SNP Conference address by Nicola Sturgeon MSP

A few weeks ago, I handed over the reins of the NHS to Alex Neil.

I am confident that it is in safe hands.

Being Health Secretary is a tough job, but it has also been one of the greatest privileges of my life.

I am immensely proud of what was achieved in the past 5 years - not by me, but by those who work day and daily to care for the sick and vulnerable.

Today, in our Scottish Health Service, we have the lowest waiting times on record. We have the lowest ever rates of hospital infection. Patient care is safer than ever.

And, unlike in England, our NHS is secure as a public service.

There will be no privatisation of the NHS in Scotland - not by this government. Not now, not ever.

Today, I want to pay a personal tribute to our National Health Service. To all of the doctors, nurses, managers, allied health professionals, cleaners, auxiliaries - to everyone who works so hard - I say a heartfelt thank you.

I owe you a debt of gratitude. We all owe you a debt of gratitude.

Delegates,

Moving on from the NHS was always going to provoke mixed emotions in me.

But there were no mixed emotions about accepting the First Minister’s invitation to be the new Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and the Constitution.

My first job was to agree the transfer of power that puts beyond doubt the ability of our Parliament to legislate for an independence referendum.

That job was started by Bruce Crawford and I want to take this opportunity today, on behalf of the whole party, to thank Bruce for his excellent and vital contribution to the Scottish Government over the the past five years.

Delegates

As you know, the agreement with the UK government was signed on Monday.

I have it here.

An original, signed copy of the Edinburgh Agreement.

Delegates,

This piece of paper allows me to stand here before you and say, without a shadow of doubt, that there will be an independence referendum.

It will be in the autumn of 2014.

And just as we promised, it will be a referendum made here in Scotland.

Young people who can marry, have kids and pay taxes will get the right to vote on the future of our country.

Not to give us an advantage.

But because votes for 16 and 17 year olds is the right thing to do.

There will be just one question on the ballot paper.

One question.

And to that one question, there is only one answer.

That answer is Yes.

Delegates,

This will be a referendum made in Scotland.

And it must also be a referendum decided fairly and squarely.

The issue that most exercised the UK government during the negotiations was campaign funding.
They think that the limits proposed in our consultation are too low.

Well, let me be clear. We will set the spending limits with care. We will listen to our consultation. We will listen to the Electoral Commission. We will listen to both campaign organisations.

And then we will take a decision that is right for Scotland. A decision that guarantees a level playing field and a fair contest.

Make no mistake, this time around, Scotland’s future will not be bought and sold for anyone’s gold.

Delegates.

Our government’s top priority is economic growth.

The GDP and employment figures this week remind us just how fragile our economy is.

As a government we are doing everything we can to get the economy growing again.

But as we push in one direction, Westminster pulls in the other.

Last week, David Cameron stood up at his party conference and said that, despite all the problems in the economy, he thought that Britain was on the right track.

He made that claim less than 24 hours after the IMF predicted that the economy will shrink this year.

And this week we had the sorry spectacle of the Prime Minister making a complete mess of energy policy.

As families face rising bills, David Cameron came up with a plan that quickly looked more like a practical joke than a practical policy.

Unfortunately, energy price regulation is reserved.

But where we can act, we do.

So while the fuel poverty budget is being cut to zero in England, our government will invest £200m in this and the next two years to tackle fuel poverty.

That is real, tangible help to the people of Scotland from this Scottish government.

Delegates,

The hard fact is that the Tories have failed Scotland.

And the overwhelming case for our independence is made all the stronger by the unfair, destructive, self-defeating policies of this arrogant, incompetent, out of touch Tory government.

We need a change of direction.

If we are to get our economy back to long term health, get our people back to work, create opportunities for our young people and make sure that our nation’s wealth is used to build a stronger and fairer society, then we need control of our own resources. We need the power to take our own decisions. We need independence.

Without it, we are working with one hand tied behind our back. While we want to invest in the modern infrastructure our country needs, the Tories are slashing our capital budget by one third.
And they are doing it at a time when we should be supporting our construction industry, not attacking it. Creating jobs, not destroying them.

Delegates,

Housing investment benefits the construction sector but it also delivers a vitally important social return.

As a government, we have a proud record on housing.

In the last Parliament, we increased investment by 40% compared to the previous administration.

We built more houses for social rent.

And it was this government - our government - that started a new generation of council house building in Scotland.

Just last year, councils built more than 1000 houses.

Do you remember how many council houses Labour built in their last four years in office?

Let me remind you. It was 6. A grand total of 6 council houses - each and every one of them in Shetland.

That is why this party will never, ever, take lessons from Labour on housing.

Today, I can announce a further shot in the arm for house building in Scotland. A boost for the construction industry that so badly needs our help and support.

Thanks to the sound decisions announced by John Swinney in his budget last month, I can announce a package of £45 million that will go directly to supporting the delivery of 1,200 new houses across councils, housing associations and the private sector.

Action that will protect up to 800 jobs.

Action from a government doing everything in our power to get our economy moving.

Delegates,

We are doing everything we can but our economy needs more.

So I have a very direct message for the Chancellor today. A message on behalf of every construction firm clinging on by their fingertips, on behalf of every unemployed person desperate for some light at the end of the tunnel.

Our economy needs a capital stimulus and it needs it now.

If the Chancellor cares about getting growth back in our economy, if he cares about getting people into work and giving our young people hope of a brighter future, then listen - not to us - but to the growing band of economists and business organisations who say it is time to take a different course.

Use the Autumn budget statement to increase capital spending and accept, once and for all, that we will not cut our way out of this recession.

We must build our way out of recession.

Delegates

I don’t meet many people who think the economic policies of successive UK governments have been good for Scotland.

But I do meet people who ask, how do we know independence will be better?

Friends, there is no country in the world - big or small - that is guaranteed success.

But the combination of our natural resources and the skills and intelligence of our people make us just as capable as any other nation in the world of being a successful, prosperous independent country.

That Scotland could thrive as an independent nation is not, never has been, never should be in doubt.

And shame on any politician who ever suggests that it is.

But we're not nationalists just because we believe Scotland could be independent.

We are nationalists because we believe Scotland should be independent.

For us, independence is the means by which we build a wealthier, healthier and fairer Scotland.

The last Government Expenditure and Revenue calculations - the GERS figures as they are commonly known - showed that in 2010/11, Scotland was better off than the rest of the UK to the tune of £2.7 billion.

That's £500 for every person in Scotland.

Delegates

Only independence will ensure that, in future, Scotland’s resources are invested for the benefit of Scotland’s people.

Never before has it been more important to make and win that argument.

In the last few weeks, we have seen the emergence of a new Tory/Labour effort to write Scots off as subsidy junkies.

According to Johann Lamont, we have a something for nothing culture.

Ruth Davidson says that nine out of ten of us make no contribution and are little more than scroungers on the state.

What an insult to each and every hard-working, law-abiding, tax-paying citizen of this country.

Now, I don’t expect any better of the Tories. But what has happened to Labour?

The truth is Scotland doesn’t have a Labour Party and a Tory Party any more.

What we have is the Thatcherite Tories of Ruth Davidson and the one nation Tories of Johann Lamont.

One Scotland, two Tory parties.

Labour should be ashamed of itself.

Delegates,

The unionist parties don’t just oppose independence - they want to roll back the hard won gains of devolution as well.

Free personal care, medicines free at the point of need, bus travel for pensioners, education based on the ability to learn not the ability to pay.

These are not signs of a something for nothing society.

They are the hallmarks of a decent society and we will fight to protect them.

And to those who say they can’t be afforded when the Tories are cutting our budget, we say this.
The answer to Tory cuts is not to hit the elderly, the sick, the struggling family or the young person aspiring to a university education.

The answer to Tory cuts is to control our own resources.

Control our own resources so that we can get our economy growing.

Control our own resources so that we can choose the priorities of our people over weapons of mass destruction on the river Clyde.

Delegates,

We will be better off with independence.

Not just economically. We will be better off as a society too.

The welfare reform agenda of the UK government is a real cause for concern.

Not because its wrong to encourage people into work. I agree that the best route out of poverty is work.

But I do not agree with that being used as the excuse for crude budget cuts that will hit the disabled and the vulnerable hardest.

Last month, Citizens Advice reported that the number of Scots needing food parcels had doubled as a result of welfare changes and benefit delays.

Food parcels in energy rich Scotland.

That is unacceptable. It offends our sense of decency.

And if that is what our opponents mean by better together, then I say the case for independence is unanswerable.

Because, you see, I don’t accept that it is inevitable.

Yes, money is tight. Yes, Labour and the Tories have put us in debt.
But there are still choices to be made.

In his last budget, George Osborne made a choice for us.
He chose to cut the top rate of tax for people earning over £150,000 a year from 50 to 45p.

A tax cut that will cost more than £10 billion over the next three years. A tax break funded by cuts in welfare for the poorest.

Delegates,

That is just wrong.

Its robbing Peter to pay Paul. Except that’s probably not the best way to describe it. Because while those who benefit from top rate tax cuts are usually men, those who are hit hardest by welfare cuts are women and children.

Delegates,

I do not believe that would ever be Scotland’s choice.

That is why each and every one of us has a duty to explain to our friends and our neighbours the reality of independence.

It's not about waving flags.

It's about the kind of society we want to build for ourselves and our children.

Independence is about having the powers we need to eradicate, once and for all, the obscenity of child poverty in our rich society.

Delegates,

Make no mistake, we need independence to ensure that we have a welfare state that reflects our values.

But, as a government, we are determined to do everything we can now to mitigate the worst impacts of these cuts.

Next April, responsibility for the Social Fund passes from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament. The Social Fund comprises Community Care Grants, small amounts of money to help vulnerable people live independently, and Crisis Grants for people who have nowhere else to turn and who need access to small lifeline grants to provide the basics like food for their children.

I welcome the transfer of responsibility. But the amount of money being transferred with it - £24m - is less than was spent on the Social Fund back in 2005.

Delegates,

I can announce today that we will replace the Social Fund with a new Scottish Welfare Fund.
And we will go further.

We will reverse the cuts that have been made to that Fund by both Labour and Tory governments.
We will increase it by £9 million and provide essential crisis support in these difficult times for 100,000 more of our most vulnerable people.

Our Scottish Government will not desert any of Scotland's people in times of need.

Friends,

The case for independence is strong and it is compelling.

Over these next two years, we will set out for the people of Scotland the opportunities of independence.

But we will also set out the cost of Scotland not being independent.

Without independence, regardless of which unionist party is in power, billions more of our oil revenues will be spent on Westminster priorities rather than on our own.

We will see our welfare state continue to be dismantled.

And, make no mistake, promises of more powers will disappear without trace because Westminster will think it has put Scotland firmly back in its box.

And, without independence, we will have to bear the cost of a new generation of nuclear weapons on the river Clyde when we should be getting rid of Trident from Scottish waters once and for all.

Delegates,

The stakes are high but the choice is clear.

It is a choice of two futures.

A future shaped by those of us who live and work here. A future that reflects our values and speaks to who we are. Or a future shaped by a Westminster system that is increasingly out of touch with Scotland and the values we hold dear.

I trust - we trust - that the Scottish people will make the right choice and their answer will be yes.

Friends,

Our opponents will do everything they can to misrepresent what we stand for.

But we know and Scotland knows that our cause is a noble one. The Scotland we seek is modern, welcoming and inclusive.

We want a new relationship of equals with our friends in the rest of the UK. One that is based on co-operation and solidarity.

I am as proud a Scot as its possible to be. I'm also the grand-daughter of an English-woman. I represent a constituency where, in one primary school alone, more than 20 different languages are spoken.

Some of the strongest supporters of independence I know are people who have come to Scotland from other countries.

They understand that important though national identity is to each and every one of us - be it Scottish, English, Irish, British, European, Pakistani, whatever - that's not what independence is about.

Independence is about making sure that those of us who choose to live here have the political, social and economic powers that we need to build a prosperous, successful, confident and outward looking country.

That is our independence and we are proud to champion it.

Delegates,

I often imagine visiting that multi-lingual school in my constituency ten years from now to speak to children who aren’t yet born about the days before Scotland was independent.

I imagine the look of incredulity on their faces as they struggle to comprehend that their country was ever not independent.

And the really wonderful thing is knowing that no-one will ever tell these kids that Scotland is too wee, too poor or too stupid to stand on our own two feet.

No-one will tell them that because we will have proved it wrong and they will be the living embodiment of the modern, successful country we know an independent Scotland can be.

Delegates,

That dream can become our reality. That is the prize now within our grasp.

Be under no illusion, the next two years will be the toughest of our political lives. We've got a lot of work to do.

But when did we ever let that put us off? If we had, I wouldn't be standing here as Deputy First Minister and Alex Salmond would not be the outstanding First Minister of Scotland that he is today.

We won a majority last year because we had the best record, the best team and the best vision for Scotland.

And we will win the independence referendum because we will put forward the best case, the strongest case, the positive case for our country's future.

Fellow nationalists,

We are so lucky.

Not many people get the chance to shape a nation.

And yet this is the opportunity that each and every one of us has been given.

What a privilege for our generation of Scots.

So let us make this promise today, to ourselves and to future generations.

We will win our independence.

Yes, we will.