Presiding Officer, the people who live in Scotland are the best people to make decisions about their own future. Of that there can be no doubt. In May of last year, those people - the people of Scotland - gave the Scottish Government an overwhelming majority because of a record of good government, a clear vision of the future AND the promise of a referendum on Independence.
Today, the Scottish Government has published the consultation paper - Your Scotland Your Referendum- which sets out how we intend to fulfil that commitment. This document gives the people of Scotland the opportunity to offer their views on how the referendum on our country's future should be carried out. It sets out some key principles on which the referendum will be based: most importantly that the referendum should meet the highest standards of fairness, transparency and propriety.
The most important decision by the people of Scotland in 300 years must be beyond reproach
Presiding Officer. Let me begin with the referendum question. The question we intend put to the Scottish people in the referendum is set out on page 11 of the consultation paper. It is short, straightforward and clear, so let me read it to the Chamber. The question is, "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?"
Presiding Officer, we have set out this question in the consultation paper in order that those who wish to do so can provide their views on the question, and other aspects of the referendum, through the consultation process. The question is designed to comply with the Electoral Commission's guidelines which are that referendum questions should present the options clearly, simply and neutrally. The question we have published today aims to be all three, and will be subject to testing using a sample of voters.
Presiding Officer, the regulation of the referendum will be an essential element in ensuring that it is fair. The regulator must be a body which has the professionalism to ensure that the vote is above reproach. It is no less important that the regulator be accountable to this Parliament for its work.
As members know we have previously had concerns about the best way to ensure that accountability. Last year, however, the Scottish Parliament passed legislation to give the Electoral Commission a role in regulating local elections. That is a role in which the Commission will report to this Parliament. We therefore have the opportunity to build on that, and on the Commission's experience of supervising two referendums in 2011, by appointing the Electoral Commission to regulate the referendum.
The consultation document we have published this afternoon seeks views on the roles we propose both for the Commission, and for the Electoral Management Board. The Electoral Management Board, developed by the Scottish Government with electoral professionals, was established in response to a recommendation of the Gould report into the conduct of the 2007 Scottish parliamentary elections. Our proposal today is that the Board should be responsible for managing the referendum.
One area where we do agree with the UK Government is on the geographical basis of the franchise. The people who live and work in Scotland are best placed to decide its future. Our proposal is therefore that eligibility to vote in the referendum should reflect the internationally accepted principle that the franchise for constitutional referendums should be determined by residency. That is the approach for Scottish Parliament elections and for the 1997 referendum on devolution.
And the one area where we propose to extend the franchise relates to young people. This government, and I should say leading figures in the opposition too, have been consistent in our commitment to extending the franchise in all elections to 16 and 17 year olds. It is right that our young people should have the chance to play their part in decisions about their community and their country. Where we have been able to include 16 and 17 year olds in elections which are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, we have done so.
If a 16 year old in Scotland can register to join the army, get married and pay taxes – surely he or she should be able to have a say in this country’s constitutional future? In our consultation today we are, therefore, seeking views on our proposal to extend the right to vote in this referendum to 16 and 17 year olds who are eligible to be included on the electoral register.
Presiding Officer, just as we do not intend to artificially restrict the referendum franchise, nor should we restrict the scope of the options which might command wide support in Scotland. The UK Government argues that there should be no question in the referendum about full or further devolution within the United Kingdom – that the choice should be between full independence or the status quo.
The Scottish Government’s position is for independence. Therefore that option will appear on any ballot paper in a straightforward manner. We set out our proposal for the question in the consultation document. However, this is a consultation with the community of the realm of Scotland and it is imperative that the referendum is seen to be fair, democratic and inclusive. If there is an alternative of maximum devolution which would command wide support in Scotland then it is only fair and democratic that option should be among the choices open to the people of Scotland. We will not, as the UK Government seems to want, eliminate that choice simply because it might be popular.
We will hold the referendum in the autumn of 2014. The UK Government argues that because the referendum is so important, therefore we should rush it. We are taking a rather more rational and sensible approach. This document sets out in the clearest form the steps that will need to be taken to prepare for the referendum. It shows that autumn 2014 is the soonest that the referendum could be held in a way that meets the high standards which the people of this country have a right to expect.
We share with the UK Government a wish that this referendum should be decided by the views of the electorate on the future of their country, not on the basis of technical disputes about parliamentary competence. We have set out in the past how the Scottish Parliament could hold a referendum which we are satisfied would be within its present competence. In order to ensure that the referendum is effectively beyond legal challenge, we are willing to work with the UK Government and I look forward to my discussions with the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister in the coming days.
Let me be quite clear however: the terms of the referendum are for the Scottish Parliament and the people of Scotland to decide. This is the mandate given to the Scottish Parliament by the people of Scotland and the responsibility of carrying through the will of the electorate now rests with this chamber.
Presiding Officer, I’m sure it is not lost on the chamber that today is the birthday of Robert Burns, our national bard. It is a remarkable testimony to the power of Robert Burns, that in the 253rd anniversary year of his birth, we will toast the poet and the man in his many different guises. We continue to explore his work and find inspiration in his words.
However for our purposes today, I want to invoke Burns the Democrat. Because the choices Scotland faces now are, fundamentally, matters of democracy. Our country is facing a new constitutional future and we must take the best path for our people.
I’m told there are members of the House of Lords who believe that it is in their province to set boundaries on what Scotland can and cannot do. Perhaps they should be reminded that Burns great hymn to equality has been heard in this Parliament before - when Sheena Wellington sang ‘A Man’s a Man for A That’ at our first opening in 1999.
Ye see yon birkie ca'd, a lord,
Wha struts, and stares, and a' that,
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that.
For a' that, and a' that,
His ribband, star and a' that,
The man of independent mind,
He looks and laughs at a' that.
From Ploughman Poet to Literary Legend, Burns' journey is indeed a remarkable one.
Three centuries on from the 1707 Union, the people of Scotland elected a majority pro-independence government - the government I am proud to lead - to revisit that decision. And this time the decision will be made democratically, by a referendum of the people of Scotland.
Presiding officer, during the 2011 election campaign I said Scotland was on a journey.
There is a continuity, a sense of purpose. As one of my closest friends and this Parliament’s much missed colleague, Bashir Ahmad, once famously said, it is not where you come from that matters, but where we are going together. It is my belief, and this Government’s belief, that Scotland is going forward together toward a more prosperous and fairer society, and today is the latest, significant step along that path.
To quote the words of James Robertson, a contemporary poet of whom Burns would undoubtedly have approved;
The road that was blocked has no end
The unknown journey is known
The heart that is hurt will mend
The bird that was trapped has flown.
The bird has flown, and cannot now be returned to its cage. I believe this journey represents the aspirations and ambitions of the people of Scotland.
And today, we pass another milestone. We reach out to the other parties of this parliament in a spirit of consensus, urging them to contribute to this consultation on the referendum the people voted for in such large numbers. In expressing their views, however, I would urge them to listen not to voices from elsewhere - Why not, instead, take the lead from the people of Scotland?
In the election we set out that our immediate focus is addressing the pressing economic challenges, and strengthening Scotland’s recovery – and today’s decline in UK GDP underlines the urgency of that objective. Therefore our immediate constitutional priority was improving the Scotland Bill to give it the job-creating powers we need.
These vital tasks underpin the timescale for the referendum, and we will continue to use all the powers currently within the control of this Parliament to boost jobs, growth and recovery. But there can be no doubt that this Parliament needs full economic powers, so that we can do more for Scotland.
Presiding Officer, the next two and a half years promise to be the most exciting in Scotland’s modern history. And at the end of that period, in autumn 2014, people the length and breadth of our country will have their say in Scotland’s independence referendum.
Independence, in essence, is based on a simple idea: the people who care most about Scotland, that is the people who live, work and bring up their families in Scotland, should be the ones taking the decisions about our nation’s future. No one else is going to do a better job of making Scotland a success. No one else has the same stake in our future. The people of Scotland should be in charge.
Independence will give us the opportunity to take different decisions – to implement policies designed for Scotland’s needs. And that means we will be able to make Scotland the country we all know it can be – a wealthier and fairer nation. A country that speaks with its own voice, stands taller in the world, and takes responsibility for its own future.
Independence is about Scotland rejoining the family of nations in our own right. We can be both independent and inter-dependent: we can stand on our own two feet, while working closely with other nations, our friends and neighbours.
When the United Nations was formed there were just over 50 independent countries in the world. Today, that figure has risen to almost 200. Of the 10 countries that joined the European Union in 2004, a majority had become independent since 1990, and Scotland is bigger than six of them. All of these nations now have a seat at Europe’s top table - a right Scotland should enjoy too.
Scotland’s home rule journey is clearly part of a bigger international trend. After all, independence is what we seek as individuals – whether it is buying our first car or our own home. It is the natural state for people and nations around the world. Not being independent is the exception.
This Parliament in Edinburgh already takes all the important decisions when it comes to running our schools, hospitals, police and much else besides. Independence will mean we are also responsible for raising our own money.
Scotland is a land of unlimited potential, its culture, history and reputation for innovation are renowned throughout the world, its universities are world class and its energy resources are unrivalled in Europe. Indeed, on current figures we would have the sixth highest GDP per capita in the OECD.
With independence we will have a new social union with the other nations of these islands and will continue to share Her Majesty the Queen as Head of State. But we won’t have our young servicemen and women dragged into illegal wars like Iraq, and we won’t have nuclear weapons based in Scottish waters.
Independence will create a new, more modern relationship between the nations of the British Isles – a partnership of equals. I want Scotland to be independent not because I think we are better than any other country but because I know we are just as good as any other country.
Like these other nations, our future, our resources and our success should be in our own hands.