Delegates, Members, Friends,
Welcome to SNP National Conference.
Much like the long-awaited ABBA reunion, our conference this year is a virtual affair.
But unlike ABBA, I for one am quite relieved myself and other speakers are not being digitally altered to look like we did in the 1970s.
It has been an incredibly challenging year for all of us – and I am delighted that so many of you are able to join us this weekend.
The COVID pandemic continues to dominate our lives – but at this critical moment in our country’s history, it is more important than ever that we can come together to debate the policies which will lead Scotland safely through the pandemic and into a brighter future.
I am sure you all share my immense gratitude to all those who have worked behind the scenes to make this conference happen in these trying circumstances.
We can never thank enough the key workers across the length and breadth of our nation who have worked tirelessly right through the pandemic.
We owe each and every one of them an immense debt of gratitude.
They have kept the country moving, and kept public services running during the last 18 months.
And thanks to the success of our vaccination programme – and the hard work of those delivering the vaccines – Scotland is returning to some kind of normality.
But there is still some way to go – and leading Scotland safely through the pandemic remains our top priority.
Our last meeting as a party was before the Holyrood election.
From the outset, we knew the election was to be the most important in Scotland’s history.
The outcome would dictate Scotland’s path through and out of the COVID pandemic, and determine how – and where – Scotland’s recovery from the COVID crisis would be built.
In May, we asked the people of Scotland to put their faith in the SNP to deliver a radical agenda to build a fairer, greener and more progressive nation.
We asked the people of Scotland to unite behind the strong and experienced leadership of Nicola Sturgeon to steer Scotland forward.
And we asked the people of Scotland for a mandate to deliver a fresh referendum on Scottish independence when the pandemic is over.
As we know, the people of Scotland responded – by delivering a success for our party and for our movement that was nothing short of stunning.
No party has ever received more votes.
No party has received a larger share of the vote for a Holyrood election.
And, set against the pro-union forces ranged against us, returning 64 MSPs in a parliament system set up to prevent such a result is testament to the incredible dedication of every branch, every member, every activist and every candidate who played their part.
The people of Scotland voted for a historic fourth term for the SNP – securing Nicola Sturgeon as our First Minister.
And it delivered a cast-iron mandate to hold an independence referendum.
And, friends, make no mistake – an independence referendum is exactly what we will have.
And it is not just us saying this.
During the election campaign, Scottish Tory Leader Douglas Ross was unequivocal when he stated:
“A vote for the SNP is a vote for an independence referendum”.
Much like a stopped clock, Douglas Ross was for once correct.
But because he lost – and lost heavily – he and his Scottish Tories are now desperately trying to move the goalposts. No surprise there, then.
But they cannot – they will not – deny the expressed democratic will of the people of Scotland.
Under the exemplary leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, our party won 85% of Scotland’s constituency seats with more than 1.3 million votes; we increased our vote share and our seats; and we won seats from both Labour and the Tories.
The number of pro-independence MSPs in Holyrood matches that of 2011 – the Parliamentary term where the SNP government delivered a referendum on independence.
The election was historic in other ways too – our very own Kaukab Stewart became the first woman of colour to be elected to the Scottish Parliament, after first standing for Holyrood in 1999.
There is a long way to go for our Parliament to look more like the people who elect it, but we should welcome these steps forward and see them as a springboard to go even further towards a representative parliament.
Our party has gone from strength to strength – not just at the ballot box, but in our Membership too.
More people than ever have put their trust in the SNP to deliver for our nation – and with more than 120,000 Members, the appetite to play a part in shaping the SNP vision of an independent Scotland is growing by the day.
I’d like to welcome all our new Members, especially those who will be attending Conference for the first time.
SNP activists have covered the length and breadth of the country, delivering leaflets and speaking with voters about our vision for an independent nation.
And we are now stepping up the pace.
In this week’s bold Programme for Government, the First Minister announced the Scottish Government is restarting its work preparing a detailed and updated prospectus for Independence.
But, as important as that new development undoubtedly is, the case for independence cannot just be left to the Scottish Government.
Every member of the SNP family knows we all have a crucial role to play.
Our task is to convince those who do not yet support our cause. That means engaging in respectful, constructive discussions with those fellow Scots who remain open to persuasion.
We must accept that, in 2014, many ordinary voters were cowed and confused by the scare tactics of Project Fear. We must accept that, even now, many of those same fears persist.
So we must listen to our hesitant fellow Scots and convince them by the power of our positive arguments that there is absolutely nothing to fear …
That Scotland IS big enough, IS clever enough, IS rich enough, so long as we are BOLD enough.
Indeed, it will be our collective task to prove how the dangerous future for Scotland is not through independence but remaining in this dysfunctional union.
So today I challenge each and every one of our supporters to Reach Out For Indy.
To redouble your efforts to convince at least one more undecided voter that the needs of the people of this country are best achieved as an independent nation.
If we can all do that, our collective dream of independence will not take just a giant leap forward – it will be guaranteed.
And it’s in your power to deliver it.
I was delighted to be appointed Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans.
The pandemic posed serious challenges to our justice system and as we recover it is vital we deliver our ambition to achieve a faster, fairer and more effective justice system for the people of Scotland.
That means not just going back to the way things were – but thinking about how we can do things better, which means often doing things differently.
And that is not only in Justice, but across all areas of Government.
From the first day of our historic fourth term, the SNP Scottish Government has worked tirelessly to deliver for the people of Scotland – supporting our NHS and care services, tackling the climate crisis and stimulating the economy to create jobs.
In the first 100 days alone, the SNP delivered:
- funding for 1,000 extra teachers and 500 pupil support assistants;
- free school lunches for more than 90,000 children;
- free NHS dental care for everyone under 26;
And this week’s inspiring Programme For Government started a process which will deliver a fundamental change in the way in which Scotland looks after our older people, with the creation of a National Care Service.
That’s on top of protecting free university tuition, free prescriptions, mitigating the Tory Bedroom Tax and delivering a fair pay deal for our NHS – who have worked tirelessly through these incredibly challenging times.
But while the SNP works for Scotland, the Nasty Party is well and truly back at Westminster.
Boris Johnson’s Tory government are dragging their heels on a refugee resettlement scheme while families in Afghanistan are left abandoned;
They made a U-turn on free school meals only because this callous Tory government was shamed into a rethink by Marcus Rashford;
And almost unbelievably, they are still intent on cutting the lifeline £20 per week increase to Universal Credit that thousands of working families in Scotland rely upon.
I say ‘almost’ unbelievably because we have all learned through our cost that there is nothing that Johnson’s sleaze-ridden, shambles of a Government is prepared to do.
The SNP and countless others warned them about Brexit. About the catastrophic effect it would have on living standards for people across the country. The Tories didn’t listen.
We warned them it would damage Scotland’s vital food and drink industry. They didn’t listen.
We warned them it would cause labour shortages in care homes, the NHS, agriculture .. the list goes on and on. They didn’t listen.
We warned them it would lead to empty food shelves across the country’s supermarkets. They didn’t listen.
We warned them it would be a catastrophe for our creative industries. They didn’t listen.
And that shameful refusal to listen is not just reserved to Brexit.
We have warned them that tens of thousands of kids will be plunged into poverty if they prematurely end the Universal Credit uplift.
We warned them to stop undermining devolution with their insidious power grab masquerading as the UK Internal Market Bill. They ploughed on regardless.
They didn’t listen when we urged them not to pay for THEIR social care through an iniquitous hike in National Insurance which hammers low earners more than more wealthy workers.
They didn’t listen about the bedroom tax, the rape clause, again – the list goes on.
At the height of the pandemic, Kate Forbes pleaded for an extension to furlough to protect Scottish jobs. The Tories didn’t listen.
Well, they didn’t listen until English businesses joined our chorus, who they did listen to.
That shameful episode tells you everything you need to know about Westminster’s attitude to our needs.
We all recognise the stark reality that Westminster doesn’t listen to the SNP because it doesn’t care.
But while the Tories so often turn their tin ears to the SNP, there is one voice they cannot ignore.
That is the voice of the people of Scotland.
And that voice has said, in a clear, unequivocal, democratic clarion call:
We want a second independence referendum.
We all know Scotland needs independence from Westminster now more than ever before.
So let us now turn to the job at hand.
The Conference schedule for the next four days is jam-packed with opportunity for debate and discussion on how to take forward our nation.
On how we can build on the work of the SNP Scottish Government to tackle climate change; to protect Scotland’s economy from Westminster austerity; and to deliver a fair, just and more equal Scotland through independence.
Make sure you check your Conference handbook and engage in the Fringe events.
And even though we’re virtual, you can still use the Blether feature to check in with fellow delegates – and maybe even make a few friends along the way.
As I was preparing to speak to you today, I was reflecting on some of those in the SNP family who we have said goodbye to since we last met.
Such as our longest serving Parliamentarian, Andrew Welsh, who was first elected in 1974 and had a distinguished career over four decades.
I’d also like to make a special mention of Calum Cashley, a stalwart of our party and the independence movement, who sadly died just a few weeks ago.
We often say that we stand on the shoulders of giants – but that is because it happens to be true.
When Scotland’s independence day comes – and that day is drawing ever closer – we will remember the many people down the years who sadly did not live to see the moment for which they had worked so hard.
People who kept the flame burning for our cause even through the darkest times.
And we resolve to honour their memory by redoubling our efforts to stay the course and deliver that independent Scotland.
The months ahead will be some of the most important in Scotland’s history.
It’s time to come together as a party and a movement; to prepare for the referendum on independence – and to win it.