FIRSTLY this week, let me pay tribute to the brilliant achievement of Rangers in reaching the final of the Europa League in Seville.

Last Wednesday’s result was heart-breaking for the team and for the club’s many fans, including the thousands who travelled to Spain to watch the match. However, the achievement of the club in getting to the final was considerable, and a real moment for followers and fans of Scottish football to be proud of.

I began last week in Washington DC, where I was undertaking a range of business, trade and political engagements to promote Scotland, and strengthen our already strong bonds of friendship and cooperation with the United States, which is our most important international trading partner.

My short trip to Washington DC was my first visit to the US since 2019, and on the agenda were many key challenges that we face collectively.

The emergence and recovery from the Covid pandemic, the accelerating climate crisis and now the reality of war in Europe, with Russia’s brutal, illegal invasion of Ukraine all strengthen the imperative for strong international cooperation and serious, concerted action on the part of all countries in the democratic world.

It’s so important that Scotland plays our full part, and that we share our knowledge and experience whenever we can. For these reasons, as well as boosting investment and jobs at home, visits like this one which represent Scotland overseas matter.  

During my time in DC, I met with a number of transatlantic businesses to reiterate our strong trade ties with the US and encourage further investment into Scotland. I engaged with key figures in the US Government and House of Representatives to discuss vital issues such as the invasion of Ukraine, Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol and Scotland’s constitutional future.

And six months on from the UN climate summit, COP26, which was held in Glasgow, I had the opportunity to discuss with key players the need for all of us to remain firmly focussed on delivering the promises made at that summit last November.

The climate crisis is as real and pressing as ever. Neither the pandemic nor Putin’s invasion of Ukraine have altered that reality, even though both issues may have temporarily diverted our focus.

The need to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees remains imperative, as does addressing security of energy supplies, particularly in light of the war in Ukraine and the impact it is having on energy prices for consumers.  

Nations must prioritise, as far as they can, an approach that focuses on sustainability, with measures to promote energy efficiency, and efforts to accelerate the development of renewable and low carbon energy.

For many countries of course, non-fossil fuel alternatives are already the most obvious and sustainable option, and increasingly they are becoming the most affordable options too.

We in Scotland have our own experiences to share in that respect. Already, the cheapest power in Scotland’s energy mix is wind. And my hope is that the innovation underway here will create jobs and opportunities here at home in Scotland and also benefit other countries.

The SNP’s opponents sometimes try to delegitimise the Scottish Government’s international engagement. But the reality is that Scottish Ministers have been making international visits like this for more than 20 years, long before my party took office – and promoting our country overseas should, quite simply, be seen as part of the job.

I last wrote this column just after the results of the local government elections on 5 May. Much has happened since then, and whilst I was in the USA, I was of course keeping up to date on the council administrations being formed here in Scotland.

Despite previously ruling out any “pacts or deals or coalitions”, it’s been extremely disappointing to watch Labour rely on Tory support to take power in South Lanarkshire, Stirling and Fife, and sit on their hands to let the Tories take power in South Ayrshire and Moray.

To contemplate these kind of deals at any time would be bad, but to do so when people across the UK are facing an acute cost of living crisis, which the Tories at Westminster have done nothing to minimise, is completely indefensible.

People in Scotland can see through Labour’s town hall deals with the Tories – and trying to deny the fact that many Labour administrations in Scotland are only possible with Tory support gives the unfortunate impression that Anas Sarwar thinks voters are not paying attention.

Finally, on Friday evening, after experiencing some symptoms, I tested positive for Covid and so have been stuck at home for the last few days.

It’s fair to say the virus has knocked me for six and while I hope to be back fighting fit very soon, I’ve been reminded of the importance of vaccination. As I now know from personal experience, Covid can be nasty and vaccination protects against much more serious illness. I have felt very grateful for that this week. So if you haven’t already, please do get your vaccines - and continue to take care.