Ian Blackford’s address to #SNP21 Conference
As always, it is a real privilege to address you as your SNP Westminster leader.
And I’m delighted to have the chance to speak to you again from my home – here in the beautiful island of Skye.
Over the last 16 months, it’s fair to say that speaking down the lens of a computer camera has very quickly become strangely familiar.
But while we have all adapted to the changes brought about by the pandemic, I think by this stage we all have the very natural longing to gather together again.
And the good news is that we are slowly but surely getting there.
This year we come together with the real hope that this marks the last time circumstances force us to meet in this virtual way.
Throughout the last year, every small step we have collectively taken has resulted in massive strides towards a more normal way of life.
The things we have all missed so much – the small joys of living – have either returned or are just around the corner.
For you, that may have meant a summer of family reunions.
For me, that means walking down the sun filled streets of Leith to a packed Easter Road.
For Michael Gove – it obviously means dancing solo at an Aberdeen nightclub.
But whatever our choices – for you, for me, for all of us – we are all blessed to be in a far better place.
But as we all know too, the cautious hope that we now enjoy has been very hard won.
As we reflect on the daily freedoms that have returned, it is only right to reflect too on the sacrifice and suffering of so many.
Thousands of families at home, and millions across our world, have lost loved ones well before their time.
And too many are still losing lives to a pandemic that remains with us.
We owe the largest debt of gratitude to those who saw us through the darkest and most difficult days of last winter.
Most of all that debt is owed to the incredible staff in our NHS.
Unlike the Tories in London – who thought those staff only deserved applause – I am proud the SNP government were the first to bring forward the pay rise they so richly deserved.
I am proud too that the Scottish Government is delivering a 1-billion-pound NHS Recovery Plan for renewal.
Our NHS has once again shown its priceless worth – it is right that we move now to secure and strengthen its future.
But as we move to secure our NHS in Scotland, we do so with the progressive principle that those with the broadest shoulders must bear the most.
And yet this week Boris Johnson launched a new Tory poll tax – that falls hardest on Scottish families, the young and the lowest paid.
A Tory tax on millions of Scottish workers to pay for English social care.
It is one more reason why our future must be independent, giving us the powers to deliver progressive taxation – instead of being forced to pay the cost of regressive Tory tax hikes that always punish the poor.
In recent weeks, our gaze has naturally been drawn away from Covid and towards the heart-breaking situation in Afghanistan.
A once in a lifetime pandemic, has sadly been accompanied by a once in a generation failure of foreign policy.
We have a moral duty to the Afghan people – and right now we are very far from meeting that responsibility.
The refugee scheme announced by the UK government doesn’t go anywhere near far enough or fast enough.
It needs to be far more generous and swift to help those who have been left abandoned and in the hands of the Taliban.
The events on Kenmure Street in Glasgow earlier this year, show that Scotland totally rejects the hostile environment that has been deliberately whipped up by the Tories.
Refugees are welcome here.
Many Afghan refugees have already come to Scotland – I met a number of them in Glasgow three weeks ago.
In the weeks ahead, Scotland stands ready to provide a new home for those in desperate need of our help.
But the crisis in Afghanistan also points to a broader lesson that the West badly needs to learn.
As Stewart Hosie insightfully said, “Why is there always the political will – and the funding – to go to war, but never the resources, or the plan, to win the peace”?
That must be one of the core questions in the judge-led public inquiry into this war that now needs to happen.
That inquiry is the very least we owe to the brave men and women in our military who were sent there – many making the ultimate sacrifice.
But any future inquiry doesn’t prevent the need to hold people to account for the failures in Afghanistan right now.
As our defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald very effectively exposed– that responsibility lies most with a Foreign Secretary who completely failed to prepare a proper exit strategy.
A Foreign Secretary not just metaphorically asleep at the wheel, but literally asleep on a sun lounger when Kabul fell to the Taliban.
At any other time, in any other government, he would have resigned weeks ago.
At any other time, in any other government, if he didn’t resign, he would have been sacked on the spot.
Sadly, it is no surprise that Cabinet ministers don’t feel accountable when they are led by a Prime Minister who has made a career out of avoiding responsibility.
And, as we know, a fish rots from the head down.
Whether it’s Covid contracts for cronies, donations for decorating or Tory texts for tax breaks – a trail of cronyism leads back to Downing Street and the Prime Minister.
Even John Major’s government would blush at that scale of sleaze.
Because at the very same time they’re abusing their power to enrich their friends, they are making the political choice to punish the powerless.
We are now only a few weeks away from their plan to cut the lifeline of universal credit by over 1,000 pounds a year for the most vulnerable.
As David Linden has highlighted, this would slash the incomes of 400,000 people in Scotland and plunge 20,000 children into poverty.
Citizens Advice Scotland have said that 75% of Scots on universal credit will be unable to cope if the cut goes ahead.
Families will face a winter of harsh choices – between eating or heating.
Food banks will face an upsurge in demand.
There is rightly a growing momentum against these cruel cuts – all the devolved governments and even six former Tory welfare ministers are opposing it.
The coalition against these cuts includes every opposition party in Westminster and up to 60 Tory MPs from the North of England.
But not one Scottish Tory. In fact, their leader is supporting it.
If any Scottish Tories are in possession of a backbone – now would be a good time to find it.
If they have any concern for their constituents who depend on this lifeline, they should join us in standing up to their Chancellor and vote down a Westminster policy that will inflict the biggest overnight benefit cut in history.
It is telling that a rapid return to austerity is one of the very first acts this Westminster government plans to introduce as we emerge from this pandemic.
Because for the Tories, they only see the easing of the pandemic as an opportunity to return to type.
For workers, that means there can be no fair recovery under Westminster control.
As Alison Thewliss has repeatedly pointed out, low paid workers will be hardest hit by the premature end of the furlough scheme.
And as Gavin Newlands has exposed through his leadership in opposing the disgraceful practice of fire and rehire, this is a UK government that has consistently failed to act.
The Tories can never be trusted to protect workers and they can’t be trusted with the recovery.
The only route to a fair, strong, and equal recovery is following the path to independence.
We should never forget that the single biggest threat to that recovery remains being dragged out of the European Union.
The covid crisis can no longer camouflage the deep damage that Brexit is inflicting.
During the pandemic, there has been a very welcome return of evidence and facts.
Far too many though are prepared to follow the facts on Covid but ignore them on Brexit.
But the facts of Brexit are here and they’re hurting.
Labour shortages. Food shortages. Medical shortages.
Brexit has already cost Scotland billions and it will end up costing us 9 billion pounds by 2030 compared to EU membership.
As we always knew, the long promised ‘sunny uplands’ of Brexit Britain were nothing more than a deliberate mirage.
The simple truth is this.
You can’t claim to support the recovery and at the same time support this disastrous Tory Brexit.
Securing that fair recovery means finding another way.
And of course, there is another path for Scotland – that was true before the pandemic, and it is all the truer now.
The remarkable leadership of our First Minister has kept Scotland safe and is now steering us to a fair, green and independent recovery.
That is why you – our members – overwhelmingly endorsed our co-operation agreement with the Scottish Green Party.
That partnership is all the more positive as we welcome the world to the crucial Cop 26 conference in November.
The international community must rise to the challenge of delivering the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.
But it is also a chance to showcase our many opportunities to grow our economy and tackle the climate emergency.
Stephen Flynn and Alan Brown have been at the forefront in backing the Scottish cluster, pioneered through the Acorn project.
This carbon capture project would reach from the North-East right through the spine of Scotland and into Grangemouth.
It would be one of the biggest industrial projects to be undertaken in our country since the Second World War – creating 15,000 sustainable jobs.
The Scottish Government have already pledged 500 million pounds for the North-East and Moray to support that just transition away from fossil fuels.
The UK Business Secretary now needs to match that commitment and approve the Scottish cluster for phase 1 support before the Cop conference in Glasgow.
For too long, Westminster has been holding back our journey to net zero.
People in the North-East haven’t forgotten that in 2015 the Tories axed a 1 billion pound carbon capture project promised in Peterhead.
There can be no repeat – the Scottish cluster must be approved before Cop 26.
That green opportunity – the kind of economy and society we wish to build – speaks to the crucial choices we must now make.
The agreement with the Green Party means that since devolution returned, almost every major party has been part of the Scottish government.
It tells you all you need to know that the only party that hasn’t are – the Tories.
Because Westminster’s choices are not our choices.
All this time, we have been on a different path.
The Scottish people have put their trust in different parties, made different political choices and ensured that different values are at the heart of governments in Scotland.
That’s not a new normal – it is now the calm constant of Scottish politics.
We consistently make different democratic decisions – it is exactly why we are now faced with a choice of two futures.
Westminster has already chosen its future.
A job destroying Brexit, the return of austerity cuts and more attacks on devolution.
We can’t be forced to accept that future.
It is now Scotland’s turn to choose.
The First Minister’s decision to restart work on a detailed prospectus for independence is the right approach at the right time.
At this pivotal moment in our history, our people will be given an informed choice on their future.
Who people trust to steer that future will be at the very core of that choice.
In the space of the past week alone, Boris Johnson has broken two manifesto promises.
The Tories break manifesto promises and they deny democracy.
In fairness, I’ll say this for them.
They make it explicit that they simply can’t be trusted.
In contrast, the Scottish people know and trust that our First Minister will never treat democratic decisions with the same contempt.
In our landslide election in May, we made the commitment that our immediate priority is to steer people safely through covid and to kickstart the recovery.
That is the promise we made and we will stay true to our word.
But we made another democratic promise too.
When the crisis of the pandemic has passed, Scotland’s people will have the right to choose our own future – an independent future.
It is a manifesto promise we made to the Scottish people – it is a democratic promise we will keep.
That coming referendum will define and decide our recovery, our choices and our future.
Now is the moment to renew our case, win the argument and then decide our future.
A future that is fair, green and European.
Scotland – an independent nation that we can all be part of, and all be proud of.