mandate Johnson obtained in December 2019, but going far beyond. And that, rightly, ought not to happen without the public being consulted.

The handbrake turn Truss applied to the UK economy left it in a ditch. I’m not claiming it would have worked better had it been the choice of the electorate, but maybe they would have felt slightly less cheated about paying the consequences in higher prices and mortgages.

John Swinney, by contrast, is standing to lead a fixed-term parliament and deliver the mandate his party was given in May 2021. He will, of course, have a distinct focus and put his stamp on government, but the general social-democratic programme of the SNP government is unchanged.

There was no internal election for one reason and one reason only – the members did not want it. Several factors played into that outcome. The imminence of the UK General Election, a view that there were better ways to spend £70k, the bruising leadership election just over a year ago which left many feeling once bitten, twice shy.

All of this was wrapped up in an overwhelming desire to get back on course, to achieve, and to win back those in the electorate who clearly are upset and angry at the party’s lack of focus in recent times. And when someone of the calibre of John Swinney was persuaded to put himself forward, our members grabbed the opportunity with both hands. It was, as they say, a no-brainer.

It worked. This week the party is as united, driven and focused as I have ever seen.

The Unionist parties gave it about 90 seconds before going on the attack. If you are to believe them, everything in Scotland is disastrous, crime is rife, our schools are failing, the NHS is in crisis, the country is falling apart. They hope through repeated assertion to create an avalanche of despair that will metastasise into anger and resentment of the SNP.

Their problem is that people are not daft. They are not fooled by statistics presented without context or comparison. Of course there are many problems in Scotland, some could be laid at the door of the SNP government, but most are the result of squeeze and constraint by Westminster.

We have avoided strikes in our health service resulting in better pay and higher morale. Challenges exist but people – particularly those who are in contact with friends and family in England – know things are better in Scotland. More young people from poorer backgrounds are going to higher education than ever before. There are fewer children in poverty due to the pioneering Scottish Child Payment. Free buses and cheaper rail fares are making public transport more attractive.

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Our opponents try to present John Swinney as the continuity candidate, proclaiming nothing will change. They wish. It’s a bit rich to call someone a continuity candidate when he led the party before his recent successors held the office of first minister.

Humza Yousaf is a warm, passionate and thoughtful politician. Given a fair wind, he could have had a longer and more productive term.

But few were content to be fair.

He was consumed in a vortex of SNP-bad, finding it hard and in the end impossible to escape. The closeness of his election undoubtedly didn’t help. It takes time to build and develop a mandate in office when the route to getting there was divided. And he was not helped by constant criticism both from within the partnership government and without.

Already, circumstances are different, have been made different, for the new first minister. John Swinney already has the gravitas and respect that others in his position could only aspire to over time.

He has a united party behind him. He is free from the obligations of a formal coalition agreement and is able to make alliances of the willing where he can. Undoubtedly, they will try, but our Unionist detractors will find it much harder to make the dirt stick this time.

And so to independence.

This is what worries our opponents most. Their attack is two-pronged. First, insist that independence is an abstract constitutional fixation removed from real public policy matters. Second, deny the government has a mandate to pursue the debate on how we are governed.

It is clearly an intellectual nonsense to pretend that how we are governed and the output of that governance are unconnected. Maybe some of the fault is our own. Maybe the focus on how independence happens rather than why has allowed this false narrative to take root.

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But it looks as if the hallmark of the Swinney era will be to reset and reposition the case for independence within the ambition for social and economic change that so many of our citizens desire. This is welcome. It brings together a strategy of maxing out the existing devolved powers of the parliament with an argument for more. It is at the point where the ability of the Scottish Parliament is exhausted that the case for national autonomy is compelling.

A focus on child poverty is a good place to start. Real improvements can be made by current Scottish Government action – the Scottish Child Payment does just that. But this is mitigation, not elimination.

Children are poor because their parents are poor. One reason for this is because they have insecure and badly paid jobs.

To tackle this we need improved rights at work. We need a higher statutory minimum wage. The Scottish Government has the power to do neither. In demanding such powers right now, we make the case for independence.

So, we should be clear going forward. Political independence for our country is not about identity, but agency. About having the ability to change Scotland for the better. Not decades in the future but right now.

As we connect the argument for independence with the power to change, we must also insist on the democratic right of the people of Scotland to choose how they are governed. The people voted three years ago for a majority in the Scottish Parliament pledged to offer that right to choose by pursuing another referendum. The Tories and Labour have denied them that right. They still do so.

It will soon be time to renew that mandate and pursue it with increased purpose and vigour. Which is why as we seek the transfer of legislative powers to Scotland, the one that matters most will be the right of the elected parliament here to decide how and when the people are consulted on their future governance.