John Swinney Conference address
Just over six years ago, we were given the greatest privilege in our Party’s history – we were asked by our people to be their Government.
We set out to make this country healthier, wealthier and fairer. We embarked on a journey to make Scotland greener, safer and smarter.
Every day of every week of every year of our Government, we have all worked hard to make Scotland as successful as we possibly could and to tackle the real issues our people face.
That commitment to focus on the priorities of our country was clearly demonstrated again just yesterday.
Amidst the demands of a Party Conference timetable, the First Minister travelled back to Edinburgh last night, to speak face to face to the parties in the Grangemouth dispute, to try to create common ground. The Government cannot solve the dispute; that can, and will only happen, if the company and the workforce can build an agreement.
But what the Government must do is to leave no stone unturned in trying to secure the future of the largest industrial site in Scotland and the livelihoods of thousands of families the length and breadth of our country who depend on the continued operation of the Grangemouth site.
So yesterday the First Minister did what he always does – he acted to promote the interests of Scotland.
Last night the First Minister asked each side to take a step forward. The union to confirm that there will be no industrial action to the end of the year and the company to fire up the plant and return to normal production. I urge both parties to the dispute to respond positively to the First Minister’s initiative and put Grangemouth back to work.
Every day within Government our team is working on the priorities of the public. Within my Ministerial team, Derek MacKay working to create partnership with local government and improve our planning system. Fergus Ewing acting to give clear leadership to our renewable energy drive and to build the tourism sector in Scotland. Angela Constance working every day to get young people into employment and addressing the need to support more women into the labour market. Backed by our parliamentary liaison officers Mike MacKenzie and Stewart Stevenson, Derek, Fergus and Angela work day in day out to secure the future of Scotland and I warmly thank them for all that they do.
In taking forward our work to deliver for Scotland we do so within the confines of devolution and against the constraints of a Westminster government that does not share our vision.
And we go the extra mile to pick up the pieces from bad Westminster decisions.
Never has that been more the case than on the welfare reform programme.
Without our help, and the help of our local government partners, over 500,000 people in Scotland would have faced a 10% cut in Council Tax benefit imposed by the UK Government. We protected the people and stopped that cut.
Without our help, thousands of Scots would have faced real harm – very real harm – as a consequence of the Bedroom Tax. We are doing everything we have the power to do to mitigate the Bedroom Tax and of course we want to do more. We need the powers of independence to stop dreadful policies like the Bedroom Tax.
Many families across Scotland have faced real hardship since the financial crash in 2008. Victims of a crash that was not of their making, ordinary people have struggled to manage their finances, to protect their livelihoods and to provide for their loved ones. And this Government has helped them through that difficult time.
Against the tides of recession, the austerity of George Osborne and the reactionary policies of our opponents we have taken the side of the people.
A Council tax freeze in each and every year we have been in office and guaranteed to the end of this parliament
A living wage for all our employees – helping families in hard pressed times
Free prescriptions putting an end to the tax on ill health
Concessionary travel for our older people
Free University education for our students
Extra childcare to support families and children
And of course – ensuring our older people are treated with care and with dignity with free personal care for our elderly.
We have used our powers to protect household budgets in Scotland.
And when our Labour opponents say we cannot afford to support people and businesses with these policies, I have one simple message. When you have been away spending the same money twice, when you have been dodging the difficult budget choices, we’ve been putting in the hours balancing the country’s books in every single year we have held office. That’s what you do when you work on Scotland’s behalf.
Those commitments, and our focus on delivering them, are the hallmark of your SNP Government.
And there’s another commitment I want to make today. Yesterday I joined Shirley-Anne Somerville campaigning in Dunfermline. In 2007 – after years of Labour failure – the first legislation we passed was to lift the tolls from the Forth and the Tay Bridges – saving commuters £233 a year.
Lifting those tolls helped business by bringing down their bills, it helped people working in Edinburgh, in Fife and in Dundee or here in Perth to manage their costs and it helped people when fuel prices continued to rise.
Now the Queensferry crossing – the biggest infrastructure project in a generation – is helping the people of Fife with jobs, apprenticeships and contracts for local companies as it rises up from the waters of the Forth. It is being delivered on time – and given the stringent management of this government – it is being delivered not on budget but under budget – under budget – by £145million.
And when it opens in 2016, and for as long as we are in Government, I guarantee, there will be no tolls on the Queensferry crossing.
These are all examples of what Scotland can do when we have the powers and the responsibility to take our own decisions.
The Independence debate is quite simply the question of whether we should exercise that full responsibility across the issues that are today controlled by Westminster. And our appeal to the public is this – if you believe we have used our limited powers wisely, join us in winning the wider powers to transform our country.
When people come to consider the Independence question, they will understandably want to know about the prospects for the economy. And we need to spell out the full facts for our people.
For the last five years Scotland has had to face the challenges brought about by the economic mismanagement of successive Westminster governments.
Even before the financial crash, the UK had the third largest structural budget deficit in the developed world.
Now after five years of austerity, and with another five to go, the UK hasn’t paid down the deficit and household incomes have fallen. The UK deficit is now £121bn.
As part of the UK, every person in Scotland is paying the bill for Westminster’s mismanagement.
So when our opposition say Scotland can’t afford to be independent because we might have to pay off some debts – let’s remember who built up the debt, let’s remember how much of our oil wealth they squandered running up that debt, let’s remember how much they are borrowing to pay off their debt and let’s remember that if Scotland votes No we will be saddled with UK debt for many, many years to come.
But aside from the reckless deficits Westminster has built up or the poor economic management they showed before the crash, the greatest failure of the Westminster system is the absolute failure to understand that to deliver real economic growth you have to invest in the economy.
But our approach as a Government, acting in the Scottish interest, demonstrates what can be done and what is within in our reach with a vote for Independence.
Where the UK cut during the crunch years, we invested what we could.
We invested all that we could in the economy, make savings to put more into employment schemes, into training and apprenticeships and boosting capital budgets to build homes, schools and hospitals. We protected public sector jobs by keeping the focus on delivering frontline services throughout Scotland. And we have done that within the constraints of UK budget cuts that show no sign of going away.
And despite all of those challenges, our economic results show the difference our efforts have made.
This week we have seen what can be achieved in Scotland when we act with Scotland’s interests at heart.
This week the official figures showed Scotland’s economy has grown further and faster than the UK’s as a whole with UK growth of 1.3% out-stripped by Scottish economic growth of 1.8%.
This week the labour market figures showed that in Scotland, unemployment is down, youth unemployment is down, employment is at a five year high, Scotland has the lowest unemployment, highest employment and highest youth employment of any part of the United Kingdom. That’s what happens when you invest with Scotland’s interests at heart.
Our £8bn investment programme – is supporting 50,000 jobs
Our Modern Apprenticeship programme means over 25,000 young people are completing training on the job and 77% go into jobs or more training at the end of it.
Community Jobs Scotland – working with the voluntary sector – has helped nearly 2000 young people.
Youth Employment Scotland is investing in all 32 local authorities to help small and medium sized businesses play their part by taking on and training our young people
And Opportunities for All – giving a guarantee to all 16-19 year olds of work or training is unique across the UK.
Our businesses, our public sector, schools, trade unions, colleges, universities and voluntary sector have all responded to the challenge, risen to the task in hand, worked co-operatively as a country and as a result the economic performance of Scotland is better than the UK.
Conference that is what we can achieve with devolution. We could do so much more with Independence.
Just as we have taken decisions on the economy with Scotland’s interests at heart, I would like us to take more decisions on welfare and employment with Scotland’s interests at heart. We need the powers of independence because Westminster’s welfare reforms and the failing Work Programme are only serving to increase the pressure on our services and present more difficulties to those we are seeking to support.
Where our apprenticeship programme has a success rate of over two thirds, the Work Programme sends two-thirds of people back to the job centre.
Where we are providing funding to support those being harmed by welfare reform, Westminster is using welfare cuts as a punishment for the vulnerable.
Let me be clear conference, those who can work should work and it is our ambition to ensure that there are opportunities for all in Scotland – of any age and any ability to work.
But let me also be clear that in an independent Scotland we will help our young people into work not humiliate them and we will support our vulnerable people not vilify them.
I have been around the debate on Scotland’s economy for nearly 20 years now. We have always said that Scotland is a wealthy country. We have always been proud of Scotland’s potential. But how the arguments of our opponents have changed.
In the course of the referendum debate even the arch opponents of Scotland’s independence have had to admit the truth.
David Cameron and Alasdair Darling – now say Scotland can be a successful independent nation.
Even the Treasury has had to publish a paper showing Scotland’s revenues are on a par with the rest of the UK’s. And that’s before you add in North Sea Oil.
The debate over Scotland’s wealth has been won. Scotland can afford to be independent.
The facts and figures are clear and indisputable.
Scotland is in a stronger financial position than the UK.
Every year for 30 years Scotland has paid more in tax per person than the UK.
Scotland pays a higher share of taxes than we get back in spending.
And our economic strength goes beyond the figures in our balance sheet.
We have immense natural resources with 25% of Europe’s offshore wind and tidal energy.
We have more top universities for our size than any other country in the world.
Our life sciences sector, our tourism industry, our creative industries, food and drink, financial services, manufacturing all contribute to our economy now and have huge potential for our future.
Conference our opponents like to claim that the basis of an independent Scotland’s economy would be oil.
But our strength is not an accident of geology or geography.
It is not some twist of fate or turn of chance.
The basis of our economy is our skills.
The basis of our economy is our ingenuity and our spirit of relentless invention.
The basis of our economy is, and ever will be, founded on the creativity, the intelligence and the boundless talents of the people of Scotland.
That is the basis of our economy. Scotland has all that it takes to be a successful independent country.
The question is no longer whether Scotland could be an independent country. It is whether Scotland should be an independent country.
And it is our job, from here to referendum day, to speak to everyone we can, to give people the information they want and to persuade those around us that the answer must be Yes.
With a yes vote, we can be a successful independent country. We can take new steps to grow our economy and to tackle inequality.
With a Yes vote, we can invest in an oil fund, and take steps to protect our resources for future generations. We can invest in research and innovation, incentivise our key industries, make business more competitive and create more quality jobs.
With a Yes vote, we can cap payday loans, deal with abuses of zero hours contracts and make work fair.
And with a Yes vote, we can end the reckless economic mismanagement of the UK and manage our finances properly – properly and always – in the interests of the people of Scotland.
And with a Yes vote we can protect our public assets and bring the Royal Mail back into public hands.
Conference, as this Party has grown from its early roots to our position as the Government of Scotland, we are now closer than we have ever been to winning our aim.
We have in front of us, the exciting opportunity to work with everyone in Scotland to build a better country. To use the wealth and the talent and the capability of our people to the full.
Let us now give the next 11 months everything we have got to persuade our people of the merits of our case. And let us put down the foundations of a bright new future, a future for all of our people, a future of which all of us can be proud. Let us build our country’s Independence.