Conference speech 2015, by Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP
What a truly amazing year this has been. I thought I might just recap on some of the highlights…if that’s OK with you…
…and, no I don’t mean that special moment when the Daily Mail bestowed upon me the coveted title of most dangerous woman in Britain. Though that does remain, by far, the nicest thing the Daily Mail has ever said about me.
I was thinking more of this highlight: We won the General Election. Our victory made headlines. But you might be interested to know that we’ve also contested 24 local by-elections in the last few months. And we have won 22 of them.
Our party membership has also continued to grow. Today, our membership stands at more than 114,000. That’s the equivalent of a UK party having more than one million members.
It is truly extraordinary. But it is as nothing compared to the growing support we have in every corner of our country.
In the last five years, one million more people have been persuaded to put their trust in the SNP to lead Scotland forward.
Commentators sometimes talk of political parties having heartlands. So let’s look at the SNP’s success. From the Highlands and our western islands, to this granite city of the North-East. Through Stirling, across Fife in the east, to Ayrshire in the west and down to the borders. In our great cities of the central belt.
The people all across our country are speaking.Their message is clear.The SNP’s heartland? The SNP’s heartland is SCOTLAND. We truly are Scotland’s party.
Make no mistake – ours is an achievement unprecedented in modern politics and we should be proud of it. But I am determined that our best days are still ahead of us. So listen when I say this.
We will never take a single vote for granted – not now, not ever.
There will be no resting on our laurels. Our responsibility – today, tomorrow and for as long as the Scottish people put their faith in us – is to govern wisely and well on behalf of every citizen in our land.
Some say that Labour has lost its sense of purpose – and it has.
But Labour does still serve one useful purpose – for the SNP. Scottish Labour stands as a constant reminder to our party of what we must never become – they were arrogant, lazy and complacent
We will set ourselves the highest standards in government. If we fall short, we will learn lessons and strive even harder in the future.
We will welcome scrutiny – no matter how tough it might be sometimes feel. We will respect those whose opinion differs from ours. We will strive each and every day to do our very best.
And in so doing, we will win again and again the trust of the people we serve.
Some say we live in a post-political age. A time when old labels of “left” and “right” are meaningless. I don’t agree with that. I happen to think that where you stand matters.
We face a Tory party that – despite its rhetoric – is shifting sharply to the right. And Labour? Well, they can’t agree whether to move leftwards, rightwards or go round in circles. As a result, the only place Labour is going is deeper and deeper into the political wilderness.
I know where we stand. We are a left of centre social democratic party – standing up for the values, interests and aspirations of mainstream Scotland – and that’s what we will always be.
But when people look at the SNP they don’t just see left or right – they see above all else a party that always seeks to do the right thing for Scotland. Whether in government at Holyrood or in opposition at Westminster they see our party, united, standing up for Scotland and always making our country’s voice heard.
We are not just the real opposition.We are now the only effective opposition to the Tories at Westminster. So I promise again today, just as I did in the general election, that the SNP will be a strong voice, not just for Scotland, but for people of progressive opinion right across these islands.
I don’t mind admitting I had high hopes when Jeremy Corbyn was elected. I don’t agree with him on everything. And I didn’t expect to convert him to the cause of independence – not immediately, anyway! But I did hope he would change Labour. So far, Jeremy Corbyn isn’t changing Labour – he’s allowing Labour to change him. At the start of this week, he planned to vote for George Osborne’s fiscal charter.
It was only pressure from the SNP that forced him to change position: Proving, again, that the only party with the unity and determination to stand strong against austerity is the SNP.
It is surely Labour’s incoherent position on Trident that shows how unfit they are to govern. Their leader says – rightly – that he would never use nuclear weapons…but he is leading a party that is intent on supporting the renewal of Trident anyway.
A party that can’t be crystal clear about its position on an issue as fundamental as nuclear weapons doesn’t deserve support – not from those who oppose Trident and not from those who support it either.
Labour will have to decide what side it is on, because I know what side we are on. The renewal of Trident is unjustified. It is unaffordable. It is immoral. Be in no doubt. The SNP will stand against Trident – today, tomorrow and always.
Labour’s failure to meet even the basic requirements of an effective opposition – to be united and credible as an alternative government – should make them deeply ashamed of themselves.
Their disunity threatens to consign the UK to another decade of Tory government. That’s a tragedy for people all across the UK.
But for more and more people in Scotland, Labour’s inability to mount a credible challenge for government will bring into sharp focus this fundamental truth.
The only real and lasting alternative to Tory governments that we don’t vote for is independence for our country.
Last week, David Cameron had the audacity to claim that his government stood against poverty, inequality and discrimination.
Well let me offer some home truths to the prime minister. You don’t fight poverty by hammering the incomes of the lowest paid. You don’t fight inequality by repealing the Human Rights Act and attacking the freedoms of trade unionists.
And you certainly don’t fight discrimination by having a Home Secretary whose views on immigration are indistinguishable from those of Nigel Farage.
The Tories’ toxic debate about immigration was surely one of the reasons that David Cameron’s initial response to the Syrian refugee crisis was so woefully inadequate. Thankfully public opinion here in Scotland and across the UK forced him to think again and agree to give shelter to 20,000 refugees over five years.
That was a welcome change but given the scale of the crisis Europe faces, it does not go far enough.
Let us call again today on the UK to do more, as part of a co-ordinated European response, to deal with this humanitarian crisis.
And let us pledge again that Scotland stands ready and willing to play our full part.
What we should certainly not do in Syria is make matters even worse. The motivation for UK military action appears to be based on a need to do something, rather than any real consideration of whether the action proposed will make a positive difference.
This question has not been answered – when airstrikes by US, Russian, Arab, Turkish and French forces have not brought this multi-layered conflict closer to a resolution, what possible grounds are there for believing that adding UK airstrikes will do so?
The risk is that they will simply add to the already unimaginable human suffering.
What is needed is not more bombing, but a renewed and intensive diplomatic initiative, led by the UN, to seek a lasting resolution of the conflict and defeat the horror that is ISIS. It is for these reasons that the SNP will oppose UK airstrikes on Syria.
At a time when sovereign countries need to work together to resolve issues of such magnitude, the prospect of UK withdrawal from the EU seems even more misguided.
Let us be clear. We reject utterly the parochialism and the xenophobia of UKIP. And we despair at the failure of leadership of a Prime Minister pandering to eurosceptics in his party, but unable to articulate clearly and precisely what it is he is seeking to renegotiate.
David Cameron might play fast and loose with our place in Europe.
But be in no doubt – the SNP will campaign positively for Scotland, and the U.K, to stay in the European Union.
Closer to home, it is the Tories’ plan to slash tax credits that is causing alarm in households across the country. Make no mistake, tax credit cuts are right up there with the bedroom tax as the most iniquitous policy since Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax.
In Scotland, around 200,000 working families with children stand to lose an average of £3000 a year. That’s staggering – but sometimes big numbers mask the real human impact.
So let me tell you exactly what these cuts could mean for an ordinary family. Imagine a couple with two children who live in a council house. One parent works full time, the other part time. Both earn just above the level of the minimum wage. Next year they’ll gain around £80 from the increase in the personal allowance – but they’ll lose more than £2000 of their tax credits. That net loss is equivalent to their basic rate of income tax rising to 90 per cent.
Can you imagine if the Chancellor had told people before the election that he was going to increase the basic rate of income tax to anywhere near 90 per cent? No one would have voted for him.
But he thinks it’s acceptable to do the equivalent of that to some of the lowest paid people in our society – and not even mention it in his manifesto. Well, it is not acceptable. It is nothing short of scandalous.
And for the Scottish Tories – currently shaping up to present themselves as tax cutters in the Scottish election – it presents this choice: Whose side are they on? George Osborne’s or the working people of Scotland? Because it simply can’t be both. If they back these cuts, that choice will haunt them every single day from now to the Scottish election next May.
As Labour divide amongst themselves and the Tories seek to divide our society, only the SNP stands united and focused on Scotland’s future, I often think that what was most special about the general election outcome in May was not the scale of our victory but the nature of it.
People didn’t just vote SNP. They did so enthusiastically. They felt good about it. The election reflected the new, positive, post referendum mood in Scotland. We are a more confident country. We believe that our views matter and deserve to be heard. We are determined to no longer be sidelined or ignored.
It was that determination that led so many people across this country to vote SNP. They did so positively and optimistically. And together, we sent this message ringing around the world – Scotland has found her voice and we are never going to let our voice be silenced again. I want that same optimism to fire our election campaign next year too.
Next May, we will seek a historic third term in office. And, for the first time, I will look you, the Scottish people in the eye and ask you to choose me as your First Minister.
My promise to Scotland is this: I won’t ask you to vote SNP – or re-elect me as your First Minister – just because the opposition is not up to the job. I intend to prove to you that we are the best government, with the best people and the best ideas, to lead this country, confidently, into the next decade.
Our job is to make sure that on May 5 next year you vote SNP – with both votes – and that you do so with real pride at the positive choice you are making for Scotland’s future.
I think one of the reasons for our success as a party is that we always stand up for what we believe in. I think people like that and respect it – even if they don’t always agree with us.
And, friends, make no mistake – we believe that Scotland should be independent – we always have and we always will. As I said as our conference opened, the time to propose another referendum will be when there is clear evidence that opinion has changed and that independence has become the choice of a majority of people in Scotland. For us, as a party, that makes the challenge clear.
If we want Scotland to be independent – and we most certainly do – then we’ve got work to do. There are no shortcuts. We must build the case and make it stronger. Convince those we didn’t convince last year. And persuade a majority of Scots of what we already know to be true: Independence is the best future for Scotland.
Independence matters and we will never waver in our commitment to it. But what we say about jobs, schools and hospitals matters just as much to people across Scotland.
That’s why as we look forward to the election, our message to the Scottish people is clear. We have a strong and proud record of delivery in what has been the toughest of financial circumstances.
We have the best team, the best ideas and the clearest vision to lead Scotland forward. And we are Scotland’s voice of hope, fairness and social justice against a Tory government that is extreme, out of touch and uncaring.
Over the past nine years, we’ve laid strong foundations. I want us to build on them.
The other parties say they want to fight the election on our record. Well, I say, “good” – because so do I. Our record in government is one of delivery and achievement. Its not perfect – of course it’s not – the recession and Westminster austerity have created a financial climate much tougher than anything we could have contemplated back in 2007. But, make no mistake, it is a record I am proud of.
Let’s look at just some of those achievements: We have protected free university education.There are no tuition fees in Scotland and let me pledge this. One of the reasons that I – a working class girl from Ayrshire – can stand here today as First Minister of Scotland, is that I had access to free education. I have no right to take that away from this or future generations and I never will.
For as long as I am First Minister, there will be no tuition fees in Scotland. We’ve also protected and extended the Educational Maintenance Allowance so that more young people can stay on at school. And more students from poorer backgrounds are now going to university. We’ve delivered a record number of modern apprenticeships. And youth employment today is at its highest level since 2008.
We have rebuilt or refurbished more than a fifth of all schools across our country. And that’s why there are almost 150,000 fewer children learning in outdated classrooms today than when Labour was last in office. We have extended free early years education and childcare.
We introduced equal marriage and made this country fairer as a result. We have a higher proportion of our workforce now earning the living wage – the real living wage – than any other nation in the UK. We are meeting our targets on renewable energy and cutting carbon emissions. And we are safeguarding our environment with a moratorium on fracking.
We introduced universal free school meals for all pupils in primaries 1, 2 & 3. We are investing £100 million every year to protect against welfare cuts. And we have taken action to make sure that no one in Scotland has to pay the Tory bedroom tax.
We have created the most competitive business rates regime anywhere in the UK and inward investment is at record levels. The small business bonus today is helping almost 100,000 businesses across our country. Crime is at a 41 year low. And we have frozen the council tax for 8 straight years in a row. We’ve also protected our precious NHS. And we have kept it firmly where it belongs – in public hands.
The NHS budget today is £12 billion – that’s up £3 billion on when we took office. It employs 10,000 more people. And waiting times are shorter.
When I became Health Secretary in 2007, the waiting time target for inpatient and day-case treatment was 18 weeks – just 85% of patients were seen in that time. Today, the target is 12 weeks and 95% are seen within it. That’s real improvement – delivered by NHS staff, supported by your SNP government. And, don’t forget, we also abolished prescription charges so that access to medicine is once again free at the point of need.
That’s our record. We should shout it from the rooftops. And when our opponents say they want to put it at the heart of the election, let us say ‘bring it on’.
But let’s also remember what I said earlier: No resting on our laurels. Let’s not talk just about what we have done. Let’s talk about how much more we can do, together, to build Scotland’s future.
Under our leadership, Scotland is making its mark on the world.
More universities per head of population in the world’s top 100 than any other country on the planet. World leading climate change legislation. And – I am proud to say – one of just a few countries in the world leading by example on gender balance, with a 50/50 Scottish cabinet. We should be proud of all of that.
But we should aim even higher.
Our dreams and ambitions for the future of this country know no limits. A favourite book of mine, by Canadian author Arthur Herman, is “How the Scots invented the modern world”. The book charts all the Scottish inspired innovations – in philosophy, education, commerce, engineering, industry, architecture, medicine – that have shaped the world we live in today.
Let’s dare to dream that Scotland will shape tomorrow’s world just as decisively as we have shaped today’s. And let us turn that dream into reality. Let’s make sure that the names of the innovators, entrepreneurs and inventors working across our country today will be just as familiar to future generations as Alexander Graham Bell, John Logie Baird, Alexander Fleming and James Watt are to ours.
I want the motto of our country to be CAN DO SCOTLAND. Labour and the Tories – Scotland’s can’t do parties – will hate it. But it’s the spirit that will make this country the powerhouse we know it can be.
We are the party of the future. That’s why I’ve put closing the educational attainment gap at the heart of our government’s agenda. It matters so much to me that I’ve done something politicians don’t often do. I’ve put my own neck on the line. If I’m standing here seeking re-election five years from now, I want to be judged on the progress we make.
Access to high quality early years education for children from deprived backgrounds is the most effective way to reduce the gap in attainment. That is why, in the next parliament, our most transformative infrastructure project will not be a bridge or a road or a railway – important though all those things are.
Our flagship infrastructure project will be a revolution in early years education and childcare. By the end of the next parliament, we will double childcare provision to 30 hours a week for all 3 and 4 year olds and vulnerable 2 year olds.
That’s a commitment worth £4,500 a year for families across Scotland. Nursery education is all about giving children the best start in life. That’s why quality is so important. Over the next parliament we intend to substantially increase the number of qualified teachers working in nurseries.
Every nursery manager is already required to have a childcare degree, but we will go further. I can announce today that, by 2018, every nursery in our most deprived areas will have an additional qualified teacher or childcare graduate. Helping children reach their full potential whatever their background is my driving mission.
Good quality childcare is vital to that.
Of course, childcare also helps parents. It helps mothers in particular get back to work. That’s good for families as well as for our national prosperity. So to help parents further, I can also announce that as we expand the hours of childcare that children are entitled to, we will also increase the flexibility of it.
Over the next parliament, we will ensure that parents can opt to take their available hours of childcare to better suit their working patterns. They will, increasingly, be able to take them as full day sessions as well as half days. And they will have the right to spread these hours over the summer holidays as well as term time.
I’ve talked a lot today about young people. They are, after all, the future of our country. That’s why I’m so proud that this SNP government has extended the right to vote to all 16 and 17 year olds. But the contribution of our older citizens drives our prosperity too. Older people make up a growing proportion of our population.
By 2037, the number of people who are over 70 will increase by 50 per cent. The numbers over 75 will increase by almost 80 per cent.
Those changing demographics will demand new ways of thinking and new ways of working right across our society – but especially in our NHS.
Something I hear time and again from my older constituents is how a hip or knee replacement or a cataract operation has given them a new lease of life. These operations make a real difference.
More of them are being done than ever before. And waiting times are shorter – much shorter – than when we took office.
That’s down to the sterling service and dedication of all those who work so hard in our NHS. Let’s thank them for what they do.
But as more people live longer into old age, more and more of these operations will need to be done. If we don’t prepare now for 10 and 20 years ahead, our NHS will be overwhelmed by the demand. So we will act.
We are already integrating health and social care. A few weeks ago, I set out our plans to transform primary care so that more people can be cared for in the community. That is vital – but must reshape our acute care system too. The Golden Jubilee hospital in Clydebank has been a huge success – specialising in elective procedures like hips, knees and cataracts and helping to take pressure off our emergency hospitals. We now intend to extend that model. I can announce today that over the next parliament, we will invest £200 million to create a new network of elective treatment centres.
We will extend the Golden Jubilee and develop new centres at St John’s in Livingston, at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, at Ninewells in Dundee, at Raigmore in Inverness and here in this city at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.
We will always use our existing powers wisely and well.
And we will use our new powers in the interests of the people we serve too. Friends, these new powers are welcome – but let’s be in no doubt. The Scotland Bill does not even come close to honouring the vow that was made to the Scottish people.
Even Gordon Brown, the architect of the vow, is now crying betrayal. What Gordon Brown really should be doing is apologising for acting as guarantor to the Tories and telling the Scottish people to trust them on more powers.
Ever since David Cameron stood on the steps of Downing Street the morning after the referendum and told us that Scotland’s expression of self determination was really all about English votes for English laws, he and his government have treated Scotland with disdain. Pressing ahead with austerity, despite 50 per cent of people in Scotland voting for an anti austerity party. And voting down amendment after amendment to the Scotland Bill – against the views of the vast majority of Scotland’s MPs.
In fact, the Prime Minister’s attitude to Scotland betrays the worst characteristics of his government – arrogant, patrician and out of touch. Pig-headed some might say!
I have a message for the Prime Minister today. It’s the same one I gave him in Bute House just a week after the General Election.
Ignore Scotland at your peril. Know that people are watching and listening. And remember this: “It is not you who will decide the future of Scotland. It will be the people of Scotland.
We want powers for a purpose. That’s why in the first year of the new parliament, we intend to publish a Scottish Social Security Bill, to set out how we will use our limited new welfare powers.
Fairness and dignity will be at its heart. Today, I can confirm one of the specific commitments that the Bill will include.
The contribution carers make to our society is priceless. But the support they receive in the form of carers’ allowance is the lowest of all working age benefits. That is simply not fair. That’s why I’m delighted to announce today that, when our government gets the power to do so, we will begin to increase carers’ allowance so that it is paid at the same level as jobseekers’ allowance.
If someone had told me on the day I joined the SNP that, almost three decades later, I’d be standing here as First Minister, ready to seek for our party a third term in office, I wouldn’t have believed them. That tells you just how far we have travelled.
The success we enjoy today has not come easy. It is built on solid foundations of hard work, principled politics and a determination to always do the right thing for Scotland. We don’t claim that Scotland is better than any other country – but we stand firm in the belief that we are every bit as good. We take pride in Scotland’s history, but we want our future to be even better.
We believe in independence – in our hearts and in our heads. But our ambition for this country is not about flags and anthems. It’s about five million people. It is to them – each and every one – that we owe our allegiance and our duty.
Over these next few months – as we prepare to seek re-election – I won’t pretend that we are perfect. Or that I am perfect.
But I will promise this: We will always strive to be the best that we can be. And we will serve this country with imagination, courage, humility and always to the very best of our abilities. Our manifesto will rise to the challenges of the future. But the choice at any election is about more than individual policies.
It’s about who you trust most – as your government and your First Minister – to provide the experience, the leadership, the ambition, the character and the unity of purpose to lead this country forward with confidence.
To the people of Scotland I ask this: Trust us – trust me – to always do the best for you, for your family and for your community. It has been our privilege to lead Scotland for the past nine years.
To seek to lead our country for the next five – and into a new decade – is an even bigger privilege. Let’s work harder than we have ever done before to win anew the trust of the people we serve.
Let’s get out there. Let’s win for Scotland.