Conference I welcome the opportunity to bring to a close what has been a landmark and successful event for our Party. A landmark as it is our first gathering since we became Scotland’s first majority Government – and probably the largest in our Party’s history. Successful because we have debated and discussed the issues that matter to our people and set out how we are Moving Scotland Forward.
And that is what we should do. This Party represents every community of Scotland. Urban and rural. Island and Mainland. North, South, East and West. Constituency members in every nook and cranny of Scotland. We are the Party that speaks for everyone in Scotland.
It is a privilege for me to serve Scotland as the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth.
I am supported by a strong team. Fergus Ewing, Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism – building the case for renewables, working closely with the oil and gas sector to develop their potential, supporting our economic agenda and making Scottish tourism the world leader we know it can be.
Aileen Campbell, Minister for Local Government - developing our partnership with local government and improving the efficiency of the planning process.
An old hand and a new broom working with me to make Scotland more successful. Supported by Mark MacDonald, our Parliamentary Liaison Officer, please join me in thanking an outstanding team in Government.
At the heart of my responsibilities – my duty to the people and the Government of Scotland - is to give careful management to the public finances of our country. It’s up to me to make sure we balance the books. For four years as a minority Government, we set a Budget and we delivered a balanced Budget. We created no debt. We lived within our means. Financial commitments delivered in each and every year we held office.
And that wasn’t just in the good times. This Party had the courage to face the task of reducing public spending in the face of London Labour’s economic catastrophe and after the savage cuts of the Tory-Lib Dem Government. Difficult decisions. Painful decisions. Taken weeks before an election. We had the courage to face up to our responsibilities to Scotland. And the people of Scotland trusted us in return.
And perhaps they did that because they had an insight into what Alistair Darling might tell us in his memoirs about Labour’s financial management. Labour - the Party that has sneered at us since our foundation. The Party that told us they knew how to run the economy better than we could. The Party that said they had financial competence in office.
Alistair Darling tells us of Budget battles that went on for months and years. He tells us of Budgets being written on the morning they were being delivered.
From the heart of Government, the former Chancellor tells us of constant infighting, endless interfering from No 10, bad-mouthing of the Chancellor by the Prime Minister’s side kicks and I quote directly from his memoirs “there was a permanent air of chaos and crisis”.
After these revelations, and after the trouncing they took at the May elections, all I say to Labour today is this - don’t dare give me any lectures on economic and financial competence.
A judgement on any Government is what are its actions in the tough times. We know about Labour. Having squandered money in the good times we know what they wanted to do in the bad times. Alistair Darling promised cuts that were tougher and deeper than those of Margaret Thatcher.
The Lib Dems said they did not support dramatic cuts in public spending but have gone to it with the zeal of a convert.
The Tories have done what we always knew the Tories would do. And their task has been made a great deal easier by the human shield offered by the Liberal Democrats.
And what have we done? At the first sign of trouble, we’ve protected what matters to the people. The NHS getting all of the Barnett consequentials. Local Government getting a fair deal. Money in place to freeze the Council Tax. To keep 1,000 extra police officers on the streets. Scrapping prescription charges. Re-introducing free education. It’s required pay restraint. We’ve had to make cuts. But we’ve done that with a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies within the Government and the NHS. That’s what we call the Social Wage. These are the actions of a Government - working with the grain of Scotland - in touch with the people of our country.
Our Government has focused always on its duty to prepare Scotland for the future – our infrastructure, our people and our Nation – always acting to do the right thing for Scotland.
This Conference has focused on the greatest issue facing Scotland today – building economic recovery and creating jobs. That is the Government’s focus and we work with everyone in Scotland who has a positive contribution to make to this effort.
In last month’s Spending Review we put the priority on delivering jobs and growth. We took a set of decisions to use to the full the powers we have to make a difference for Scotland. We know there are limitations to what we can do. That is the reality of devolution. But we have used every ounce of flexibility we have, every inch of initiative we can take.
Investment in the capital infrastructure of our country is critical to recovery. We could have accepted the malicious Westminster cuts to our capital budget of 36% over four years and said there was nothing we could do about it. But Scotland’s future is too important not to challenge the Westminster folly.
We took decisive action to invest in communities across Scotland to support jobs and promote growth:
- Taking forward the £2.5 billion pipeline of projects using our Non-Profit Distributing model – including investments such as the M8, Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route and the new Royal Hospital for Sick Children;
- Switching over three quarters of a billion pounds from revenue to support capital spending;
- Prioritising key projects such as the Forth Replacement Crossing, New South Glasgow Hospitals and our school building programme;
- Taking forward our manifesto promises to deliver 30,000 new affordable homes over this Parliament.
Despite the sabotage from London, Scotland’s capital budget will grow in each of the next three years to deliver the jobs and growth our people need. That’s an SNP Government delivering real action for Scotland.
We are working hard to create the best conditions for employment. In the last 12 months, at a time when unemployment has risen by 113,000 in the UK, unemployment has fallen by 17,000 in Scotland. Despite the challenges, Scotland today has lower unemployment, higher employment and lower economic inactivity rates than the rest of the United Kingdom.
We are acting to tackle youth unemployment. We are investing in a record 25,000 Modern Apprenticeships a year as well as the ‘Opportunities for all Programme’ that will guarantee a training or learning place for every 16 – 19 year old.
These are difficult times and we will do all we need to do to give our young people the start in life that they deserve.
We are sharpening our focus to continue to grow our economy through measures such as:
- Investing in Scotland’s natural competitive advantages in the low carbon economy that is already delivering jobs and investment;
- Focusing our strategy for business on growth companies, growth markets and growth sectors to boost exports;
- Using the Scottish Government’s own financial muscle to ensure that public procurement does its bit for the economy such as encouraging innovation, ensuring SMEs compete effectively for contracts and providing training and apprenticeship opportunities with major projects;
- And we are maintaining the Small Business Bonus Scheme that has cut or abolished the Business Rates of 80,000 businesses in Scotland.
Conference I give Scotland the commitment today, our Government will use every one of our limited existing powers to deliver economic growth for Scotland.
Our actions are being thwarted however by the Con-Dem coalition’s failed policies.
We need to see action from the Westminster Government. We have called for a Plan MacB to be put in place to support and encourage growth.
We called for greater access to finance having brought in the Scottish Investment Bank. We called for help for families to boost consumer confidence having frozen the Council Tax freeze for four years. We called for greater capital expenditure having increased the Capital budget slashed by the UK Government.
The UK Government has delivered nothing like the sort of dynamic intervention that is required to boost economic growth. I say to the UK Government today. Get your heads out of the sand. Recognise your cuts agenda is harming Scotland and invest in economic recovery.
One of the great tests of a Government is whether it takes decisions that equip the country for the future. That challenge is all the greater when the country faces the enormous financial constraints we confront. But despite that difficulty this Government is taking the bold decisions to prepare Scotland for the future.
Governments for years have said that preventative spending was a good idea but it was too difficult to find the money. There was always a more pressing problem of today to put off preparing for tomorrow. This Government won’t short change our people on their future.
We have taken the decision to make a decisive shift to preventative spending. This historic investment to prevent problems by intervening earlier is the right approach to tackling social and other issues as well as providing better value for the taxpayer.
It of course comes at a price. It involves increasing the business rates of large retailers who sell tobacco and alcohol – the source of many of our health and social problems in Scotland today – equivalent to just 0.1% of retail turnover in Scotland. I don’t think it’s too much to ask highly profitable retailers to make a contribution to creating a better future for our people.
This is a decisive shift in the Government’s focus – a decisive shift in the focus of Scotland - and over the next three years we will boost preventative spending initiatives by:
- focusing on supporting adult social care,
- focusing on early years,
- and focusing on reducing re-offending.
£500 million to support preventative spending in Scotland. In the tough times, this Government has taken the bold decisions to build a nation fit for the future.
But we have another duty in equipping Scotland for the future. Our Government is doing all that it can, within the powers available to us, to tackle the problems that face our economy and build the opportunities of the future. But we are limited in what we can do.
If we want to create the best conditions for the Scottish economy, we have got to have the tools to enable us to act.
Instead of being frustrated by Westminster’s decision to dump the Longannet carbon capture project, we should be able to access the £13billion in oil revenues pouring into the UK Treasury to invest in technology that will give our country a world lead.
When public sector workers feel rightly angry at the raid on their pensions by the Tory-Lib Dem Government, we should be able to take our own decision without a UK Government threatening a big financial penalty.
When a London Government axes public spending in a way utterly damaging to our prospects of economic recovery we should be able to invest to grow the Scottish economy.
Independence will give the Scottish Parliament the normal powers enjoyed by nations across the world to deliver jobs and growth. Responsibility for our own affairs rather than the dead hand of Westminster control.
And of course the forces of negativity will tell us that Scotland can’t stand on her own two feet. Well let me give them a taste of what we are going to say about all of that.
As the global economy recovers from recession all countries run a deficit but the UK deficit is higher than that in Scotland. In 4 out of the last 5 years Scotland has run a budget surplus. The UK was in deficit in each of these years. Scotland contributes more to the UK in tax revenue than we get back in UK public spending. Scotland is subsidising the rest of the UK. Our country pays her way.
The economic recessions of the 1980s, 1990s or the 21st century had nothing to do with Independence. They happened under the Union.
The squandering of £300 billion of North Sea Oil Revenues had nothing to do with Independence. That happened under the Union.
The raiding of pension funds by Gordon Brown had nothing to do with Independence. That happened under the Union.
The banking crisis had nothing to do with Independence. That happened under the Union.
That’s the reality of what the Union has delivered for Scotland. The figures show that with a geographical share of our offshore resources Scotland would be the 6th wealthiest country in the world - ten places ahead of the UK at sixteenth. This is the time to put the wealth of Scotland to work for the people of Scotland.
At the start of my speech I spoke of our representation across Scotland. North, South, East and West. Representing every part of Scotland in the Scottish Parliament. So too must be our representation in the local authorities of Scotland.
We have taken a refreshing course in working with local government. We ended the days of petty squabbling between National and Local Government. We built a relationship based on co-operation, on collaboration, on joint priorities to build the future of our communities in Scotland. That relationship has worked well for Scotland and we are committed to it.
The Council elections next May are the opportunity to take that forward.
But they are an opportunity to do something else. They are the opportunity to complete what we did in May 2011. They are the opportunity to rid Scotland of Labour municipalism. Good people in our communities badly let down by Labour control. Let’s bring to an end the last vestige of Labour failure in Scotland and win the Council elections.
Conference I first came to this event as a teenager. In the intervening 30 years or so I have seen this Party grow and grow and grow. And as other parties have chopped and changed and ducked and dived we have stuck true to the clear and compelling idea that gave life to our Party 77 years ago – the idea that it is best that the people who choose to live in this country should shape its future.
To be honest there were many times I sat in this conference hall, and wondered – even doubted – if our original, yet beautiful idea would ever succeed. And look at us now.
We have literally had to squeeze ourselves into this magnificent Conference venue. We have the largest number of Councillors of any Party in our country. We are in our second term in Government. We are the majority Government of Scotland. And we have the platform to call a Referendum on Independence.
This is it my friends. This is our moment. This is our chance to fulfil the promise we made to our people. The promise that every person who chooses to live in this country should have the chance to shape the future of our country. Our task is now quite simple. We must go out and persuade and inspire the people of our country that Independence will be right for them. That is our task. Today let us commit to fulfil our promise to the people of Scotland.