Good morning, Conference, once again from the Highlands.
Much has changed since we met virtually in the autumn.
For starters, last time I addressed you, I did so outside at the end of November, and I’m pretty sure I got a touch of frostbite. Hopefully the September weather will be kinder.
We’ve also had an election, with faithful friends retiring and new MSPs joining us.
I’m also addressing you in my new role, as Finance and Economy Secretary.
And to top off all the changes, I even got married. That feels like the biggest change of them all!
If much has changed, one thing has remained. The camaraderie and friendship at the heart of this party. We’ve been through a lot over the years – and that spirit of unity around a common cause has kept us moving in the right direction.
It is easy to forget how remarkable our present circumstances are – with polls on the eve of our conference confirming a majority of support for independence and the SNP, only months after an actual poll delivered an historic fourth term for the SNP.
That victory is testament to the hard work of decades ago and the ongoing determination of activists – to knock that last door in the rain, or speak to that last voter, or deliver that last leaflet.
But it is also about trust – and about who the people of Scotland trust to serve them and defend their interests.
The same poll showed a net approval rating of 18 for the SNP Government, whilst the UK Government had a negative disapproval rating of minus 22.
It’s no wonder that the Tories are so wildly distrusted – they’ve broken their promises time after time.
But one of the biggest threats they pose right now is to our public finances.
It might be dry and technical, but how we use our country’s wealth to serve our citizens is the bedrock of our movement.
And the ability to decide how we spend our money is at great risk.
You see, the Tories, knowing they are unlikely to ever secure power in Scotland through a democratic process, are now dismantling the devolution settlement.
The party of Brexit is now ‘taking back control’ from Scotland. The internal market bill, the levelling up fund, the so called Union Connectivity Review… all of these are ways for the Tories to bypass devolution and redivert money that should come via the Scottish Government.
They are doing that to impose their own pet projects on Scotland, all wrapped up in a Union Jack.
Conference, the very fact that the Tories accept the need to, in their words, ‘level up’ reveals the decades of disregard and disdain for Scotland.
But levelling up is a con – and it is anything but a fair and rightful redistribution of wealth and resources.
Remember, this is a Prime Minister who previously stated that a “pound spent in Croydon is of much more value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde”.
And his actions today prove the fact he believed it.
Take the Highlands, where I am speaking from just now.
This region of the Highlands and Islands was classified as one of the highest priority areas earmarked for European Structural Funds because of its rurality and hidden poverty.
Over the years, with that EU funding, we built new roads, we supported our culture and we established places of learning.
Yet, when it comes to the UK Government’s levelling up agenda, the Highlands and Islands are classified as one of the lowest priorities, in sharp contrast to the wealthy areas represented by Conservative MPs.
And we no longer have access to EU funding that has made such a difference in constituencies like mine.
This is nothing new, Conference.
It’s the same old trick the Tories tried in the early 90s, when another Tory Government diverted cash from the Highlands to spend in Conservative seats in the south east of England.
The most shocking part of all of this is that it is no longer shocking. It doesn’t shock voters, it barely makes the headlines and it doesn’t shame this Tory Government.
Despite that conference we are more determined than ever to invest in the fundamental strengths of the Scottish economy.
Those strengths have delivered the fifth consecutive month of economic growth and economists now think that we will recover almost two years faster than originally thought.
That’s thanks to our innovative businesses, our enterprising workers and our thriving local economies.
To listen to some, you’d think Scotland was a basket case – and yet the evidence shows that we have a strong economy that can compete with, and outperform, countries of a similar size in Europe and across the world.
Our food and drink industry continues to outperform the rest of the UK, creating jobs and wealth.
We are a trading nation with a long and proud history of exports which have increased in almost every year between 2010 and 2018.
We are one of the top destinations for foreign direct investment with our cities in the top 10 most attractive cities.
Our tech sector is forecast to be our second fastest growing sector and Scotland is home to over 40% of the UK’s wind and water generation capacity.
We are spending more on research and development, with Scotland’s universities amongst the best in the world.
Why does any of that matter? Because it demonstrates that we have all the strengths we need to succeed on our own – that in fact we have even greater natural wealth and resources than most other small and successful advanced economies.
Conference, how we recover from the pandemic is vital to continuing and improving those strengths and, as we look forward, we see that recovery means that we can, and must, do things differently.
We have an opportunity to deliver a just transition to a new economy as we tackle the climate emergency.
I want to be clear that, in doing so, we will not abandon our workers and communities in that process.
Thirty years ago, at a previous industrial crossroads, the Government of the day abandoned workers and forgot about industry.
You have our commitment – we will not allow history to repeat itself.
Instead, we have this week announced a skills guarantee for workers in our carbon intensive sectors and we will work with communities to invest £500 million over ten years in a Just Transition Fund for the North East and Moray.
And I challenge the UK Government, here and now, to match our £500m in Moray and the North East over the next 10 years.
In fact, as we look ahead to the eyes of the world being on Glasgow in November for COP26, the Scottish Government’s commitment is clear.
I can confirm today that we will invest at least £3 billion over the life of this parliament to deliver a just transition, supporting a green revolution in transport, helping those in fuel poverty and laying the foundations for a fairer, greener Scotland.
Conference, we have a proud history of innovation and entrepreneurialism.
Over the centuries, Scots have pioneered the solutions to many of the world’s greatest economic, social or medical challenges.
We continue to face challenges, and I want to ensure we are solving them here in Scotland.
Through our economic recovery, our mission is to create the best conditions for entrepreneurs to seize the opportunities to produce, to invent and to scale up.
We will invest in innovation, expand opportunities internationally and support businesses to digitise.
To encourage pioneers and entrepreneurs further, we will deliver a National Challenge competition.
It will provide funding of up to £50 million for a project with the greatest potential to transform Scotland’s economy.
However, Conference, one of the greatest economic risks is the Tories’ hostile immigration policies.
Businesses and public bodies are deeply concerned about vacancies because of Brexit.
The haulage sector doesn’t have enough drivers, the fish processing industry can’t find workers, and care homes are struggling to recruit.
All because so many of our valued European friends have chosen not to stay and others have chosen not to come.
The powers over immigration lie entirely with the UK Government, despite pressing for them to be devolved.
And so again, the SNP Government is picking up the slack where the UK Government has failed.
To meet the skills shortage head on, we will invest an additional £500 million over this parliamentary term to support new jobs and re-skill people.
That includes over £200 million specifically for up-skilling and retraining people who have perhaps left the job market through redundancy, and we’ll also commit £2 million this year to support 2,000 women to return to work following a career gap.
We will build on the progress already made since establishing our Young Person’s Guarantee last year and invest a further £70 million next year, delivering 24,000 new and exciting opportunities for young people across a range of sectors and projects.
Conference, we will do all we can with the powers we have but there is one change that would completely transform the Scottish economy and that is independence.
There is no reason whatsoever that Scotland could not emulate the success of independent countries of our size, which are far wealthier per head than the UK.
Denmark’s GDP per head in 2020 was around a third higher than the UK’s and Norway’s was nearly 40% higher.
Independence provides the opportunity to pursue priorities tailored to Scotland’s needs, which can only be to the benefit of our economy.
An independent Scotland would have the power to make different choices, with different budgetary results, that are best suited to Scotland’s interests.
We wouldn’t see money diverted from the Highlands to wealthy parts of England.
We wouldn’t have to spend £41 billion on the expected cost of replacing Trident.
And we wouldn’t face a Tory-imposed decade of austerity on Scotland or a Tory-imposed hard Brexit our will.
Independence would give Scotland the powers we need to grow our economy, invest in our people and support our public services.
All for a purpose – for a fairer, wealthier, and greener country.
Conference, when it comes to our finances, Scotland simply cannot afford to leave the key powers in the hands of Westminster.