John Swinney’s address to conference

The events of the last six months at Westminster have proven beyond any reasonable doubt; the United Kingdom political system has failed – and it has failed Scotland utterly.

Week after week of an internal battle within the Tory Party has been played out in front of us all where – for the U.K. Government – the survival of the Tory Party has been more important than protecting the jobs, livelihoods and opportunities of the people of our country.

Scotland’s vote to Remain in the EU has been ignored.

The overwhelming majority demand of the Scottish Parliament for a different course has been rejected.

The reasoned compromises suggested by the Scottish Government have been cast aside.

The powers of the Scottish Parliament have been threatened by the U.K. power grab.

Conference, as the Tory Party tried to save itself, the warm reassuring words of the 2014 No campaign about Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom counted for absolutely nothing.

And people wonder why the First Minister has asked every one of our fellow citizens to think again about what kind of country we want to live in.

This week the First Minister set out the steps our country needs to consider, to address the Brexit crisis. Just as she has done throughout the Brexit saga, Nicola Sturgeon spoke first, foremost and always in the national interest of Scotland.

If the Brexit fiasco has told us anything, it has demonstrated we need to have a better dialogue about how we change our country. A discussion that includes everyone. A reasoned debate about the choices we face. A discussion that confronts the challenges ahead but lifts the hopes and the aspirations of our people.

We all believe that Scotland’s future will be assured with independence. Our task now is to listen to views that are not ours, to find common ground and to put in place a message of hope and reassurance to our people. That is the opportunity the First Minister has created for us and we should seize that opportunity with both hands.

And the first opportunity we have is in the debate that is about to come. The Growth Commission led by Andrew Wilson has spent time, and taken care, to explore some of the real, challenging, unavoidable issues that we face in the independence debate.

They have given their thinking to us and Members around the country have engaged in a truly democratic, participative process.

And the debate comes here – where it should – to the floor of our Party Conference for our delegates to decide.

That is honest, open, respectful debate in action.

That is the way it should always be and this Party can be rightly proud of it.

While Westminster has been paralysed by Brexit, while the Tories have inflicted their damaging civil war on the rest of us, we have been building the new Scotland.

We have delivered record health funding.

We have a record number of Scots going to university and record numbers from the poorest backgrounds getting a place too.

We have some of the highest levels of inward investment in the UK and the lowest unemployment on record.

I’ll say that again…the lowest unemployment on record.

That’s not just the SNP getting on with our day job.

That’s the SNP making sure thousands of Scots have a day job to get on with in the first place.

In just the last few months, while Westminster imploded, we have enacted world leading measures to protect the victims of domestic violence.

We have established an Advanced Payment Scheme for the elderly and terminally ill victims of childhood abuse.

We have committed to funding the tuition of EU students starting their studies in Scotland in 2020 just as any good, progressive European nation should do.

And we have rolled out the new Best Start Grants and we are establishing a Scottish National Investment Bank.

Friends, I could go on and on… and I will.

More teachers.

More nurses.

Lower crime.

And for the majority… lower taxes.

Friends, many of these things are policies the old parties always said were impossible.

You cannot ask the better off to pay more so that the less well-off can pay less. That’s what they said… but we did it anyway.

Fairer taxation paying for fairer public services. Not impossible with the SNP.

But then we are the party that does the impossible.

You will never win a Holyrood election they said. We did that. Three times.

You’ll never win in the Labour heartlands. We’ve done that too. And there are no Labour heartlands now.

Then of course, they now say you cannot have another independence referendum and won’t win it if you do.

My message is simple… we’ll soon see about that!

We have secured all of these amazing achievements because our actions focus on the needs of our people, first, last and always.

And along with all of this good work for our people, in a Parliament where the Government does not have a majority, Derek Mackay has secured the agreement – with the support of the Greens – to the Scottish Government Budget for this coming year.

And Conference don’t underestimate the scale of the challenge in getting that Budget through.

The Liberals came off the fence and made a decisive intervention. They decided to take absolutely no part in the process.

The Labour Party were up for a deal according to Alex Rowley, but not up for a deal according to Richard Leonard. So the Labour Party in Scotland – coherent and united in the usual fashion.

And the Tories. Well, the Tories were the real hypocrites of the process.

They demanded that we cut taxes for the rich, strip £500 million from the public finances, and then called week by week for increased spending on an eye watering number of projects.

Combined with the farce that is Brexit, with a one trick pony message that has run out of puff and an inability to convince anyone they are a serious Opposition let alone an alternative government, is it any wonder the Tory Party is now back in third place in Scottish politics.

Twelve years into Government, the SNP continues to lead in the polls and we continue to lead the change that Scotland requires.

Our agenda on education is designed to transform the lives of young people in Scotland by closing the poverty related attainment gap once and for all.

Every step of the way in the lives of our children and young people, your SNP Government is taking the action to transform lives.

The Baby Box, now in its second year with over 80,000 boxes issued, the take-up rate has reached 96% – that’s solid investment to give every child the best start in life.

Early learning and childcare is now being doubled with our 2, 3 and 4 year old children having access to quality support to start their lives in an environment of play for learning.

Pupil Equity Funding – sending £120 million directly from the Scottish Government to schools – has fuelled the empowerment of the teaching profession and helped young people overcome the burden of poverty.

An expansion of Modern Apprenticeships – along with Foundation and Graduate Apprenticeships – has created a broader range of opportunities for young people to make the right choices about their future.

Our Universities and Colleges are benefiting from over £1.5 billion of investment to deliver their vital contribution to higher and further education.

And what difference have our interventions been making?

Let’s look at level 5 qualifications – that used to be the old credit level standard grade but of course the system has changed since then.

When we took office, 71% of pupils got a level 5 qualification or better.

That figure is now 86%.

At level 6 or better – that’s Highers – when we took office, just 41% achieved the qualification.

Last year that figure reached 62.2%.

Despite all this achievement by our young people, all the unionist parties can do is run Scotland’s education system down. We’re proud of what our young people achieve.

We set ourselves two tasks for school education.

Raise standards for all and close the attainment gap.

Well here’s the progress report.

Attainment overall is up. Last year, for the first time ever, more than 30% of pupils got at least five passes at Higher or better – up from 22.2% in 2009/10.

And the poverty related attainment gap is narrowing.

The gap between those from the most and least deprived areas achieving a Higher or better has reduced for the 8th successive year and is now at a record low.

Standards up.

The attainment gap closing.

That’s the SNP record on education.

Friends, in one way the success of our schools is seen best in what happens after school.

Do pupils get that job, that place in college or university, or that apprenticeship they want?

Do they get on in life?

Overall, this year, a record 94.4% of pupils were in work, training or study within three months of leaving school.

And, the gap between those from the most and least deprived communities has halved – halved – since 2009/10.

Your SNP Government is delivering new opportunities for the young people of our nation.

The unionists may not like it but it is what we will go on doing day and daily until the job is done.

Running through all of our policy interventions is a determination to Get it Right for Every Child.

The GIRFEC agenda has encouraged our public services to take a preventative approach, to support early intervention that will improve the life chances of children.

One of the key elements in that process is how we support families.

Working with Scotland’s dynamic charity and the third sectors we can help children grow up healthy, happy and safe.

And to do so, I am today announcing a new fund of up to £16 million running over three years to partner with charities and the third sector.

Whether it is schemes aimed at supporting children who are also carers or projects that focus on adult learning, we want to break the intergenerational cycles that blight too many lives.

Across a wide range of challenges from early learning to child protection and Adverse Childhood Experiences, early intervention is key.

Your SNP government will always do all we can to get it right for every child.

Conference, the last three years since the Brexit Referendum have made one thing very clear to the people of Scotland. The voice of our country has been ignored by the Westminster Government.

The call for us to ‘lead not leave’ the United Kingdom has been exposed as the worthless, empty commitment we knew it to be in 2014.

So the question that people in Scotland have to face is what are we going to do about it?

Will we be passive as our country is ignored and economic damage is inflicted upon us?

Or – at the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament – are we going to set our own agenda.

That is the choice our country faces.

For us, our role is to do what the National Party is good at.

It is to engage.

It is to listen carefully to our people.

It is to persuade and to convince.

And above all else, it is to provide the people of Scotland with an ambitious vision – brimming with hope – of what our country can be.

Let us use the unique opportunity that we have to persuade our country that her future is best independent. And do everything we possibly can to make that happen.