Fellow nationalists, let me start today with just two words. They are sincere and heartfelt.
Make no mistake: it is your hard work – and that of the generations of nationalists in whose footsteps you follow – that make it possible for me to stand here before you today as a member of an SNP majority government.
I know I speak on behalf of all my colleagues in the Scottish government and every member of the Scottish parliamentary group when I say that, as party activists go, you are quite simply the best.
And what an achievement – an SNP majority government.
Be honest, how many of you thought that was even possible? I know I didn’t. And, whatever he might try to tell you now, neither did Alex.
Our opponents certainly didn’t think it could be done. They thought they had come up with the perfect voting system – one that would stop the SNP ever winning a majority.
It turns out they couldn’t even get that right. What an incompetent bunch they are. Delegates, on May 5 we didn’t just win. We broke the mould of Scottish politics.
69 seats, 53 first past the post victories.
And indulge me just for a moment – 5 constituency victories in the city of Glasgow.
I tell you, it will take something special to match the atmosphere in the Glasgow Exhibition Centre in the early hours of May 6.
First we won my own constituency – Labour’s top target seat in Scotland – with a majority more than double that of the biggest Labour majority in the city. And then Glasgow Kelvin, Cathcart, Shettleston and Anniesland all joined the SNP fold.
Delegates, it was such a great feeling that I am determined to do it all over again in 2012.
I intend to be in the Glasgow Exhibition Centre next May when the SNP removes the dead hand of Labour control from Glasgow City Council. And, delegates, let us resolve today to win next year’s council elections in every part of Scotland.
Our victory in May was seismic. We re-drew the map and changed the face of Scotland forever. But, impressive though it was, it’s not the scale of our victory that matters most.
What matters most are the reasons for it.
We won because we kept our promises to the people of Scotland.
We demonstrated competence in government, not just in good times but in tough times. We were honest when we couldn’t make the progress we wanted. And we showed humility when we got things wrong.
We demonstrated that we were on the side of individuals, families and communities right across our country. We knew how much pressure household budgets are under, so we froze the council tax.
And, delegates, we will continue to freeze the council tax for all of this parliament.
We understand the aspirations of working class men and women to see their kids go to university, so we abolished tuition fees. And, be in no doubt, education will stay free with the SNP.
We believe that the corner shop, the family business and the local entrepreneur, are the engines of economic growth, so we removed the rates burden from tens of thousands of small businesses.
Delegates, we were a minority in Parliament but we built a coalition with the Scottish people. And, of course, we had something else that none of the other parties even came close to.
In Alex Salmond, we had a candidate for First Minister who was head and shoulders above the rest.
Alex led from the front. He gave the people of Scotland a message of hope and a vision for the future. And, when the going got tough, he didn’t run away and hide.
Alex – we thank you for your leadership of our campaign, our party and, above all, for your outstanding leadership of our country.
Delegates, we won because we are in touch with the country we serve. We are part of the families, the communities, the towns, cities and villages that we represent.
We are not run by remote control from London. We don’t take our orders from elsewhere. Our decisions are rooted here in Scotland, in the lives and experiences of the people we ask to vote for us.
We are Scotland’s party. And that is why we won.
Delegates, everyone accepts that lessons need to be learned from election defeats. But the same is true of election victories. The lesson for us is that people liked the substance of our government and they also liked its style.
Our majority gives us a mandate to govern decisively and we will. As Bruce Crawford will testify, it’s great not having to worry about knife edge votes in parliament.
But we are not in politics to do things just because we can. We are in politics to do the things we should.
We are in politics to do right for Scotland, to make our country fairer – To make our country independent.
We are the progressive force in Scottish politics. That means standing up and being counted for what we believe in. But it also means persuading and building consensus. Our coalition with the people matters just as much now as it did when we were a minority.
So let us be clear. We will continue to govern with conviction and purpose, but also with humility and a willingness to listen.
We will work hard to translate our majority into real and solid achievements for Scotland. But we won’t govern just by the weight of our numbers.
Delegates, the real worth of our government is that we have the confidence, the conviction and the ability, to govern by the power and the strength of our argument and that is what we will do.
Of course, in the last parliament, as a minority, we occasionally won the argument but still lost the vote. That’s what happened on alcohol minimum pricing. Labour’s decision to vote down minimum pricing haunts them to this day.
That vote said they cared more about petty party politics than about the public health of the nation.
And no party that gets its priorities that wrong is fit to govern our country. Delegates, I can tell you today that our minimum pricing bill will be reintroduced to parliament within the next month.
When that Bill is passed, Scotland will become the first country to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol. The world is watching us.
Being first with a policy means that it comes with no absolute certainties. I know that, but I also know that the evidence, the real life experiences of doctors, nurses, the police, and sheer common sense tell us it can work to reduce the dreadful damage that alcohol misuse does to our communities.
So it may not be the politically easy thing to do, but I believe in my heart that it is the right thing to do. And I am very proud to be part of a government that has the courage to do what is right.
Last year, dozens of clinicians signed a newspaper advert backing us on minimum pricing.
Last week, 60 leading clinicians in England – speaking on behalf of tens of thousands more – wrote to the newspapers pleading with the UK government to abandon their plans to privatise the NHS.
Those pleas fell on deaf ears. It now seems inevitable that the Tories, aided and abetted by their Liberal partners, will break up the NHS in England.
Delegates, our country may not yet be independent.
But, thankfully, our NHS is independent. And let me make this clear. The NHS in Scotland will remain a public service, paid for by the public and accountable to the public.
There will be no privatisation of the National Health Service in Scotland. I say that not out of blind ideology – though I have always thought that the ideology of a health service, in public hands and free at the point of need, is a rather fine one.
I say it because I believe – I have no doubt – that our NHS can and will outperform the privatised experiment south of the border.
It is well known that we already have waiting times lower than at any time in the history of the NHS in Scotland. What is less well known is that we are now the only part of the UK where hospital waiting times continue to fall.
Delegates, that is an achievement to be proud of.
And it hasn’t been achieved by NHS staff competing against each other. It has been achieved by NHS staff working together in the interests of patients.
So we will continue to build on these achievements. We will make good on our pledge to protect spending in the NHS. Over the next four years, an extra £ 1 billion will be invested in our health service.
And I guarantee this: that money won’t be wasted on senseless reorganisations. Every single penny will support frontline patient care.
Delegates, We do face tough times. I know that the health service and it’s staff are not immune from these challenges. But I believe that if we work together for the public good, Scotland ’ s NHS will get through these difficult times and emerge stronger.
And I will do everything in my power to make that happen. It was Nye Bevan – the founding father of our health service – who said that the NHS would last as long as there were enough folk left with the faith to fight for it.
Well let us leave no doubt. We have faith and we will always fight for Scotland’s National Health Service.
Delegates, The NHS delivers excellent standards of care, but it needs to do more to keep people well and out of hospital.
One of the biggest challenges in the health service today is the rising incidence of diabetes. Nearly 10% of hospital spending now goes on treating diabetes and the complications it causes. And the health consequences for patients of not managing the condition properly can be devastating.
It is now widely accepted that insulin pumps can make a real difference to the ability of people with Type 1 diabetes to manage their condition and prevent complications. They don’t work for everyone but clinical guidelines say that far more people in Scotland should have access to them than is currently the case. Right now, only about 2.5% of patients have them.
So I make this commitment today. By 2013, 25% of all type 1 diabetes sufferers under the age of 18 will have access to insulin pumps. And over the next three years we will triple the total number available to sufferers of all ages to more than 2,000 – improving the quality of life for patients right across Scotland.
Delegates, Shortly after the election, I said that improving care for our elderly people is my personal priority.
As part of that commitment, let me make this clear – our government will always support what is one of the Scottish Parliament’s proudest achievements. Free personal care for the elderly is safe in our hands. But we know there are big challenges ahead in providing care for the elderly.
The answer to that challenge lies in improving how we care for our older people. What most people want more than anything as they grow older is to stay in their own homes, to live independently for as long as possible.
And, delegates, we have an obligation to our older people to make that happen. But too many older people end up in hospital when they shouldn’t and too many stay there much longer than they need to.
We have made big progress in reducing delayed discharges in hospitals.
The current target is that no-one should be in hospital more than 6 weeks after being deemed fit for discharge. Labour never came close to meeting that target.
We have made progress. But it doesn’t go far enough. There are still far too many patients who are stuck in hospital for up to six weeks just because the right care is not available for them in the community. That is far too long.
Delayed discharges waste NHS resources. 200,000 bed days are lost every year. That’s equivalent to a large acute hospital being occupied all year by people who don’t need to be there. And it costs £ 50m.
But worse, much worse, is that delayed discharges rob older people of their quality of life. We must do more to tackle these unnecessary waits. And, delegates, I am determined that we will.
We will cut the maximum time that it is acceptable for any older person to be delayed in hospital. The target will initially reduce from six weeks to four weeks.
And I can announce today that by the start of 2015, under this SNP government, no older person will be unnecessarily delayed in hospital for any longer than two weeks.
I am proud of Scotland’s National Health Service. And I am extremely proud of the people who work in it. Let us thank them for all that they do. Theirs is a difficult job in the best of times, but these are tough times.
The economic climate – and our commitment to no compulsory redundancies – means that a pay freeze for all but the lowest paid has been unavoidable.
But what is avoidable is the increase in pension contributions planned by the UK government.
Make no mistake, these increases are not about making pensions sustainable. They are a Westminster cash grab for the purposes of deficit reduction.
So, let me say this very directly to the UK government. As Scottish Health Secretary, I object – at a time when wages are frozen – to you reducing the deficit at the expense of Scotland’s NHS workers.
They should not be paying for the mistakes of the bankers and Westminster politicians who wrecked our economy.
Delegates, it would make more sense for pensions policy to be decided here in Scotland.
And that is what will happen when Scotland is independent.
We are closer to that now than ever before. Our victory means that there will be an independence referendum. To paraphrase the late Donald Dewar – I like the sound of that.
The panic engulfing our opponents shows that they know we are winning the independence argument.
But we must take nothing for granted. The decision on Scotland’s future rests with the Scottish people. Our responsibility is to persuade them that independence offers a better future for our country.
We know that the campaign against independence will be relentlessly negative. We are told that legions of UK ministers will come north to tell the Scottish people what to do.
But, don’t worry, Jim Murphy says he won’t share a platform with David Cameron.
Just ponder that for a moment. He won’t share a platform with a Tory Prime Minister. But he’s quite happy to let the same Tory Prime Minister keep the power to cut Scotland’s budget.
What a disgrace.
Delegates, for the UK parties, the independence debate is not about the best interests of Scotland.
They just want to keep control of Scotland’s resources. David Cameron gave the game away when he came north last week to lay claim to the next generation of north sea oil.
Well, hear this, David Cameron. It always was Scotland’s oil. It still is Scotland’s oil. And it is time the people of Scotland got the benefit of it.
The other parties say they want us to spell out what independence means.
So let me spell it out.
Independence means no longer having to watch our national wealth being squandered by Westminster governments.
Independence means having an economic policy suited to our needs, with increased capital investment supporting and creating jobs.
Independence means having a welfare system that can tackle the scourge of child poverty. It means not having to put up with Tory policies that will consign tens of thousands of our children to a life of deprivation.
Independence means deciding for ourselves whether to send our young men and women into conflict. And it means knowing that we need never, ever, again be dragged into an illegal war.
Independence means getting to decide our own priorities.
And, delegates, independence will mean no longer having to put up with the obscenity of Trident nuclear missiles on the river Clyde.
Delegates, our case for independence will be based on the simple but powerful belief that, as a country, we are better placed than anyone else to take the right decisions for our future.
That with the talents and skills of our people, and control over our own resources, we can build a more successful, prosperous and socially just country.
It’s a message of empowerment and responsibility, a message of hope and possibility. And I believe, with every fibre of my being, that it will prevail.
Delegates, I believe that we will win the independence referendum.
Fellow nationalists, we now have the opportunity that so many have worked so hard for over so many years. The once in a generation opportunity to win independence.
It’s down to us to make sure we grasp that opportunity.
Edwin Morgan, the late Scottish Makar said: ‘Don’t let your work and hope be other than great’.
Well, friends, our cause is great. Let us make sure that our hope and our work live up to it.
Let the words of Edwin Morgan ring in our ears as we seek to win the independence of our nation.