Conference, I’m delighted to have the opportunity to address you for the first time as Finance Secretary.
It is important that our party’s key decision making body is still meeting – albeit virtually, like so many families and workplaces around the country.
While a virtual conference doesn’t capture the energy of a packed conference centre, or give the same opportunities for gossip, or a free lunch at a fringe event – it does allow me to speak to you from Scotland’s epicentre, Dingwall.
This has been a year unlike any other – we have all had to make huge sacrifices, missing out on precious moments with family or feeling isolated and lonely working from home. Each of us has a story to tell – of worry, loss and anxiety.
But amidst that – we have also seen glimmers of hope. And it is hope, and our confidence as a nation, that I want to talk about today.
In the last few months, we have stood together as a nation, to help our neighbours and support our communities. People have extended a helping hand of support and friendship in every village and town. We have all made enormous sacrifices for the safety of our families, our friends and our neighbours – those we know and those we don’t.
Too often we hear that our country is divided, in my view, it has never been more united.
We’ve come through the most challenging of times because it has been a collective, national endeavour.
COVID-19 highlighted our common humanity, it has also changed our country completely and exposed inequalities and weaknesses that must be fixed.
Re-building what we have lost will take time, effort and resources – but more than that, it will take hope –for a better future, a fairer country, a stronger economy – and it will take confidence –that we have what it takes to get there.
I joined the SNP almost 10 years ago. It was perhaps an unusual move for a student at Cambridge…there was no student society for me.
I joined because I believed that our country, communities, and fellow citizens had all the talent, abilities and resources to shape our future. That with the right tools, there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do. That has been proved true in the good times, and, most recently, in the tough times.
Back then, I knew we could be independent, that we were just as capable and wealthy as countless other countries – and couldn’t understand why we were content to put up with decisions taken by governments we didn’t elect.
I don’t speak for everyone my age, but I’m never surprised when I see opinion polls showing younger people in our country overwhelmingly want to see Scotland become an independent country, because for me it is that independence that offers us the most hope for the future.
A chance to build the country we want to live in and to create the kind of opportunities we see elsewhere.
With all we’ve been through in the last few months, it is hard to remember a time before Covid.
When I became Finance Secretary in February, Covid hadn’tbeen found in Scotland yet. In the entirety of my first budget debate there was only one mention of COVID-19, made by the chair of the Finance Committee, a certain Bruce Crawford, an MSP of great foresight and integrity.
Bruce has taken the understandable, if for me anyway disappointing, decision to retire in May next year after 21 years of service in Holyrood.
His support to me in these first few months as Finance Secretary was invaluable. He is a true giant of our movement and while I know he still has a big contribution to make, his presence at Holyrood will be sorely missed by all.
Of course just three weeks after that budget was passed, a budget that tackled child poverty, invested in the low carbon economy, and delivered our commitments to expand childcare – we were in lockdown.
The Finance Secretary’s office swiftly moved from Edinburgh, to here in the Highlands. Spread around the country, having the same experiences as our constituents hugely influenced our response.
One of the first decisions I made, was to support those who have the least with the funding that they would need to get through the pandemic – investing £350 million in our communities, in food supplies, in tackling loneliness and in helping those who had no home to lock down in.
That was followed by £2.3 billion of emergency support to businesses, money that didn’t just support high street shops but helped people like the newly self-employed who were ignored by the UK Government.
And of course we ensured that our public services, not least our NHS, had the resources required to respond to the pandemic.
We did all of that, whilst being one of the very few countries around the world which was dependent on another Government’s decisions to make the funding we needed available
That has often felt like, quite frankly, a ridiculous position to be in, but never more so, than when we found that the public health measures we needed to take had to be weighed up against whether the UK Government might give us the funding needed in plenty of time, to take them.
Nothing exemplifies that better than the furlough scheme.
Furlough is a scheme I welcome. Due to the nature of devolution, only the UK Government has the financial and administrative powers to put this in place.
But let’s remember – it doesn’t come from a big UK Government bank account somewhere. Every single penny of it is borrowed and will have to be repaid.. and repaid as much by taxpayers in Scotland as anywhere else.
Without it we know unemployment would be far higher than it is now, which is why the Scottish Government alongside our MPs at Westminster spent all summer urging the UK Government not to end the scheme in October, but to follow the lead of countries like Ireland, France and Germany and extend the scheme into 2021.
In September and October I asked for furlough to be extended. The First Minister asked for furlough to be extended. So did the governments of Wales and Northern Ireland.
And conference we all know what happened next.
They told us there was no money left. They told us people would just have to deal with unemployment. They told us some people’s jobs simply weren’t viable.
They even told ballet dancers to go get jobs in IT. Until, that is, they needed furlough extended for themselves.
I don’t begrudge furlough for anyone in England, I know it’s needed. But the whole of Scotland saw with their own eyes, what drives decision making in the UK Government and there is no doubt –it is not driven by what Scotland needs.
If they had acted sooner, redundancies could have been avoided.
Months of anxiety and worry could have been spared.
With power comes responsibility – the powers to protect jobs lie at Westminster.
The responsibility for the failure to protect jobs also lies at Westminster.
Let there be no doubt, if those powers had been in Scotland – if that decision had been mine, furlough would have been in place for every day and every business that needed it.
There has never been a clearer example of why our Parliament needs the powers of independence – than Tory indifference to the need to protect jobs in a pandemic.
For Scotland, like much of the world, Covid-19 has meant we must manage two crises at once – a public health emergency and an economic one.
But in a matter of weeks – we face a third crisis.
One that will cause deep and lasting damage to our economy and society.
One that will cost jobs, impact on livelihoods and reduce living standards.
One that we have not chosen, but that is entirely avoidable.
Brexit never made economic sense. It was never the will of the Scottish people.
Deal or no deal, any Brexit will be bad for Scotland.
We are one month from being taken out of the EU against our will and businesses across the country still do not know the terms on which they will trade and the tariffs they will pay.
In the midst of a global pandemic and economic crisis – Brexit is nothing short of an act of political and economic vandalism.
But we should have hope.
The kind of country that emerges from this crisis will depend on the decisions we take now and in the years to come.
We have the talent, we have the resources – and with hope and confidence – then we can and will change Scotland.
We will use every penny and every power at our disposal to do that.
In the aftermath of the 2008 crash, the Conservatives inflicted a decade of austerity, balancing the books on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable. Last week, the Chancellor’s first actions to manage our public finances was to freeze pay and cut international aid.
It’s the same Conservatives, with the same ideology.
If we want our economic recovery to look different, then we need the powers to set a different course.
Of course we will use the powers that we have to do the very best we can for Scotland.
Like with the Scottish National Investment Bank – an institution whose origins begin here at SNP conference, delivered by your SNP Government and opened last week by our First Minister.
It will drive investment in the industries of the future, but what will really set it apart is that tackling climate change or boosting wellbeing won’t just be an afterthought, it will be at the very core of the bank’s decision making.
This is a crisis like no other.
We need an economic recovery that delivers new, good, green jobs. That accelerates the transition to a net-zero economy and recognises that the wellbeing of our population is as important as the wellbeing of the balance sheet.
We have taken decisive action to lay the ground work for that recovery.
Firstly, we will guarantee that every young person under the age of 24 has a job or an education and training opportunity. A commitment to the generation that will be entering the job market in the most challenging times. We will make opportunities for them.
Secondly, we will invest in the sectors that will power the Scottish economy for years to come. As the for the digital economy, I am proud of the steps we are taking to ensure Scotland can build a strong, vibrant technology sector. We’ve got a long history of innovation, and now we’re taking that to the next level.
To accelerate digital adoption I am announcing today that we will be providing an additional £10 million this year to help an estimated 2,000 small and medium enterprises reap the benefits of investment in digital. This will build on the work already done through our successful Digital Boost scheme.
In recognition that it is businesses in rural areas that have the most to gain by access to new technology.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise will be allocated £800,000 to extend its Digital Enablement Grant scheme to reach more businesses in the Highlands and Islands.
And the Data Lab will also receive £1 million to help businesses to invest in more advanced technologies such as data analytics and artificial intelligence.
These investments will help support SMEs on their digital journey, driving Scotland’s economic recovery.
And thirdly, in a few weeks, I will set out the Scottish Government’s budget with a five-year pipeline of investment in infrastructure to boost economic growth.
Not pet projects like a Boris bridge to Northern Ireland, but the essential investment our economy and public services need
The Capital Spending Review will provide the funding for our Infrastructure Plan.
It will include almost £5 billion to inclusive economic growth, including £500 million to extend full fibre broadband to businesses and households in rural areas and £30 million to support our Islands.
It will see more than £11 billion invested in our cities, towns, villages and rural areas, including £275 million to revitalise our town centres and create vibrant neighbourhoods and nearly £2 billion on health infrastructure and equipment.
Investment that transforms our country, renewing and rebuilding.
Investment that creates jobs and supports society.
Investment that tackles poverty and meet the climate challenge.
I will always push the powers of devolution as far as they can go to build a better, fairer economy – but I cannot hide the limitations on our options.
With no meaningful borrowing powers and limited powers over tax, devolution means UK spending decisions are still the biggest factor in deciding the size of the Scottish budget.
For the second year in a row the UK Government has shown complete disregard for devolution by delaying their budget to March.
Scottish Finance secretaries are well used to balancing the books with one hand tied behind our backs.
But this year, of all years, I’m being asked to do it blindfolded too.
The Scottish budget has an impact on all our lives – it funds our NHS, schools and other vital public services and shapes our economy.
It should not be subject to the disinterested whims of a distant Tory Government.
But that risk will always be there until independence.
And that is why the election in a matter of months is so critical.
A once in a generation vote, you might say. It will give us the opportunity to put our record before the Scottish people for their endorsement.
To present them with our vision for our country – how we build a better economy that does not leave people on the bread line, take decisive steps towards net zero, while strengthening our public services, delivering a National Care Service and backing our young people to have the skills they need to live up to their potential and ensure we, as a country, can live up to ours.
And crucially – to win a renewed, unequivocal, unavoidable mandate for an independence referendum
I have never been so convinced of Scotland’s need for independence. And as poll after poll shows – that view is now shared by a clear majority.
I am often asked: does Covid or Brexit mean we need to rip up the economic case for independence and start again?
Or told that we couldn’t have coped as an independent country, ignoring the reality of other small independent nations around the world facing exactly the same .
The answer to both is categorically no. Our economy will thrive and prosper with the ingenuity of our people, the wealth of our resources and the strengths of our industries.
Our economy is big enough, inventive enough, resilient enough and rich enough, not just to protect what we have, but to grow stronger.
While the starting point might have changed – the destination remains the same.
We know that with independence we can and will create a wealthier, fairer, greener country. An economy that values its citizens and contributes to their collective wellbeing.
We know that the recovery from Covid will take time and will require collective effort and the shape of that recovery will be dependent on where key powers lie.
And we also know that if we leave those powers in the hands of a Tory Westminster Government what we have in store.
Austerity – particularly for those on low incomes – and an economic model that prioritise London and the South East above all else.
How do we know that? We just need to look at what happened in the last crisis.
Conference, 2020 has not been the year any of us thought it would be. I didn’t expect to be managing Scotland’s finances during a global pandemic and an economic recession.
I certainly didn’t expect to be doing it from a corner of the house.
It will be a year that none of us will ever forget and it will take time to recover from the deep impact Covid has had on every aspect of life.
But, despite the huge cost, we have not lost our hope..
That hope, that resilience, that confidence, has brought us this far, and it will take us further. This crisis is not yet over – but we know a better future is possible and we will work tirelessly to achieve it. The choices we make now will change that future.
2021 will be a year of huge opportunity for our party – let’s seize it.