I have delivered a fair few conference addresses in my time.
But I’ve never delivered a conference speech like this.
I am standing in Perthshire, yards from my home, in the heart of my constituency, talking to people the length and breadth of the country.
Normally, the first speaker takes a moment to welcome you all to Glasgow, or Aberdeen, or Aviemore.
Well, this year, in the best traditions of our annual gathering – let me welcome you all to the SNP annual conference in Woodside, Perthshire!
Of course, I am here, speaking to a camera – two metres away of course! – and you are there, wherever home is for you, because of the global Coronavirus pandemic.
It has changed so much; impacted so many.
It has brought so much pain, but also highlighted our resilience as a nation.
Our conference is just the latest part of life that has had to adapt.
But adapt we will.
Just as our country is adapting to the protections and restrictions.
Just as our people have come together to share the burden, to shield the vulnerable and support the weakest,
So our party comes together this weekend.
As we have every year, we come together to chart the future; for our movement; for our people; and our nation.
🗓 2020 has been an unprecedented year, but it also brought out the best in us.
💛 We owe thanks to those who’ve kept us safe and to each other, for protecting our NHS and saving lives.
— The SNP (@theSNP) November 28, 2020
But, if you had told me last time I spoke, that most delegates would spend the next conference at home, in their front rooms, their back rooms, their bed rooms and their spare rooms, I might have thought you had taken leave of your senses.
If the year since we last met teaches us anything, it teaches us that we do not know what is around the next corner.
We can never know what the future holds, what challenges life will throw at us and what we will all be called on to do to keep our country safe.
That lesson has been driven home by covid.
In a few months we will set out our manifesto. It will include policies on every subject you can imagine – and a few you can’t!
But no manifesto can foresee all the challenges a country might need to face.
Covid reminds us of that.
It means that it has never been more obvious just how important leadership is.
Not just who we have as our leaders – important as that is – but what they themselves consider important.
Covid has asked tough questions about leadership the world over.
We have seen triumphs such as New Zealand and we have seen tragedies such as Trump’s America.
In this crisis, there has been no hiding place.
No spin, social media meme or special interest can save a leader from the painful reality of cases and casualty numbers.
What covid has exposed is the heart and soul of our leaders and our governments; what they stand for and why.
In a moment of crisis back in March our nation turned to our First Minster; to your SNP government.
In Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland has a leader who has bared her soul almost every day, setting out her thinking – sometimes almost thinking aloud – as she shared the agonising decisions government has had to make over the last eight months.
She has listened. She has explained. And above all she has led.
At every step of the way there has been only one question: how to keep our people safe.
We have not got every decision right but the people of Scotland have seen who places their interests – sometimes their very safety – at the heart of decision making.
They have watched as, even in a crisis, Westminster ignored Scotland.
Thousands – tens of thousands – of people faced the dole if furlough was withdrawn.
The powers lie with Westminster and so Scotland urged them to extend the scheme.
Again and again we asked.
We were ignored.
Wales faced the same problem. Their Labour First Minister asked.
They were ignored.
Even the great northern cities of England, asked.
Andy Burnham – no nationalist as far as I know – begged Downing Street to act.
His cries – all of our cries – fell on deaf ears.
It was only when the economic problems of Covid hit the South of England that Westminster acted.
And yet, in the face of all of this neglect, this economic negligence, the Tories in Scotland demand we follow Boris’s lead.
We will not do it.
Only one party, only one First Minister, put the interests of our people first.
In a moment of genuine crisis, with lives on the line, each party, each government, had its heart and soul laid bare.
And only one government, the SNP Government, put the people of Scotland first, last and always.
Coronavirus has been a crisis and a tragedy but it has also shown Scotland can do more than perhaps even we realised.
We are not unique in this. Other countries in the UK and abroad found the same thing: in a crisis people are capable of the most extraordinary actions.
First and foremost, the NHS doctors, nurses and staff fighting every day to save the lives of covid victims.
And, no one can fail to have been moved by the way the whole of Scotland came together to back them, and to back every social care or key worker, up and down the land.
Or the way ordinary people stepped up, volunteering to help, reaching out to family, friends, neighbours and complete strangers with love and care for all.
I have never been so proud of the people of my country.
As lockdown hit the ordinary daily lives of people, ordinary people revealed just how truly extraordinary they actually are.
And across government and local councils, we saw some amazing things happen.
Our schools, early learning centres, colleges and universities had to close abruptly. Our educators were not prepared to see an interruption to the learning of our children and young people. Our educators were not prepared to see an interruption to the nurture of children and young people in their care.
They adapted. They went digital. They reached out. They knocked doors. They delivered lessons. They delivered food. They delivered what our children and young people needed.
And when it came to reopening schools our educators were there, anxious, but ready to support our young people. They have listened to their lockdown experiences and they have achieved so much in engaging young people in their learning.
I want to thank our educators – in schools, early learning centres, colleges and universities – for the huge commitment they have shown to our young people.
Outside of our schools, we had to put in place support for people who were shielding. From a standing start, 180,000 people the length and breadth of the land were helped with food, medicines and support at home.
Almost 1 million grocery boxes were delivered and 47,000 people had priority supermarket delivery slots.
The logistics were jaw dropping but people rose to the challenge.
But, I know – and believe you me my family knows – exactly how important that help was to the tens of thousands of people who had to shield.
And, to improve the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens, as the lockdown began, rough sleeping was ended.
Think about that for a moment.
In the midst of a national crisis, the national shame of rough sleeping was ended, virtually overnight.
Why? Because there was concerted, focussed, targeted action to give people a roof over their heads.
It was achieved because the silos that beset central and local government were swept away, the money that was needed was made available and immediate action was taken.
An issue that our government had wrestled with, and issue previous governments had wrestled with, was solved.
We have invested in tackling rough sleeping – indeed every government has done that – and never seen such a positive outcome.
The difference in the spring was the problem was attacked with an impetus not seen before and I thank all the third sector organisations that made it happen.
We learned from Covid that money was not the only problem. I can tell you now, your SNP government has always been willing to spend the money needed to solve rough sleeping.
But the spring taught us that more than money is needed. The problem was only solved when there was urgency – an absolute urgent refusal to accept any other outcome than getting people a decent place to sleep.
I tell you now, we must not go back to the days of rough sleeping being accepted even for a moment. We will not lose that sense of urgency.
Instead, we must adopt that same determined, laser-like focus to make Scotland the better country we all know it can be.
Let us start with our children.
As education secretary I know the impact of poverty on attainment.
I know what every teacher will tell you, that the link is direct, obvious and immediate.
And, I fear that it is about to get harder.
The callous cuts to welfare imposed by the Conservatives are bad enough.
But we now face a tsunami of child poverty if the Tory Chancellor imposes a second wave of austerity.
Scotland cannot afford that.
Scotland’s children cannot afford that.
And we will not stand for it.
We have introduced the Scottish Child Payment.
It will delivers £10 per week, per child under 6 to low income families and could help up to 194,000 of the poorest children.
Friends, poverty campaigners themselves called that policy a ‘game changer’.
It is needed now more than ever.
That is an anti-poverty policy but I also know it is a pro-education policy.
It puts food on the table and clothes on the backs of pupils in schools from Ayr to Aberdeen.
It gives them a better start to their school day and a better chance of the education that is their escape route from poverty.
But friends, that is not enough.
Covid has shown us just how little financial security some families have.
Families not entitled to many benefits, families in work. They are already hard pressed and Tory austerity will hit them harder.
Despite the virus derailing our plans for the full expansion, almost two thirds of nursery children are already receiving almost double the amount of free, high quality childcare.
We have invested £672 million in targeted support for low income families but that was still not enough.
So, we extended free school meals through the summer holidays. And through the October break. Through Christmas to come. And Easter after that.
And we didn’t need to be shamed into doing something about it.
We did it because we saw what young leaders like Marcus Rashford saw – what he grew up with – we saw kids going hungry in our schools and that is simply not acceptable to us.
As every teacher will tell you, no child who is hungry can learn as they should.
And so we acted.
But, friends, it is not enough.
Just as we must never go back to rough sleeping being accepted, we must not go back to kids going hungry in the classroom.
And we must recognise that this is not just an issue for the very poorest. This is an issue for working families, forced to feed children from foodbanks or go hungry themselves.
Right now, all P1 to P3 pupils are entitled to free school lunches.
Given what I fear we are facing from the Tories, that is not good enough.
We will not leave a child at the mercy of a Tory Chancellor just because they are in P4, P5, P6 or P7.
If elected next May, from 2022 we will extend universal free school lunches to all primary school pupils, P1 to P7.
Friends, we want every child to have every chance to learn every minute of every school day, starting from the moment they arrive in class.
A child arriving at school hungry cannot learn as well as they should.
So, we will also extend free provision of a healthy breakfast to all primary school pupils as well.
Breakfast and lunch for every pupil every school day.
🍎 Free school breakfast and lunches for all primary school pupils, in all classes, all year round.
🏫 Hunger doesn’t take a holiday and neither can we. If re-elected next May, the SNP will expand free school meals to all primary pupils so no child goes hungry at school. #SNP20 pic.twitter.com/LrZYK5kU9y
— The SNP (@theSNP) November 28, 2020
But another lesson of 2020 is term-time isn’t enough.
Hunger doesn’t take a holiday and so neither can we.
Just as we extended free meals through the holidays this year and next, if re-elected we will extend free school meals through every school holidays.
All primary school pupils. All classes. All year round.
That is the next step in our battle to stop the Tories forcing more and more kids into poverty.
The next step to support families.
The next step to make Scotland the best place to grow up.
Our task is to build a better nation. That has always been at the heart of your SNP government.
Through this most difficult of years, your government has been tested. We have not got everything right. But when we got it wrong, we put our hands up, accepted what we faced, before rolling up our sleeves and sorting it out.
That’s exactly what the public want to see.
That’s exactly how we must govern in future.
I said at the start of this most unusual of conference addresses that I had done a fair few speeches to you over the years.
I would be willing to bet that in each and every one, I pointed out that the SNP was the only party that put Scotland first. That, unlike the other parties, we were not beholden to party bosses in London.
The SNP is no one’s branch office.
In each speech I have pointed that out.
At every election for as long as I can remember we have made that case.
In recent years, it has led to the people of Scotland putting their faith in the SNP.
But the lesson of covid, the point this party has always sought to make, is not just that you can trust the SNP, but that Scotland can trust herself.
We can have faith in ourselves as a nation, as capable, talented and ready to face life’s challenges as any other country.
As this pandemic has continued, the people of Scotland have seen the truth of that argument with every passing day.
We have always said that the solution to Scotland’s problems do not lie in London.
Never was that more obvious than in 2020.
In the moment of crisis, our nation’s eyes did not turn to Westminster. It was not the Prime Minister who people looked to.
It was the Government here in Scotland and our First Minister.
That is a measure of people’s faith in Nicola Sturgeon, their faith in the SNP government after 13 years, and also their faith in themselves.
Friends, it is deeply telling that even those people yet to be convinced by the merits of independence did not look to London, to Westminster or to Boris Johnson.
When it mattered most, we all looked to Scotland’s own leader, our own government, and our own Parliament.
That is a seismic shift in the psyche of Scotland.
Faith in our own future, faith in placing that future in our own hands. That has been at the heart of our party’s purpose since the day it was founded.
Now, it is at the heart of our nation.
We must build on Scotland’s growing faith in itself.
Independence does not promise milk and honey. It does not guarantee that challenges unseen do not lurk just around the corner.
Quite the reverse. If this year has taught us anything, the only certainty is that those challenges, whatever they might be, are likely to be lurking in our future.
The guarantee of independence is simply that it places the task of meeting those challenges in our own hands.
It puts the obligation on us. It puts the responsibility on us.
That is no easy thing. But it is the only thing that can give us the future Scotland needs and deserves.
Scotland is richly endowed with the talents and resources to tackle our problems, whatever they may be.
We have the skills, we have the means.
And, as a nation we are finding our faith in ourselves.
In a few short months, we will ask the people of Scotland once again to put their faith in the SNP at the election.
After that – if we win, not too long after that –- we will ask them to put their faith in their own future and vote for independence.
From now until that day comes, each and every one of us must work to build that faith.
To show the people of Scotland that together we can meet any challenge – that in the toughest of times, Scotland’s future is safest in Scotland’s hands.
📣 @JohnSwinney: "Until that day comes, every one of us must work to build that faith.
To show the people of Scotland that together we can meet any challenge.
— The SNP (@theSNP) November 28, 2020