|On the eve of what may become a historical Scottish Parliamentary vote in favour of a new independence referendum, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon chose her party’s spring conference in Aberdeen to address the issues facing Scotland, as she sees them. Here we publish an abridged version of her speech.
We all want the best for our country – we just have different views on how to achieve it.
As Scotland’s government, we bear a special responsibility to offer a hand across these differences, to build consensus where we can.
So let us resolve to argue our case with passion and commitment, yes, but – at all times – with courtesy, understanding and respect.
In that – as in everything else – it is my job to lead you by example. That is why I speak today not just as SNP leader to our party conference. But as the First Minister, to all of Scotland.
I know that the plan I set out last Monday was music to the ears of SNP members and independence supporters up and down the country. And let me set out again what that plan is: After the terms of Brexit are clear but while there is still an opportunity to change course, the people of Scotland will have a choice – there will be an independence referendum.
But I also know that for every one of us who is full of excitement and anticipation, there will be someone else feeling nervous and anxious, perhaps even resentful. In the last few years it has been one big decision after another. You have been bombarded with statistics, claims and counterclaims. You might have had heated discussion with friends and family.
Even though you may feel – like we do – that 2014 was a positive and vibrant exercise of democracy, you might not relish going through it all over again. I understand that.
So I want you to know that I did not reach the decision lightly. Indeed, for months, I have strived to find compromise and agreement with the Prime Minister. Despite our overwhelming vote for Remain, the Scottish Government accepted that Scotland, within the UK, would leave the EU – but that we should seek to retain our place in the single market.
We proposed substantial new powers for the Scottish Parliament – short of independence – that would help protect Scotland’s interests in a post Brexit UK. But instead of meeting us half way or, frankly, any of the way, Westminster chose to dig its heels in.
Our efforts at compromise with the Prime Minister met with a brick wall of intransigence. And that is a concern that should resonate far beyond Scotland. The Prime Minister’s attitude should worry all of us hoping that negotiations with Europe will not be a disaster, because if she shows the same condescension and inflexibility, the same tin ear, to other EU countries as she has to Scotland then the Brexit process will hit the rocks.
Of course, that’s the outcome that hard line Brexiteers are agitating for. But it would be in no-one’s interests. So as Article 50 is about to be triggered, let me say this to the Prime Minister: Stop putting the interests of the right wing of your own party ahead of the interests of the people of our country.
For me, though, the Prime Minister’s refusal to budge an inch meant that I had to make a decision. I could take the easy option. I could let Scotland drift through the next two years, hoping for the best, but knowing that the worst is far more likely…waiting for the chance to say I told you so….knowing that by then it might be too late to avoid the damage of a hard Brexit.
Or I could make a plan now to put the Scottish people in charge of our own future. I choose to put the people in charge.
The fact is our country stands at a crossroads. The future of the UK looks very different today than it did two years ago. We know change is coming, the only question is what kind of change.
And on that we are not powerless. We can still decide which path we take. Whatever our different opinions on independence, we can all unite around this simple principle. Scotland’s future must be Scotland’s choice. Which brings me to the Prime Minister’s statement on Thursday.
To stand in the way of a referendum would deny us that choice. It would mean that the path of our country was determined, not by us, but for us. Decided by an increasingly right wing, Brexit obsessed Tory government. A government that some predict will be in power now until 2030 and beyond – thanks in no small part to the embarrassing shambles of an opposition that Labour has become.
A Tory government, dominated by the likes of Boris Johnson and Liam Fox, deluding themselves about rebuilding the empire and re-floating the Royal Yacht Britannia. It seems they want to go back in time.
But it’s not just nostalgia for empire that they are keen on. They clearly long for the days before we had a Scottish Parliament. The days when Tory governments could do anything they wanted to Scotland, no matter how often they were rejected by the voters. The days when they could impose the poll tax, destroy Scottish industry and deny all demands for constitutional change.
Well, the Prime Minister should understand this point. And understand it well. Those days are gone and they are not coming back. Next week, in line with the mandate secured at last May’s election, we will ask the Scottish Parliament to agree that the Scottish people should have the right to choose our own future.
We will ask Parliament to agree that this choice should be exercised at a time when we know the terms of Brexit, but before it is too late to take a different path.
And we will ask Parliament’s permission to seek the legal authority that will allow the people of Scotland to have that choice. If a majority in the Scottish Parliament endorses that position, the Prime Minister should be clear about this. At that point a fair, legal and agreed referendum – on a timescale that will allow Scotland an informed choice – ceases to be just my proposal, or that of the SNP. It becomes the will of the democratically elected Parliament of Scotland.
To stand in defiance of that would be for the Prime Minister to shatter beyond repair any notion of the UK as a respectful partnership of equals. She has time to think again and I hope she does. If her concern is timing then – within reason – I am happy to have that discussion. But let the Prime Minister be in no doubt: The will of our parliament must and will prevail.
Of course, the Tories’ reluctance to allow Scotland a choice is not hard to fathom. They are now terrified of the verdict of the Scottish people. They know, as well as we do, that what is at stake in the years ahead is not just our place in Europe, important though that it is. What is at stake is the kind of country we are going to be.
With independence, the country we become is up to us – all of us who live here. We can choose to be a compassionate country – with a big heart and a helping hand for those in need. An open country that doesn’t pull up the drawbridge and look inwards, but one that encourages the best and brightest from around Europe to make Scotland their home. And not just from the goodness of our hearts, but for reasons of hard headed self interest as well.
Scotland needs people to want to work here – in our businesses, our universities and our public services. Of course people have concerns about immigration that need to be addressed. I know that from my own constituency. But as we decide the kind of country we want to be, we must be clear about the choice on offer.
For the current UK government, ending free movement comes before everything else – including the health of our economy. It is their number one priority. And make no mistake, for Scotland, the result will be lower living standards and a hit to our prosperity.
So, not just for the sake of our values, but for our economic future as well, it’s time to take a different course. It’s time to stand against the demonisation of migrants, and to stand up for those who choose to join us in building a better Scotland.
Of course, we don’t yet know exactly what the Tories want a post Brexit UK to be like. But there are two recent developments that point the way. Last year, under pressure, David Cameron accepted what was called the Dubs amendment. It committed the UK to providing a safe haven for unaccompanied child refugees – some of the most helpless and vulnerable people on our planet.
But last month, the UK government called a halt to the Dubs scheme. They said that their new approach to refugees was ‘absolutely right’. Well, I beg to differ – I think it is absolutely wrong. It is inhumane and it must be reversed.
The second issue is the status of EU nationals, men and women who have built lives, families and careers here. People who – overnight in June last year – lost all certainty about their futures. It is a depressing commentary on the state of British democracy that it took the House of Lords to do the right thing. But, fair play to them – they did. They secured an amendment to the Brexit bill guaranteeing the right of EU citizens to stay in the UK.
It is therefore even more depressing that the Westminster government then whipped its MPs in the House of Commons to overturn that guarantee. It is indefensible. You cannot lecture others about politics not being a game – while you are using the lives of human beings as pawns.
Let me make this clear: In an independent Scotland, the SNP would guarantee – unequivocally – the right to stay here for all EU citizens who do us the honour of making our country their home. Compassionate, open-hearted and hard-headed – that’s the kind of country I want Scotland to be. We must be resourceful and enterprising as well.
No-one owes Scotland a living, but we are more than capable of earning our own success. In the debate about our future, the people of Scotland deserve to hear us speak frankly about the challenges facing the Scottish economy, the challenges of independence and the challenges we will face under an austerity obsessed Tory government pursuing a hard Brexit. We should embrace that scrutiny.
Opponents of independence, as is their right, will make their case by highlighting what they see as the difficulties. It will be up to us to demonstrate how those difficulties can be overcome. But as we do so, let’s never forget we have the strongest foundations on which to build, advantages that few nations can match – unrivaled energy resources, some of the world’s best universities, strength in finance and business services, cutting edge expertise in life sciences and advanced manufacturing, a truly world class food and drink industry and the best tourist attractions anywhere in the world.
The point I’m making is this: As we debate our future, let’s do so openly and honestly. But let no one – for or against independence – ever seek to run down Scotland’s strengths and our nation’s great potential. What we must all do is strive to make our country even better.
So, when we look at a fiscal deficit created on Westminster’s watch, let’s decide that allowing Westminster to keep making the same mistakes over and over again is not the best way to deal with it. Instead, let us be a country that works out how to build, grow and innovate our way to a stronger and more sustainable future – in a way that keeps faith with our own values of social justice. A country that makes its own choices, like choosing to invest in public services and a brighter future for our young people – not in a new generation of nuclear weapons.
Our Growth Commission is currently working on a clear plan for Scotland’s economic future. The Commission will conclude its work over the next few months and we will then present its outcome for public scrutiny and debate. It will address the challenges we face in a hard headed and realistic way.
But it will also set out the massive opportunities we have as a country – if we choose to grasp them.
Since the Brexit vote, I’ve had loads of messages from people in other parts of the UK asking if they can move to Scotland. Now, I’m sure many of them are joking, but there is a serious point.
The UK is about to turn its back on membership of the world’s biggest single market. Imagine what will happen if Scotland chooses to stay. We will become a magnet for talent and investment from all across the UK.
So let me issue this open invitation today. Scotland isn’t full up. If you are as appalled as we are at the path this Westminster government is taking, come and join us. Come here to live, work, invest or study. Come to Scotland – and be part of building a modern, progressive, outward-looking, compassionate country.
It is down to us to make the economic case for independence. To answer, clearly, the questions that people ask. And we will. But we should also be clear about this – those who argue for Scotland to stay in the UK have big economic questions to answer too. We know that down that path lies austerity, cuts and the impact of leaving the single market.
The Westminster government is now even openly threatening a race to the bottom in tax, wages and working conditions. That is no basis for a modern economy. The kind of economy we are seeking to build is founded on a different vision. Not a race to the bottom, but investment to lift people up. That’s our plan, not just with independence, but in the here and now.
Since we took office, Scotland’s productivity – so crucial to our economic prospects – has grown by almost ten percent. Productivity in the rest of the UK has grown by just one-tenth of one percent. So we have a good record, but we have more to do.
Key to our success will be digital skills. It is estimated that if we make better use of cloud technology and big data, the benefits to our economy could be over £5 billion a year. Recent studies estimate that we need more than 12,000 new workers with digital skills every year, and yet only a quarter of businesses report that they are doing anything at all to develop the technology skills of their current workforces. We need to change that. Scotland can’t afford to lose out on the digital revolution.
So I can announce today that we will establish a new, three year, £36 million support fund to meet the upfront costs of digital skills training.
A strong economy is the basis for strong public services.
In May, as well as contesting the council elections, we will mark ten years of our SNP government. I am proud of the work we have done, but I know we have much, much more to do.
Today, I want to thank everyone, up and down the country, who works in our public services, particularly those who work in our NHS. With populations getting older, pressures on health services across the world are intense. Nowhere, perhaps, do we see that more clearly than in our accident and emergency services.
In Scotland, 90.8% of patients are seen within the 4 hour target. That’s still not as good as we want it to be, but it is better – by a significant distance – than any other part of the UK. In England, the figure is just 77.6%. Perhaps someone should have informed the Prime Minister of that fact before she had the brass neck to lecture us about governance.
But we have more to do. One of the challenges that our NHS faces is the increasing number of people seeking support from mental health services. Actually, that’s a welcome development. It shows that the stigma that stopped people asking for help in years gone by is now fading. But it places an obligation on us to invest more in services to meet that need.
Over the next few weeks, we will publish our new, ten year Mental Health Strategy. That strategy will focus not just on traditional mental health services. It will look at what we need to do across the NHS and in wider society too. mFor example, we know that GP surgeries and A&E services are often the frontline for mental health.
Outside the NHS, we know that too many who end up in our prisons and police cells have mental health issues that go untreated. We want to change that. We will increase the mental health workforce, giving access to dedicated mental health professionals – to all of our A&E departments, 24 hours a day to all of our GP practices, to every custody suite in every police station and to our prisons.
In total we will increase the budget by £35 million over the next five years to support the employment of 800 additional mental health workers in our hospitals, GP surgeries, prisons and police stations.
The defining mission of our government is education.
I believe Scotland as a country has the right to choose our own future. But we must also make sure that the people who live here have the means and opportunity to make choices about their own lives.
That means building a country where every child can make the most of their talents. We are determined to close the attainment gap in our schools. But we know that life chances are too often determined before a child even starts school. Doubling the provision of high quality, state funded childcare – as we intend to do in this parliament – is therefore a key part of our plans.
Rightly, when we talk about the childcare revolution, we focus on the benefits for children and parents. But there is another benefit. Delivering our pledge will involve the recruitment of thousands more people to work in our nurseries. We need to demonstrate how much we value this work.
I am proud of the steps our government has already taken to extend payment of the Living Wage. We have led by example in the public sector. And we have encouraged businesses to see the benefits, not just for their staff, but also for their bottom line.
I can confirm today that we intend to apply that approach to our expansion of childcare. In public sector nurseries, staff already receive the living wage. But there are currently around 1,000 private nurseries helping to deliver our free childcare policy, and currently around 80% of the childcare staff who work in them – 8,000 people – don’t earn the living wage.
So I can announce today that, by the end of this parliament, we will invest £50 million to ensure that all staff working in private nurseries delivering our childcare pledge are paid the real living wage.
The opportunity to serve our country in government was something past generations of SNP members could only dream about. But it is down to their efforts that I stand here before you as First Minister. When the story of our party and of Scotland’s independence is written, it will be those who worked so hard against seemingly impossible odds who will take centre stage.
And there is little doubt that one person and one date will stand out: Winnie Ewing, 1967. Exactly fifty years ago, Winnie won the Hamilton by-election and made this famous declaration: “Stop the world. Scotland wants to get on.”
Let those words resonate today.
We are a European, internationalist party, leading a European, internationalist country. We will make sure that our voice is heard here at home. And we will stand up for Scotland’s values abroad.
One of those values is self determination, an unshakeable belief in the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to determine our own future.
Last week, I had the very sad honour of speaking at a memorial service for one of the greatest advocates of that principle, the late Canon Kenyon Wright. When he chaired the Constitutional Convention, Kenyon posed this question of the then Tory government’s opposition to devolution – “What happens”, he asked, “if the other voice we know so well responds by saying – we say no and we are the state?”
His answer to that question, so relevant again today, was this: “Well we say yes and we are the people”.
As we go forward we must work to win the support of the people and communities we serve. We must always work to build a better Scotland – for everyone who lives here. We must stand up for our country, and always trust the people.
As we approach this crossroads in our national life, let us resolve to give Scotland a choice. Let this message ring out today: Scotland’s future will be in Scotland’s hands.
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale MSP issued this response to Nicola Sturgeon’s speech:
“This was a speech from a First Minister who is out of ideas and obsessed by independence.
“Her attempt at wooing the majority of Scots who oppose her bid to leave the UK will fool nobody. The SNP still stands for division and grievance.
“If Nicola Sturgeon truly wants to listen to the people of Scotland, she will take the threat of a second independence referendum off the table.
“Nicola Sturgeon began her speech by attacking Gordon Brown, who helped to lift tens of thousands of children out of poverty. But there was nothing from the First Minister about using Holyrood’s new powers to tackle child poverty; a stark contrast with Labour’s plan to increase Child Benefit to address the growing scandal. Thirteen mentions of independence or being independent, yet not one mention of poverty – the SNP’s priorities neatly summed up.”