Deputy First Minister John Swinney’s address to SNP conference

Below is the full speech given by Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary John Swinney to the SNP conference in Aberdeen. Check against delivery. 

Exactly fifty years ago – almost to the day – the SNP first held a conference in Aberdeen. In May 1968, in the Beach Ballroom just down the road, the SNP was riding high.

My dear friend – one of our heroes – Winnie Ewing had won the historic Hamilton by-election the year before and the National Party had, perhaps, 70,000 members.


Actually, no one is sure how many folk had joined – because Headquarters was so overwhelmed they actually lost count. That would never happen nowadays of course!

But whatever the total, Winnie’s message attracted Scots in their tens of thousands to our cause. Some of her words sum up exactly who we are.


“Stop the World. Scotland wants to get on.”


It is a message we know is as relevant today as it was back in 1968.

In fact, the Tories hard-right hard Brexit makes it all the more important.


The hard-Brexiteers of the Tory right want to stop the world to get off. And they want to drag Scotland with them.


That is not the future Scotland needs. It is not the future Scotland wants.

If there was ever an example of the simple truth that the Tories think they can do what they want to Scotland and get away with it, it is Brexit. Well we’re not having it.



I believe – we all believe – that to be in the driving seat of our own destiny and to shape our own future is the natural thing to do.


It is what we all hope for ourselves and it is what we all believe is right for Scotland.

It is that same drive – to put people in command of their own destiny – that powers your SNP government.

We do not simply want Scotland, the nation, to be in control of its own destiny.

We want every individual Scot, of every background, of every creed and every colour to be in control of their own destiny too.

Our vision is of a nation equal from birth and, through opportunities for all, equal in life.

That is the vision of radical independence at the heart of this SNP Government.


Equal from birth.


Three words that encapsulate the point of, perhaps, one of our most iconic policies: Scotland’s baby box.


It gives every child in Scotland the same start in life. Rich or poor. Boy or girl. Equal from birth.


It is the embodiment of our goal.


And, friends, the reaction to the baby box is instructive. The debate has been getting – you might say – a bit fiery.


One thing is obvious. The Tories loathe the baby box.


They attack it at every opportunity and promote scare stories to try to undermine it at every turn.


But the Tories problem isn’t really with the baby box.


Their problem is they are still wedded to the idea of deserving and undeserving.


As if any newborn child should be judged undeserving.


They don’t believe in equal from birth.

They believe in preserving privilege.

We believe that every child in Scotland – no matter their background – should have the very best start in life – and we are here to make sure that happens.

No matter the Dickensian politics of Ruth Davidson and Theresa May, we hold to our vision of equal from birth and equal in life.

And that vision is driving us to make fundamental reforms.

It starts in childhood.

When young people have adverse or traumatic experiences growing up, the impacts are deep and long lasting.

Domestic violence, parental abandonment, family mental health problems.

Abuse and neglect.

Parents going to prison.

Or a home blighted by drugs and alcohol.

These things do not just shape the child. They shape the adult too.

They fuel poor health, crime, and social problems of every kind.

Visit any A&E, any prison, any social work department and you will see the truth of this cycle of deprivation and despair.

Emotional and physical development, capacity to learn, capacity to thrive. All are blighted.

Adverse Childhood Events – ACE’s – fuel social problems that roll from one generation to the next and on down the decades, year after year, life after life, generation after generation.

Friends, your SNP Government is on a bold mission. We are determined this waste of life has got to stop. We are here to change lives – to change lives for the better.

Our aim, this government’s aim, is to break that cycle of despair once and for all.

I came into politics because I believe Scotland can take on these challenges and end that cycle.

But, conference, I know that we don’t have every power we could use to tackle these problems.

I know that the unionist parties – some of whom have the gall to claim to be progressive – stand guilty of denying Scotland the very powers we could use to tackle these problems.

They would rather have the Tories than Scotland have those powers.

Well, they have made their choice to save the union. A union that inflicts welfare cuts on the vulnerable, is hostile to migrants and has imposed the misery of austerity.

Labour’s credibility collapsed the day they gave their loyalty to the Tories and not to Scotland.

The powers of independence would give us the full range of tools to use to break the cycle but, friends, we are not powerless.

Your Scottish Government can still make a difference in people’s lives.

We will always use every power we have to change the destiny of our nation and its citizens.

That’s why we are building a new universal health visiting service that will give families better access to health visitors, and employing 500 extra Health Visitors to make it a reality.

It’s why we are expanding Family Nurse Partnerships so their help is offered to every eligible teenage mother by the end of this year.

And, it’s why we are expanding Early Learning and Childcare.

I can tell you about the money the near doubling of childcare will save a family – something like £2,500 per child per year in total.

I can point out that we will have more free hours for more people than anywhere in these islands.

I can tell you we will be spending almost £1 billion per year on childcare by the end of this Parliament.

But none of that is the real measure of success.

The real measure of this programme’s success is the impact on a child surrounded by books for the first time, supported in play and nurtured with love.

It is in the difference high quality childcare can make to the development of our most vulnerable children. To their life chances. To their hopes and their dreams.

That is our measure of success. We are here to change lives – and to change lives for the better.


Breaking the cycle requires Government to work across education, health, social security, skills and the economy.


That is what you see in this SNP Government.


Our plans to tackle the attainment gap in schools do not sit in isolation from the work to tackle child poverty.


Nor is it distinct from our work to reduce youth offending.


Or to tackle Scotland’s public health challenges.


These are different aspects of the same problem: the cycle of deprivation.


And this Government is determined to break the cycle.


So we will reform school education, encouraging the best educational practice to be shared around the country and giving more power to head teachers to decide what works best in the classrooms of local schools around Scotland.

We have sent £120 million in Pupil Equity Funding directly from the Scottish Government to individual schools. The difference is breathtaking. Schools are empowered. Innovation is thriving. The young people of Scotland are feeling the benefit. It is clear our approach is beginning to work.


Conference. We are starting to close the attainment gap in Scottish education.

The proportion of pupils – whatever their background – getting National 4s, National 5s and Highers is rising.

But for those pupils from our most deprived communities, it is rising faster than in our richest communities.

The gap is closing.

And for Advanced Highers, again awards have risen for pupils from both our most deprived and least deprived communities.

But the number has risen by 40 per cent for those from our most deprived communities, six times as much as the rise in our least deprived communities.

The gap is closing.

So when I visit schools and meet the fantastic young people of this nation, when I speak to the brilliant teachers in our schools, I know their efforts are delivering.

We all know there is much more to do, but friends, I believe we are seeing the start of a renaissance in Scottish education.

Now is the time to press on, to put even more faith in our teachers, in our head teachers and to make sure we succeed in our mission to make Scottish education the world class system it needs to be.

We will do it by working with pupils, parents, teachers, head teachers, councils and professional associations, listening to their concerns but never sacrificing the central goal – to close the gap and raise attainment for all.

We do this because we know education is the best antidote to the cycle of poverty anyone has.

It is the route up and the route out.

It is the defining mission of this Government and make no mistake we are determined to deliver for the children and young people of Scotland.


So often we find that our opponents have mixed motives for their opposition.

We know the Tories oppose the baby box not for what it is but for what it stands for. The same is true of tuition-free Higher Education.

Just as we want every Scot to be equal at birth, we want them to be equal in life.

That means an equal chance to go to university no matter whether your parents are rich or poor.

Education based on ability to learn, not ability to pay. Equal in life.

And here too we see real progress.

In 2017 – which are the most recent figures – we saw the largest increase on record in 18 year olds from our most deprived communities accepted to University. It jumped by 16 per cent.

The biggest increase ever.

That’s 18 year olds – essentially school leavers – but when you look more widely you see the same sharp increase with students of all ages from our poorest communities accepted to university rising by 13 per cent in 2017.

And all of this has been done without the mythical squeeze in places for other students. More than thirty-six thousand Scots were accepted to university in 2017.

That’s another record.

So the next time you hear a Tory attack the widening access agenda, remember what it is they are doing:

They are defending privilege.

They are defending it because we are threatening that privilege.

They are defending it because our policies are putting that privilege at risk.

They are defending because we are winning. Winning the battle to make Scotland a fairer and a more equal country.

And, we are winning the battle to change the life chances of young people who don’t go to university.

Record numbers leave school and go into work, training or on to more education.

And more and more are doing the kind of vocational courses that deliver skills for work, giving them the chance to be equal in life whether or not they go to university.

Friends, I believe that our mission to improve Scotland’s education system is a moral obligation.

We are the national party and the national government.

It is our moral mission to deliver on education.

But I was once the minister responsible for this nation’s finances and our economic policy.

And I will tell you this: we need to deliver on education for the economy and the public finances too.

We have an ageing population and Brexit threatens to limit the number of new-Scots who come here to bolster our workforce.

Any hard-headed, pounds and pence calculation tells you that we simply must make every young person a real contributor to our economy.

We want everyone to benefit from the mind-expanding power of education.

To raise their sights and dream grand dreams.

To design and invent and innovate.

They are the people who will build the Scottish economy of the future.

If we want that future to be prosperous, the answer is education and we are delivering on education.


Equal at birth and equal in life: a moral mission and an economic necessity.

From the baby box through childcare, school reform, vocational education and widening access, we are changing the life chances of young people across this nation.

And, there could not be a more appropriate time to do that. The Year of Young People. A year long celebration of the strength, the capability, the love, the hope, the imagination of our youngest citizens. A year in which Scotland has the opportunity to truly embrace our next generation and commit to them our energy – not just in this Party but throughout the country – to make Scotland a better country in which they can plan their futures.

And for our part, this Party must set out to young people, and to all of our citizens, how we aim to make Scotland a better country.

A country that looks outwards not inwards.

A country that cherishes its own people and welcomes others.

A country that aspires to fairness and prosperity in equal measure.

These aspirations lie at the heart of why we want Scotland to be independent. With every passing day, the United Kingdom reflects these aspirations less and less.

A country that looks outwards not inwards?

A country that cherishes its own people and welcomes others?

A country that aspires to fairness and prosperity in equal measure?

None of that reflects the United Kingdom.

Our challenge is to encourage more and more of our fellow citizens to share these aspirations. To recognise these aspirations reflect the country we want to live in. And to accept they can only be delivered through independence.

That is our way to change lives – and to change lives for the better.