What a great pleasure it is to be back together, in person, at an SNP conference.
Seeing old friends, making new ones, debating the issues of the day and making the policies that will help shape tomorrow.
Creating the space for this Party – together – to take the next decisive steps to deliver Scotland’s Independence.
While technology allowed us to continue to meet during the pandemic, a virtual conference cannot compare to the hustle and bustle of being together again.
And, while it is a little further for me to travel, I can tell you that – thankfully – it is a lot warmer here on stage than it is addressing you by video filmed in my back garden in the depths of winter!
In all my years in this party, I have given many a speech to SNP Conference.
But today marks a first for me.
This is the first time that I have addressed Conference while providing maternity cover for a ministerial colleague.
In the summer, Kate Forbes, our fantastic Finance and Economy Secretary, and her husband Ali, welcomed Naomi into the world, making Kate the first serving Cabinet Secretary in the Scottish Government to take maternity leave.
Naomi’s safe arrival is wonderful news and from this Conference we all send our love and good wishes to Kate, Ali and their family for much happiness in the years ahead.
And we meet at this Conference, after much electoral water has gone under the bridge.
Just after our last in person Conference in 2019, we won 48 seats in the Westminster election, gaining seats from Labour and the Tories to dominate the electoral map of Scotland.
In 2021, we won 64 seats in the Scottish Parliament elections, winning the highest number of votes of any Party under devolution.
In 2022, we won the Council elections and increased our share of the vote.
After 15 years in power, the Scottish National Party remains the largest Party in Scotland, the winning Party in Scotland, the Governing Party in Scotland – we are the Party of ALL of Scotland.
Conference, it is also great to be back here in Aberdeen – a city at the forefront of our strength in energy and at the heart of our nation’s transition to Net Zero.
Scotland’s economy has many strengths, but when it comes to energy, we are truly a global power house.
With our plentiful resources of renewable energy, with our expertise in oil and gas, and the potential to be a world leader in emerging technologies like hydrogen and Carbon Capture, Scotland is well placed to provide much of Europe with access to clean energy.
The transition to a Net Zero future is a tremendous opportunity for Scotland, but it is also a considerable challenge.
No more so than here in Aberdeen.
This city faces an economic challenge on the scale faced by towns and cities across Scotland in the de-industrialisation of the 1980s. Many of those communities still bear the scars of poorly planned structural changes to our economy.
But there is one crucial difference to the challenge the North East faces today and that faced by communities in the 1980s.
Although there is an uncaring Tory Government at Westminster just like there was in the 1980s, today however, there is an SNP Government, on Scotland’s side, who will do everything in our power to support the North East.
Aberdeen’s economy, like Scotland’s, must transition from its reliance on oil and gas.
But it has to be a just transition.
One that takes our people, communities and businesses with us.
That’s why we are supporting that transition with an investment in this region of £500 million over the next decade.
Securing jobs and investment and ensuring Aberdeen’s place as a centre of green energy expertise.
Conference, since oil was discovered off Scotland’s shores in the 1970s, the Treasury has raked in more than £300 billion in tax revenues.
Next year is set to see the highest oil revenues on record.
So it stands to reason, that the UK should also be joining us in supporting Aberdeen.
Not least, that in their time of need, the UK Government turned to the North Sea for a windfall tax.
But at every step along the way they have refused to match our just transition funding, just like they have refused so far to back Scotland’s Carbon Capture cluster.
Conference, the UK Government are only interested in Scotland when there is money to be made, not when there are jobs to be saved.
Scotland is a nation rich in energy resources.
We have a plentiful supply of clean, green, affordable renewable energy.
The equivalent of almost 100% of our electricity demand is from renewable sources.
Not only is Scotland self-sufficient in natural gas – we are a huge exporter.
Scotland is secure in energy. So we need no lectures from Liz Truss about security of energy supply. It is the UK that has failed to achieve energy security, with the National Grid warning of possible power cuts this winter. And let me make this clear, Scotland is not going to put up with a new round of nuclear power stations to make up for the failure of energy policy in the United Kingdom.
Despite our huge strength in energy, 150,000 more people in Scotland will be forced into extreme fuel poverty as a result of the UK Government’s increase to the energy price cap in September.
We are an energy rich nation, but 35% of our citizens live in fuel poverty.
Why is that?
Because while Scotland has the Energy, Westminster has the power.
And how Westminster chooses to use its reserved power has consistently, and deliberately, disadvantaged Scotland.
Our energy producers face the highest transmission charges in Europe.
Standing charges for consumers are 50% higher in Scotland than they are in London.
Our renewable future has been held back by erratic and irresponsible UK policies.
And, our energy bills are amongst the highest in Europe.
Conference, let’s be clear, the reason why global energy prices have risen so sharply is because of Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.
But the reason why the energy crisis has been felt so badly in Scotland, worse than in many other neighbouring countries, is because of bad decision after bad decision by the UK Government.
Conference, when Liz Truss became Prime Minister, a little over a month ago, she inherited from Boris Johnson the worst cost crisis in decades. At a moment of huge difficulty for people struggling with the cost of living, what did the Tories decide to do?
The Tories decided this was the moment to lift the cap on bankers’ bonuses and give tax cuts that benefit the rich. How foolish could they be?
A quarter of the cash gains go to the top 5%.
If the UK Government sticks to its plan for a real terms cut to benefits, the poorest 20% in society will see their incomes fall next year.
Meanwhile the richest 5% will see their incomes boosted by more than £9000.
During a cost of living crisis, they are taking from the poor and giving to the rich.
They did so with no independent reports on the costings and no idea how they would pay for the tax giveaways.
And what happened.
The Pound fell to its lowest level against the dollar in its history.
Mortgage providers withdrew hundreds of products from the market overnight – increasing the cost of home ownership and threatening a collapse in house prices.
The Bank of England took emergency action to avoid a collapse of British Pension funds.
Within weeks the new Tory Prime Minister decided to transform a punishing cost crisis in to a full blown economic and financial crisis.
In an act of fiscal recklessness, the Tories have threatened the financial security of millions of our people, jeopardised the homes of many through higher mortgages and shredded in one fell swoop the fiscal credibility of the United Kingdom. That is just the latest disaster the Tories have delivered.
And what will this recklessness bring for us – it will bring a new age of austerity.
A new age of austerity that will cripple public services and create misery for those on fixed incomes.
I came to my first SNP Conference when Margaret Thatcher was savaging our public services and our industrial base in the 1980s.
I was Finance Secretary a decade ago, when David Cameron and George Osborne, unleashed the last round of UK austerity.
The damage of that programme is still being felt in communities across Scotland
It put our public finances under tremendous strain.
While the challenges of protecting Scotland’s people and public services were great then, they pale into insignificance with the scale of the challenge we face today.
As a result of inflation, the Scottish budget is now worth £1.7 billion less than when we set it in December.
We have already had to announce £500 million of savings to ensure we comply with our legal duty to balance the books, and fund fair pay deals for public sector workers
And that is before we take into account the £18 billion of spending cuts the Tories are planning to pay for their tax cuts.
This will impact every corner of Scotland.
Our public services, already under the strain of recovering from the pandemic, risk being starved of cash, all so that those with the broadest shoulders can pay less tax.
There is no denying that the task is great. And, our room for manoeuvre is limited.
But conference, I am clear the job of an SNP finance secretary isn’t to cut public services.
It is to fund public services. And despite the harsh fiscal constraints of devolution, supporting our public services is what we intend to do.
Conference, perhaps the most predictable, if depressing, comments in the aftermath of the mini-budget were the chorus of calls from the Scottish Conservatives urging me to match the UK Government’s reckless tax cuts.
The Tories at Westminster had set fire to the UK economy, and their counterparts in Scotland were urging me to pour petrol on the flames.
And of course at the same time as demanding we cut tax, the Tories constantly demand we spend more money. If you didn’t know already, let me tell you this. The Tories really are a bunch of reckless hypocrites.
By their actions in the mini-Budget the Tories threw away any claim they could have to be a party of fiscal responsibility. In contrast, this Party has balanced the books in each and every one of our years in Government. We should make no apology for believing in – and delivering – fiscal responsibility and we should take no lessons on the subject from the Tories.
Because fiscal responsibility pays for our NHS.
Fiscal responsibility pays for our children’s education.
It pays for the game changing Scottish Child Payment – lifting children out of poverty and available only in Scotland.
From free personal care to prescriptions.
1140 hours of free childcare to free university provision.
From free bus travel to the small business bonus.
We won’t follow the Tories down the rabbit hole of tax cuts for the rich. We will do what’s right for Scotland’s people, our economy and our public services.
It has been abundantly clear for some time that Scotland and the United Kingdom are increasingly moving in completely different directions.
Tory Governments elected at Westminster, but rejected outright here in Scotland.
Brexit supported by Labour and the Conservatives and imposed on Scotland against our democratic will.
Abject hostility to sensible migration policies at Westminster, when Scotland needs to be open for people to choose to come and live here.
Your SNP Government will do all that we can to help Scotland prosper in the face of the obstacles created by Westminster.
We will work to make Scotland the best place to start and grow a business or a social enterprise, a magnet for inward investment, an international example of how to decarbonise our economy, a nation where people and businesses can continually upgrade their skills, a leader in research and development, a great place to live and work with high living standards.
We will do that by encouraging a new generation of entrepreneurs to create business ideas, by pursuing new market opportunities at home and overseas, by encouraging regional economic initiatives in every part of Scotland, by constantly developing the skills of our workforce, and by creating a fairer and more equal society where everyone can play a part in the Scottish economy.
While the Tories engage in a race to the bottom, we will engage in a race for a high wage, high value economy and society – an inclusive growth agenda to improve the lives of each and every one of our citizens.
Since we came to power in 2007, we have used the powers of devolution to the maximum we possibly could.
We gave the strongest support to renewable energy and we are now able to generate nearly all of our net electricity needs from renewables.
We invested in our schools so that today over 90% of school pupils are educated in good or satisfactory schools compared to just over 60% when we came to office.
We introduced the Scottish Child Payment and increased it swiftly to help those facing the greatest need today.
We have delivered much to improve the lives of the people who live in Scotland.
But there are clearly limits to what we can do as a new age of austerity is about to be inflicted upon us :
If Scotland wants to be able to tackle the enduring scourge of poverty;
If Scotland wants to play her part in the world as an equal member of the European Union;
If Scotland wants to be a country that creates the best life chances for every one of our citizens;
Then devolution is not enough – We cannot be at the mercy of Westminster decisions any longer – Scotland has to choose to be an Independent country.
And that is our task – the historic mission of our Party – to make Scotland an independent country.
If I think back to conversations I had with people who did not support us during the 2014 Referendum, many felt they had financial security within the United Kingdom. After the events of the last few weeks how can that any longer be the case?
How can any politician look a pensioner, or a mortgage holder or a person living in poverty straight in the eye, after the wreckage of the last few weeks, and say there is financial security any longer in the United Kingdom.
Our task is to engage with those people – with those we could not win over in 2014. To explain our beliefs and our values. To share with them our hopes for our country. And to help them believe that Scotland can join the nations of the world and play our rightful part.
It is a task of respectful persuasion and of reassurance. It is a task of significance in the lives of all of us who choose to live here in Scotland. It is a task that can chart a new course for Scotland. It is a task that we must – and we will win – for Scotland.