Ian Blackford’s address to #SNP20 conference

It is always an honour to address you as Westminster leader – even though I do so this year in very different circumstances.

I’m pretty confident when I say that this is the first time a major political conference has come from the beautiful Isle of Skye. And that’s because this has been a year like no other.

The virus means that this conference can’t be the usual, joyful and massive congregation of SNP activists from every corner of our nation.

We all miss the opportunity to catch up in the usual way at conference and at fringe events. To renew friendships – new and old.

I attended my first SNP conference back in 1979. Many of the same faces are still here but sadly many have passed on.

All of those who have gone before us prepared the ground that saw the SNP become the party of government in 2007. We stand on the shoulders of these giants.


We have seen heroics in the most difficult of times.

From our nurses and doctors, our police and fire fighters, our council workers, supermarket workers, our cleaners, carers and so many more.

Right across Scotland people have risen to the responsibility of protecting each other.

That has been as evident in island communities like this one, as it has been in our big cities. By staying apart, our nation has truly come together.

And as we reflect on this year, it is right that our first thoughts are with all the families who have lost loved ones during this terrible pandemic.

There are too many homes that will have empty chairs around their tables this Christmas – husbands, mothers, grandparents, sons and daughters – tragically gone before their time. Our thoughts and our prayers are with them all.

This year will stay with us for a long time. But it is also important to be thankful that – because of the remarkable efforts of scientists – hope is on the horizon.

If 2020 was the year of the pandemic, let us hope that 2021 will be the year of the vaccine.


Last December seems like a lifetime ago but – given that this is the first conference since that general election – it is worth remembering the massive endorsement the people of Scotland – once again – gave our party.

I want to thank all of our SNP activists who braved the cold, dark winter nights to return over 80% of Scottish seats to the SNP.

But most of all, I want to thank the people of Scotland for renewing their trust and confidence in our party under our First Minister.

That campaign and result produced so many historic events, but few will forget the moment when Amy Callaghan swept to victory in East Dunbartonshire.

As we know, Amy has had to deal with her own health struggles this year. Her sheer bravery and positive spirit in the face of these challenges remains an inspiration to us all.

Amy’s road of recovery has been long, and we wish her nothing but good health and our very best wishes.

Our new intake of MPs from our general election success have quickly gotten down to the job of standing up for Scotland and fighting for our people’s right to choose our own future.

Our new deputy leader Kirsten Oswald has already proven a brilliant addition to our frontbench and she is a great support to myself.

In praising Kirsten, I also want to thank her predecessor Kirsty Blackman.

Kirsty’s courage in speaking so openly about coping with mental health difficulties is so typically generous of her and is such a help to others who face similar struggles.

Kirsty is not only a valued colleague; she is a great friend. Kirsty will continue to play a crucial role as we head into 2021 and beyond.


The Covid pandemic has been an unprecedented challenge for governments across the world. First and foremost this is a health crisis, but its impact has extended to every single aspect of our society and economy.

The virus has highlighted the strength of community spirit across these islands, but it has equally laid bare the failings of a broken Westminster system.

It has exposed the inherent and structural inequality that Westminster imposes across the whole of the UK.

From the earliest days of this crisis, the SNP have led the charge at Westminster – trying to ensure that no-one is left behind and that lives and livelihoods are protected.

It was our economy team, led by Alison Thewliss, who relentlessly pressed the Chancellor to end cuts to the furlough scheme and to extend it into next year.

Alison and her team are still fighting for the 3 million freelancers and self-employed who remain excluded from a single penny of Treasury help.

It is shameful – but very telling – that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have always been dragged or forced into providing these vital financial supports to businesses and workers in their time of need.

It is little wonder that Boris Johnson’s government is now defined by chaotic decision making and last-minute U-turns.

On workers’ rights, Gavin Newlands has led the way. Working with the trade union movement, he has produced fire and rehire legislation that would ban the exploitative practice of firms firing workers and then rehiring them on significantly reduced terms.

And it has been our social justice team – headed up by Neil Gray – who have fronted the campaigns on making the universal credit uplift permanent and extending it to legacy benefits, opposing a public sector pay freeze and raising the pitiful level of UK statutory sick pay. As you know, Neil is now seeking to join our parliament in Edinburgh. Neil’s loss to the SNP Westminster group will I am sure be Holyrood’s gain.


At Westminster, SNP MPs make no apology for strongly speaking up for Scotland but in doing so we make the case for progressive policies right across the UK. At this moment, that especially means prioritising the health service.

All of our NHS heroes deserve proper recognition and reward for their incredible service during this pandemic. They have gone above and beyond – in their dedication, in their care and in their love.

It’s no use Tory ministers clapping for these public sector workers in the spring, if they then freeze public sector pay in the autumn.

This week the SNP proposed increasing the level of health and social care spending in England to at least the higher per capita level in Scotland. This would deliver an extra £35billion in England and an extra £4billion for NHS Scotland through Barnett consequentials.

That’s the kind of financial investment that is now needed to match the investment put in daily by those who work in our NHS.


Instead of prioritising growth and investment, this week the Chancellor was deliberately laying the ground for more years of harsh Tory austerity and soaring unemployment.

The spending review exposed the twisted priorities of this Tory government. The Tories freezing public sector pay is an insult to those who have been fighting this pandemic on the frontline.

The cruel cut to foreign aid support for the world’s poorest, will threaten the supply of Covid vaccines for the most vulnerable, hinder the education of girl’s in developing countries and push millions into extreme poverty. These heartless choices tell you everything you need to know.

This is a government that continues to waste billions on Trident but takes weeks to find the money for free school meals.

What a contrast to an SNP Scottish government that is giving £2m of support to Unicef to support efforts to get the vaccine to Children in Malawi, Zambia and Rwanda.

And what a contrast to that fantastic commitment from John Swinney yesterday that an SNP government, re-elected in 2021, will give free school breakfasts and lunches to every primary school child.

That’s the kind of support we should give to our youngest citizens.

And on Trident, let me be very clear – in an independent Scotland every single weapon of mass destruction will be removed from the Clyde.

With the powers of independence, can make different choices. We can invest and grow our way to recovery.

The Tories have all the wrong values, all the wrong priorities and they are putting Scotland’s recovery at risk.


Dealing with Covid-19 on its own is challenge enough – even for a competent government, let alone this Westminster one.

And Boris Johnson and his band of Brexiteers are forcing through their Brexit mess. It didn’t have to be this way.

The Tories refused the EU’s offer of an extension – it is they who have chosen to put even more burden on businesses.

That pattern of cavalier choices has been deeply damaging. Constant instability is Westminster’s new normal – it is now part and parcel of a reckless and chaotic government in Downing Street.

And be in no doubt – low deal or no-deal – the Tories are imposing an extreme Brexit on Scotland.

They are ignoring Scotland, terminating our EU membership and ripping us out of the world’s largest single market and customs union.

They are threatening Scotland’s food standards and undercutting our farmers and crofters.

They are failing to replace rural EU funding, breaking the promises made to our fishing communities and they are further isolating the UK on the world stage.

This is their narrow vision – this is their Brexit Britain. They are trying to force this future on Scotland – a future our people never voted for.


I think that realisation fully sunk in when the UK government introduced a law that they – very causally – admitted breaks international law.

They have dragged us deeper and deeper into their dangerous agenda for the last 4 years, but the internal market bill was the moment the Tories reached rock bottom.

This blatant power grab is the biggest threat to devolution since our parliament was reconvened.

It might seem like an obscure piece of legislation, but it cuts to the heart of the Tories efforts to undermine Scotland’s parliament.

It gives an unelected body the power to pass judgment on devolved laws – directly over the heads of the Scottish people’s chosen government.

And it gives UK government ministers powers to design and impose replacements for EU spending programmes in devolved areas.

On Infrastructure, economic development, culture and sport, education and training. All of it. Their agenda is clear.

The Tories will seek to bypass democratically elected MSPs and Ministers in Scotland.

I suppose that’s what you get from a Prime Minister who was caught red handed calling Scottish devolution a ‘mistake’ and a ‘disaster’.

As I told Boris Johnson in Westminster, it wasn’t a slip of the tongue – it was a slip of the Tory mask.

Now our democratically elected parliament in Scotland is in the position of relying on unelected Lords to protect the powers that the people of Scotland voted for just 20 years ago.

How did it come to this? The character of Boris Johnson and his government is crystal clear – they are consistent in their contempt for the Scottish Parliament and the choices of the Scottish people.

But conference, it is important to realise why they are choosing this exact moment to attack our parliament in Edinburgh.

They are attacking devolution because they are panicked that the Scottish people trust the leadership and decisions of our Parliament – a trust that has long since evaporated for the UK Government.

Over recent months, the conviction and belief in the value of our Scottish parliament has only grown.

People have seen the exceptional leadership of our First Minister throughout the course of this pandemic.

The leadership of our First Minister has been exceptional over the last few months. Leadership can sometimes be a burden, it can take its toll.

What we have seen at first hand is a leader who has stepped up to the challenge, who has not shirked making difficult decisions, who has worked tirelessly, day in day out, week in week out to guide all of us through this pandemic.

And on the very few days where she has not stood at that podium, I know she’s never been off duty, not for a single day.

Our First Minister has won the respect of many for the way she has led our Government and country through this crisis.

In doing so, our Government, our Parliament has reaffirmed our faith in our institutions, in our governance and in our nation.

Over two decades of devolution a majority of people have come to the same simple but powerful conclusion – decisions about Scotland are best made in Scotland.

It is little wonder they have come to that verdict when we compare the record of the two parliament over that period.

Over the past twenty years, Westminster has imposed an extreme Brexit, an illegal war in Iraq, £9,000 Tuition Fees, the Windrush scandal, the rape clause, the bedroom tax, and a decade of Tory austerity cuts, which have pushed millions of people into poverty.

Over the same two decades, the Scottish Parliament has delivered free prescriptions, free tuition fees, free personal care, free bus travel, the Baby Box, the Scottish Child Payment, and world-leading climate action.

All of this has made Scotland a fairer and more equal place to live. That diverging tale of two parliaments has led to an inevitable conclusion.

Poll after poll shows that a settled majority now believe that all decisions and all powers should now be fully entrusted to the people of Scotland.


That’s why the Tories are in a panic – they are unwilling to accept the truth that a majority of Scotland’s people now want an independent future.

Instead of listening to the will of the Scottish people, the Tories are attempting to deny democracy and destroy devolution.

The Tories are trying to provoke us – and their tactics are becoming more desperate by the day. But it won’t work.

We will remain calm, clear headed and confident. Because we are wise enough to know what ultimately happens to those who rage against democracy.

We only need to look across the Atlantic to see. Democracy deniers are destined for only one thing – defeat.


Unionism’s denial is proof that they have run out of road.

The United Kingdom that they argue for no longer exists and they have no idea how to reimagine or reinvent it.

They are left reaching for the bottom of the ‘Better Together’ barrel. The same old faces and the same old arguments will be rolled out – but they are blind to the fact that Scotland has long since moved on.

Ours is a fresh vison of a new, fairer and greener Scotland at the heart of Europe – the alternative, a leaderless unionism left clinging on to a United Kingdom frozen in failure.

Unionism’s only remaining definition is opposition to the SNP and to the independence movement.

No longer is unionism an argument for something, it now reduced into being a tired old argument against Scotland’s right to choose. That is not just undemocratic – it is unsustainable.

So friends,

The choice before us is now clearer than ever. It is a choice between the compassionate leadership of our Scottish Government or the chaos and confusion we have been dealt from Westminster.

It is also about the very real threat to our democratic Scottish parliament from the Tory power grab.

It is a choice over who holds power and who sets priorities over health, education and our economy.

Scotland’s powers in the hands of our people or in the hands of Boris Johnson?

I think we all know the answer the Scottish people are giving to that question.

Boris Johnson needs to hear that answer and he will be forced to listen to that message next May.

Because no Prime Minister and no Westminster Government can bind Scotland into this union against our will.

Denying democracy is a political position that can’t and won’t hold. It is a position that will crumble under the weight of votes in next year’s Scottish election.


The opportunity before us means there is simply no room for complacency and no time for distraction. Every party member knows what we need to do.

Our plan, our job and our focus is winning an independence majority at Holyrood next May.

We have our candidates in place, we have momentum, and we have a leader our nation trusts.

If we succeed – that independence supporting parliament will decide the right time for the Scottish people to choose our constitutional future.


Those generations who went before us – those who founded and built this party – could only have dreamed of the position we are now in.

Winnie Ewing in Hamilton in 1967, Margo MacDonald in Govan in 1973, the breakthrough in 1973 with the election of eleven SNP MPs. They paved the way for this party, for this movement.

Over all these years – the history they made has sustained our hope.

We have all come a long way – and we are now within touching distance of independence. But just as we have travelled all this way together – we can only complete this journey together.

My message to all of us is this: Keep heart, keep the heid and keep the faith.

The plan is set, the path is before us. The chance to choose an independent future for Scotland is coming.

A new Scotland – fairer, greener and European.

It is now ours to win.