It is a great privilege to once again address you once again – albeit in the comfort of your own homes.
I am very much looking forward to being back in a hall with all of you at our next conference.
But I am also thankful that we live in a world where technology has allowed us all to stay in touch with each other even during a global pandemic.
We gather for our annual conference in a rapidly changing world – and to adapt a well-known phrase, the last few weeks have certainly been a very, very long time in politics.
Since we last met, the eyes of the world have been on Scotland, as Glasgow hosted the COP26 climate summit.
This may go down as the most important gathering of world leaders this century.
It was a huge privilege to host this event – but also a huge responsibility.
We are indebted to the thousands of people involved in organising the event, who worked tirelessly to keep the tens of thousands visitors safe during a global pandemic.
And the people of Glasgow were welcoming hosts. They once again proved that the magnificent City of Glasgow is a world-class city – with world-class leadership.
Although we were not meant to be at the top table of these negotiations, the SNP Government did everything we could to positively influence the talks.
And delegates, Scotland may not yet be a member of the United Nations in our own right – but our First Minister has demonstrated that when that day comes, Scotland can – and will – have a powerful and positive role to play on the world stage.
Tackling the climate emergency is not going to be easy – but we have no choice.
We need to act now for the sake of our children and grandchildren.
But I know that we can do this – we can all pull together and play our part.
We all know what it is like to have our resolve tested to the limit – because we have been living through a global pandemic.
COVID-19 has taken many, many lives. It has upended our society and thrown up unprecedented challenges in our economy.
People have seen their financial security taken away, their education disrupted or their job prospects diminished.
The pandemic has made us all think hard about what really matters most.
And it has also been a painful reminder of how unequal our society is.
We all know the impacts of this pandemic have not been felt evenly.
This is true in Scotland as much as it is in any other country.
We have done everything we could to support people during the worst of the pandemic – from introducing free school meals during the school holidays, significant payments to low-income families with school children, as well as a one off £130 pandemic payment to around half a million people, and major financial boosts to our Scottish Welfare Fund and Discretionary Housing Payments.
But despite our best efforts, those who were already the most disadvantaged in our communities have also suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.
We have a moral duty – using all of the limited powers that the Scottish Parliament currently has – to do everything we can to ensure that the people who have lost the most during the pandemic are now supported the most.
And going forward, that is exactly what the SNP Government intends to do.
We have recently published a detailed COVID recovery strategy, which places fairness front and centre of our plans.
We have worked extensively across civic society in Scotland to devise these plans – with organisations like the Citizen’s Assembly, the Social Renewal Advisory Board, and many more.
Just as we have all learned a lot about ourselves during the pandemic, we have seen what can be achieved in government when we look past traditional barriers.
When we can strain every sinew to get the right service or support to people exactly when they need it.
And just as confronting the pandemic head-on was a collective endeavour, our recovery must be a genuine ‘Team Scotland‘ effort – not just of national government, but also local government, the third sector and businesses large and small.
We are not interested in rebuilding the world as it was in 2019.
We are building Scotland for future generations – and we must do so with ambition and with resolve.
I know that if we can capture the same energy, imagination and urgency we have seen in the last couple of years, we will deliver a spring board to a fairer, greener Scotland for future generations.
Conference, the lesson we should all learn from our First Minister’s outstanding leadership over the last couple of years is that if you take decisions honestly and openly, then the people of Scotland will trust you and they will support you.
We will always strive to show respect to the people who have elected us.
Meanwhile the Tory government at Westminster show them little but contempt.
Contempt for Scottish democratic wishes.
Contempt for Scotland’s democratic parliament.
And led by a Prime Minister who seems to have contempt for everyone who isn’t called Boris Johnson.
A Prime Minister who seems to have spent almost as much time recently at Peppa Pig World as he did at COP26.
But you know, if it’s snouts in the trough that Boris Johnson wants to see, he doesn’t need to go all the way to Peppa Pig World.
He just needs to look along the Commons benches to those sitting around him.
What has been revealed about the behaviour of Tory MPs in recent weeks has been going on for years – and the charge sheet is long and shameful.
The Tories have rewritten the definitions of cronyism and corruption.
And when they are caught bang to rights by an independent investigation – they just rewrite the rule-book as well.
While the world’s eyes were on Glasgow looking for leadership on the climate emergency, what they saw instead was a Prime Minister repeatedly forced to deny that the UK is a corrupt country.
Conference, let’s not kid ourselves – Westminster is rotten to the core.
The Tories have no democratic mandate to govern Scotland
And they have lost all moral authority to hold the highest offices in the land.
The people of Scotland deserve so much better than the Tories.
Delegates, the never-ending circus of the Tory government would be almost funny if it were not so serious.
But there is one issue on which they are working – almost under the radar – with a very clear political objective.
While the SNP Government has been using every power at our disposal over the last couple of years to tackle the pandemic, the Tories have been quietly working to undermine devolution.
This goes completely against what the people of Scotland voted for in 1997.
I am immensely proud of the achievements of devolution – all of us should be.
The Scottish Parliament helped revitalise Scottish democracy and civic engagement.
It has enabled us to make different – and better – policy choices from Westminster.
And even with its limited powers, devolution has helped us mitigate some of the very worst Tory policies – such as the Bedroom Tax.
Very few people in Scotland would now want to roll the clock back to the way things were before.
But we are now seeing a concerted attack on our parliament, from the very people who fought tooth and nail against it being established in the first place.
In a grotesque irony, the Tories are using something that the people of Scotland voted overwhelmingly against – Brexit – to undermine something they voted overwhelmingly for – the Scottish Parliament.
There have been many threats to Scotland’s social and economic wellbeing as a result of Brexit – and many of them are only just beginning to be felt.
Take the new Internal Market Act – which was the Tories’ smoke-and-mirror replacement of the European Single Market.
It certainly has an innocuous sounding name – and I am pretty sure that was intentional.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
Through this Act, The Tories have given themselves unfettered power to decide the rules of the internal market – and to completely ignore the devolution settlement if they want to.
This is not some abstract constitutional debate.
The Act gives them powers to spend public funds in devolved areas like education, culture and sport – all to fit their own priorities and giving us no say.
It means they can ride roughshod over the ban on some single-use plastics that we recently announced as part of Scotland’s efforts to tackle the climate emergency.
Does anyone seriously think that an innovation like Minimum Unit Pricing for Alcohol—which, let’s remind ourselves, after hearing all the evidence and argument the courts held to be compatible with EU law—would have been possible if this insidious Act had been in place at that time?
If all of this seems far-fetched to you – just remember that this is the government which took us to court to have parts of the legislation to ensure the UN Charter on the Rights of the Child was embedded in Scots law struck down.
This was a Bill passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament, trying to enact a policy commitment which the UK themselves made in 1991 but haven’t fulfilled.
It didn’t matter that the bill would have enormously benefitted children’s rights.
What Westminster couldn’t handle was any suggestion that Scotland could be getting too big for its boots.
Even the noble cause of advancing child welfare should not be allowed to get in the way of Westminster control.
Self-government has been an immense success story for Scotland – as we always knew it would be.
For my entire adult life, I have been committed to empowering the people of Scotland to have an ever greater say in how their country is run.
When I joined the SNP as a teenager, the people of Scotland had recently voted for a Scottish Assembly.
But they had seen their democratic wishes denied by a tawdry coalition of Tory and Labour unionists who decided that they knew better than the people of Scotland what was best.
Some things never change, I guess!
But those who believed in Scottish self-government never gave up.
I was proud to campaign in the devolution referendum in 1997.
I was privileged to be able to vote as an MP for the legislation that established the Scottish Parliament after almost 300 years.
And in the wake of the independence referendum, I represented the SNP on the cross-party Smith Commission which took our Parliament on the next steps with greater tax and social security powers.
The direction of travel was clear – more decisions being taken in Scotland led to better decisions being taken for Scotland.
And despite the boasts from Labour that devolution would kill nationalism stone dead – it has in fact proved conclusively that the people of Scotland are more than capable of governing themselves.
So it’s no wonder that the Westminster control-freaks are so determined to undermine it.
In public the Tories say they are committed to making devolution work – but behind the scenes they are plotting to make it unworkable.
There will be no sudden Big Bang moment.
Boris Johnson is not going to stand up and announce to the cheering Tory faithful that he is dismantling the devolution settlement – much as I am sure he would like to.
But make no mistake – piece by piece, devolution is quietly being filleted – hollowed out from the inside, by a Tory party which has always opposed the idea of anything other than unfettered Westminster control on Scotland.
Much like the climate emergency, which is slowly creeping up on us every single day – we need to issue a Code Red for Devolution.
All of us who care so deeply about the Scottish Parliament and its role in Scottish public life need to stand up and be counted – before it is too late.
Sadly though, it looks like we can’t count on Labour and the Liberal Democrats to be part of this fight.
Just last week, in the Scottish Parliament, they voted with the Tories to endorse the disgraceful attack on the devolution funding settlement.
Never in my life would I have imagined that those parties who campaigned for the Scottish Parliament would now be shrugging their shoulders as the Tories undermine it.
The truth is that they care more about preserving the union than preserving the Scottish parliament.
They tolerated devolution while they were in charge – but as soon as they lost power they gave up on it.
Well, the SNP will certainly not give up.
We will fight this Tory power grab for as long as it takes.
Because to give in on this most pressing of issues would be to give up on the people of Scotland.
And that is not what the Scottish National Party is about.
But Conference, there is a bigger question here that we must consider.
If devolution is no longer safe under Westminster control….
…if everyday decisions taken by our elected Scottish Parliament can be routinely undermined at a whim by the Tories
…and if even Labour and the Liberal Democrats are more interested in preserving the union than protecting devolution….
Then how can the Scottish Parliament ever be protected as long as we remain under Westminster control?
The answer is that it cannot.
There is no status quo. The only way to stop Scotland going backwards on the constitutional journey is by moving forwards.
The only way to keep the gains of devolution is by becoming independent.
You know, the case for independence is stronger than it has ever been.
Never has Scotland’s extraordinary potential as an independent nation been clearer.
And never has Westminster control seemed so damaging to Scotland’s interests.
For those of you who are impatient for independence – I know how you feel.
So am I.
But I also take heart from just how far we have come as a movement.
House by house, street by street, day by day and year by year – we have made the case for self-government in Scotland.
We must continue to demonstrate to people in every corner of this nation that no one can make better decisions about their country’s future than they can.
And remind them that despite what they have been told for decades by Westminster – they live in an extraordinarily wealthy country, blessed with enormous natural resources and human talent.
The Westminster establishment may think that they can just wish away Scotland’s independence movement.
But they should be absolutely clear that they won’t be able to do that.
Our movement is growing.
And the case for independence grows ever stronger by the day.
We are here to stay – and in the end, if we stay the course, we will win.