Michael Russell’s conference opening speech
Conference, fellow delegates, welcome to Edinburgh.
It is great to be standing here in our capital city this morning, and standing beneath this one big – in every sense – word.
Now in a week when my colleagues and I have been portrayed as super heroes from myth (I am sorry I am not wearing my Thor costume today, but I suspect it would be a bit tight) you won’t be surprised that I start this welcome address with a bit of mythology.
In Greek myth, after Pandora had opened her box and released all the ills of the world amongst humanity, she closed the lid to ensure that one thing – and only one thing – remained.
But that was hope.
Hope, according to the proverb, springs eternal.
Nothing can be done, said Helen Keller, without hope and confidence.
And hope for a better future for Scotland – underpinned by the hard work needed to achieve it – has been what has taken this party and our movement from the fringes of Scottish politics to its very heart.
Conference, 45 years ago in this city I joined the SNP.
I did so as an affirmation of my hope for a better Scotland.
That time was not unlike our own, but the challenges we faced then were not nearly as grave as the ones we face now.
At that time of course Westminster completely ignored us – then as now.
In fact at that time we did not even have our own Parliament. Amazingly it was still a quarter of a century away.
At that time there was also a stalemate in UK politics and deep divisions about resolving a crisis – then as now.
And there was an existential threat to our economy, our society and our wellbeing – then as now.
1974 was a year when all those things plagued our nation and the response of our nation in both the February and the October election of that year was to turn to the SNP.
The effect of that – 7 and then 11 seats won first past the post, the 22% and then the 30% share of the vote, the 41 second places in October – was to galvanise the UK parties into action in order to try and head off our party and its aim to give the country and its future back to the people.
And five years later, after endless delaying and a cheated referendum they wore the people of Scotland and this party down.
They thought that it was back to business as usual.
But it wasn’t.
For the next 18 years Scotland suffered industrial decimation. We lost, to emigration and sometimes to worse, a whole generation.
But we didn’t give up. We kept our hope alive.
This party was polling in single figures, and recording the same in elections and by-elections.
Often in constituencies which we now hold with majorities in the thousands.
But we didn’t give up. We continued to hope and to work for a better future.
By working with others we helped to regain a Parliament.
By working in that Parliament we became a Government, and have been for the past 12 years.
And fellow delegates – for those of you who haven’t seen them, two polls in the last few days have shown we are still by far and away the most popular party in Scotland – ready to win back seats in a Westminster General Election and working for victory in next month’s European elections.
And that is because our fellow citizens recognise that we have achieved much for Scotland.
Too much to list but here are just a few of the high points:
Over 20,000 baby boxes have welcomed new Scots into our country.
We have delivered and embedded the right to free education and massively expanded education & child care in the crucial early years.
Health spending is at a record level and we have the best performing health service in these islands.
Recorded crime is at a record low as is unemployment.
Employment is at a record high.
We have encouraged and supported a massive growth in our food industries.
We have put in place world leading climate change legislation.
We have built a record number of new schools, invested in hospitals and improved infrastructure.
All in the face of Westminster spending cuts.
And we secured a referendum on independence.
Which, alas, we did not win.
But we don’t give up.
And now we are faced with a dislocation the like of which we have never seen before.
Brexit will, if it happens, deliver a devastating blow. It will destroy thousands of jobs. It will, by driving away talented and welcome EU citizens, undermine whole industries and increase depopulation in our rural areas.
Trying to deliver that poisoned policy is the most intransigent and most arrogant UK Government ever.
It has shown contempt for Scotland and the views of the people of Scotland – and the rest of these islands – who voted not to leave the EU.
It has even, remarkably, alienated many of those who did vote to leave.
And that Government has also set its face against allowing the people to choose their future.
Of course we know why.
This morning’s opinion poll illustrates the reason perfectly.
Our campaign is far from won – but today we see that Independence support is up at 49%, level pegging with those who want to stay in the union.
No wonder they are running scared.
No wonder we didn’t give up.
And because we have led from the front with reasoned arguments and confidence in them, because we have had and continue to have hope people are once again turning to the SNP in this time of crisis and confusion.
We have tried to help in many ways.
For example we have not only defended Scottish interests and supported Scottish business, we have also invested almost £150,000 in the last year making sure that people could have their voices heard and their concerns explored by the Scottish Government, including ensuring that young people were heeded on a matter that will affect all their future prospects.
And in the coming European elections we are giving all our fellow citizens who oppose Brexit the opportunity to send that message to London and to Brussels.
All these things mean that many people are more than thankful that there is a Scottish Parliament and a Scottish party there to speak for them.
And Scotland is becoming a better country to live in because the people of Scotland have a Parliament – despite tooth and nail opposition from the Tories over many years, which we should never forget – and have chosen the SNP as their Government to work tirelessly for the people every day of the day job in that Parliament.
But we are doing more too.
I have no doubt that legally, constitutionally, by dint of campaigning and argument, by persistence and progressive politics and with the absolute right to full international recognition and full membership of international partnerships like the EU, Scotland is moving inexorably to independence.
And we will get there as long as we take the right path in the right way.
A path and a way set out by the First Minister on Wednesday.
It is not hard to find the negative reasons – based on dismay at appalling Westminster behavior – which would drive any sensible, rational person into supporting a Scotland with a clear, direct and independent voice in the EU and in the world.
Brexit is not the only reason for change in our constitutional status, but it is a massive object lesson in the continuing failure of an archaic, deeply divided and out of touch Westminster system, which looks, sounds and is well past its sell by date.
But new countries, or countries reborn on the international stage, need positive foundations, and roots that are nourished by good things rather than bad.
We need to talk about those good reasons – all the time.
The journey to independence for any nation is never an easy or straightforward one.
But because we live in an age which expects instant feedback and instant action we sometimes think that minds can be changed and countries transformed merely by a tweet or a hashtag.
I wish it was so.
I also wish we did not live in a system of governance – devolution – which dances round the outmoded, almost medieval, idea of a sovereign Parliament at Westminster.
We want to have done with that.
But we must also be prepared to mitigate it whilst we still endure it, and be alive to ways it can be changed for the immediate relief of some of the problems experienced by all who live in these islands.
Though any change is always fiercely resisted by the UK Government.
That is why we should always be willing to talk to others about their ideas.
No one political group or section of society has a monopoly on wisdom. All of us, to a greater or lesser extent accept that change is needed.
So we should all be open to listening as well as talking and that is what I pledge myself to do with the other parties in the coming weeks and months.
Without compromising principles or beliefs, on any side and about any thing.
Of course we think that nothing will, in the end, serve any nation as well as equality.
And there is a constitutional escape route to equality which this party had the wisdom to ensure was built in to what was agreed 20 years ago when devolution was finally enacted.
There is a political way to overcome the constitutional blockage.
And it has been used politically before.
We saw how it worked in 2012 when the Edinburgh agreement opened the door to the 2014 Referendum.
The people instructed a Scottish Government to seek such an order and their voice prevailed despite initial refusals by a Westminster Government.
And earlier we saw how the idea behind it – the idea of democracy – worked even before our Parliament was restored, because it was a political movement that in the end overturned another refusal of the Tories to respond to the democratic wishes of Scotland.
It was Canon Kenyon Wright who expressed it best.
Referring in 1989 to a likely Thatcherite veto of Scottish aspirations, he asked would happen when that “voice we know so well” as he put it, inevitably said, “We say no and we are the state.”
“Well,” he responded rhetorically, “We say yes and we are the people.”
The people say yes.
That is the strongest argument and it is up to us to make sure it is heard.
Again and again – and afresh.
But times are also different now.
After the unifying experience of the Indyref in 2014, at the 2016 and 2017 elections the Scottish Tories decided to polarise opinion for their own selfish ends. Now public opinion is turning on them.
But the legacy of polarisation is poisonous. And the further polarising effect of Brexit added to that brew has changed our politics utterly.
So as we prepare to enter into a new state we must shed the bitterness and division of the old state.
167 years ago Abraham Lincoln pointed that out in a message to Congress.
In a time of huge suffering that changed his nation in the most extreme and violent way, he still pointed forward.
“The dogmas of the quiet past,” he said “are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise – with the occasion.
As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”
We too have to rise with the occasion.
We have to recognise that the past dogmas do not meet the present challenge.
And we must therefore think anew and act anew in order to create something new – a new Scotland.
And we must do it in the way that Lincoln called “plain, peaceful, generous, just – a way which,” he said ”if followed, the world will forever applaud”.
So we must do it together.
Not just within parties who already want it to happen.
But with all our fellow citizens.
We need to encourage everyone who lives here to play a part in building our new national story.
We won’t do so by ignoring them, or by insulting them, or by challenging them in ways to which they simply cannot respond.
We will only do so by working with them and listening to them because in so doing we will all become stronger.
The Citizens Assembly announced by the First Minister on Wednesday is a radical, new initiative.
It will allow Scotland to engage with its future in a constructive and thoughtful way.
Much of what we have as a nation experienced during the Brexit process has been at odds with the values of our wider society in Scotland. We must find ways to ensure that those values and principles are enshrined in our governance.
Our fellow citizens can help us to do that.
And the time is right to think anew and act anew as we approach the 20th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament.
That Parliament, long fought for, was itself a result of an exercise to determine options for Scotland’s future.
The Constitutional Convention was largely a vehicle for those already engaged in civic life or politics in Scotland, but the tradition is important.
A genuinely inclusive and open-minded Citizens’ Assembly would update that tradition for the 21st century.
It will teach us a lot and help our country to come together round a shared vision.
Conference, earlier I talked about this time being one in which instant change and progress was expected.
But this is also an age in which extremes flourish and to counter the extremes that they dislike, many think that they also have to be extreme sometimes even in how they respond to, or talk to, those with whom they should be making common cause.
Our common cause here is independence. Our common aim is to achieve it. There is a democratic pathway towards it which ensures that when we get there our effort will be internationally accepted. There are ways in which we can unify Scotland around that vision
That pathway is broad. We need to walk it with all our fellow citizens.
This is the first time that our party has met in conference in the capital of Scotland for a long time.
It is, for me, a great pleasure to deliver this welcome address because it also lets me celebrate this great city.
I am lucky in having lived my life in both the west and the east of this country – the real fundamental division in Scotland!
I was brought up in Ayrshire and live in Argyll. I got there via the Western Isles but also via Edinburgh where my mother want to school, where my grandparents lived for most of their lives, where I went to University and worked in my first job, and where I have kept coming back, eventually as a member of the first Parliament to sit in this city in 292 years.
That great international Scot, Ricky Demarco, exhibiting this year at the Venice Biannale – at the age of 87 – got it right about this place when he observed that “Edinburgh belongs to the world.”
Edinburgh – its architecture, its cultural richness, its landscape – does belong to the world, as Scotland belongs in the world.
And we must redouble our efforts to join that world as an equal nation once again.
Edinburgh was also the home of that great veteran nationalist Paul Scott who gave so much to his country and his party and whom we lost only a few weeks ago.
Of his many works I value particularly his 1992 book on Andrew Fletcher and the Treaty of Union.
Scott points out that central to Fletcher’s political philosophy was the idea of the autonomy of small states such as Scotland was best exercised by co-operation across Europe and concludes the book with this observation:
“Scotland and Europe may now, at last, be on the brink of achieving a settlement with a recognisable affinity to Fletcher’s proposals for a “right regulation of Governments for the common good of mankind”.
That was written almost 30 years ago. How prescient – and how much closer we are to it today, thanks of course to life long, determined, passionate nationalists like Paul.
And we will be closer yet if we take the opportunity afforded by the European elections, by the preparations announced by the First Minister on Wednesday and by the enthusiasm and commitment of this national movement to ensure that at all times, in every way, we drive forward along that constitutional pathway that leads us to achieving Scottish autonomy and exercising it by means of co-operation across Europe.
Convener, fellow delegates, I am as hungry for that as I was 45 years ago in this city when I joined this party, starting out on a political and life time journey that has led me here.
There is a distance still to go, for me as for all of us, but we have come a vast distance already.
Further, if not faster, than was expected in that bleak time.
But we have to finish the journey.
So let’s do is in the way that secures – for ever – long lasting, united, inclusive, progressive success.
The success of living, working, loving in an independent Scotland.
Independence. Which we have worked for.
Independence. Which is within our grasp.
Independence. Moving from hope to reality.