Michael Russell’s full address to #SNP21 Conference
Convener, Fellow Delegates,
When great dislocations happen in societies, people re-asses their lives, their beliefs and – yes – their governance.
Sometimes they do so willingly, and sometimes because there is no other option.
None of us watching this could have guessed when met in Aberdeen just two years ago, that within months we would be faced with the greatest pandemic for a century which has led to millions of deaths across the globe and which is still not over, as this virtual conference clearly shows.
And although in these islands we were already at that time witnessing the slow motion car crash that was Brexit, and making clear what we thought would inevitably happen (and we were right), in fact we underestimated how bad the deal that Johnson and the Tories negotiated actually was – and how, when it began to bite, we would be faced with empty shelves, shortage of key labour, a catastrophic decline in exports and rising prices.
With more damage to come.
Scotland as a country is slow to change.
The first stirrings of discontent with the Union were felt soon after it had come into effect but it took more than another century for active opposition to be felt.
The National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights was founded in 1853, some 146 years after the Union.
But it took another 146 years before a Scottish Parliament was re-convened with limited powers.
146 years between the Union and the first formalised attempt to change it.
146 years between that attempt and the vesting of the Parliament we have today.
But that was then. The world has speeded up and now change happens much, much, faster.
So we must decide now, as a matter of urgency, how our country should build forward from the pandemic and create a new, greener, more equal, more fair and more accessible society.
And we must decide – nobody else.
7 years ago, Scotland held the first independence referendum in our history.
It was a positive, constructive, visionary event.
In the end, the result pivoted on promises from Unionists that were not kept – a promise to keep Scotland in the EU, a promise to massively enhance devolution, and a promise to respect Scotland, to value our nation as an equal partner in a changing union.
Those we now know were worthless vows.
Vows, in fact, that those who made them in panic never meant to keep in victory.
Scotland was dragged out of the EU despite all the efforts that we made to stop that happening.
Devolution has not been enhanced and instead is being actively, deliberately and continuously undermined by the Tories at Westminster – whilst Labour and the Liberals collude in the constitutional vandalism.
And far from being respected and valued as an equal partner, we are are told to shut up.
Shut up and eat our cereal – providing we can find any on the empty post Brexit supermarket shelves.
Convener, the Pandemic has put life on hold for many people.
It inevitably meant that the work that was building towards another independence referendum had to pause.
And it was right that we took the decision to do so.
We were right – acting on behalf of our fellow citizens – to put all our effort and resource into protecting each other and ensuring our safety.
So we did the right thing last March, just as the Johnson and Gove did the wrong thing by pushing ahead with the hardest of Brexits despite the pandemic.
For now we see all too clearly the problems that such selfishness has caused.
And that should make us even more determined to continue to do the right thing here in Scotland until the danger is passed.
But as restrictions ease, we must also prepare ourselves again for that most normal, but most essential of steps – seeking the approval of the Scottish people to rejoin the world as an independent nation, making our own decisions about how to build forward to a better future.
The phrase the “new normal” is used often to describe what we need to create after the pandemic .
For Scotland, that new normal has to be the normality of independence .
In the European Union almost half the member states are the same size as Scotland or smaller – some much smaller.
And of course, many have become independent only in the last 30 years or so.
They are also states that pay better pensions, have higher incomes, work more productively, are happier and healthier and play an effective role in the world, like our neighbouring independent Ireland, which this month chairs the UN Security Council.
Those benefits of independence are not accidental – they are as a result of being able to make their own decisions and work constructively on the basis of equality with others.
Their citizens can travel freely across national borders, not queue for hours to get admission even to their own country.
The shelves in their supermarkets are not half empty.
Their produce is not rotting in the fields because there is no one to pick it, and their exports are not delayed or cancelled because of lack of transport or difficulty with paperwork.
I am sure that no one at conference needs persuaded that independence is what we must have to create the prosperous, fair, outward looking nation that we all want to live in.
But there are others who are not yet convinced. They have been subject to years of disinformation and scare-mongering.
And it has to be admitted that, sometimes, the impatience and rhetoric of some in our movement has worried them too.
To bring them over to our side we need to help not hector, inform not insult.
So, as the pandemic eases, we need to continue our previous work – building a successful, positive campaign for independence, which not only retains existing support but also re-assures and attracts those who are not yet with us.
When Nicola asked me, and the NEC approved the request, to help contribute some new political direction to our independence work, I was keen to do three things:
The first was to start the process of providing information and campaign resources to every party member on independence issues.
I hope these mailings will continue during the autumn and into the winter, allowing each of us to argue the case for change with increasing confidence – and ensuring that there are resources to be used on doorsteps and in the streets, as people return to those preseason techniques.
I also hope, going forward, that we can do more – for example produce a publication for distribution by the party in the run up to St Andrew’s Day, which will encourage not just on-the-ground campaigning, but also get the indy message into as many homes as possible this year.
More needs to be done on policy issues of course, some of which can only take place in government .
So I was very pleased to hear the First Minister’s commitment, in the Programme for Government debate on Tuesday, to re-starting work on the detailed prospectus for independence, work that I had to suspend on 16 March last year.
I look forward to seeing it go forward and I know that Angus Robertson, Jenny Gilruth and their team have much to contribute to it.
But some thinking and work must and should also come from volunteers outside government, and I have been persuaded that re-assurance in particular can be provided by supporting work on a transitional constitution.
This wouldn’t be a blueprint for Scotland after independence – that has to wait until all the citizens of the new state can join in the effort, but would give a comprehensive and detailed guarantee of rights for all those who live here as we move through the referendum to independence, should that be what the people vote for.
I am impressed with the work already done on that by Eliot Bulmer of Dundee University amongst others, but I don’t think that he alone, nor the SNP alone , should take responsibility for bringing it to fruition.
That brings me to my second priority, which has been to re-establish constructive links with all parts of the YES movement who are willing to work positively and with mutual respect to secure the referendum and independence.
I have had good discussions with a range of those bodies, and as a result I hope we can all work together on a range of projects and issues including the transitional constitution.
I am making proposals on that to them and would want to see it underway quickly and in place early next year.
I am also very supportive of work at grassroots involving all YES supporters who want to make common cause and I hope we will see more and more such activity.
That will include, I anticipate, significant involvement in the Believe in Scotland / National YES Network day of action on the 18 September, supported by The National newspaper .
My third priority has been to start the process of building towards an independence campaign internally.
The work of the National Office Bearers, the NEC, and HQ staff is central to that, but so will be the activities and actions of MSPs, MPs and those who work for them – as well as every constituency, branch and affiliated organisation.
Every member, in fact. And that means you.
During the autumn, I hope we can also devise and develop the proper staffing and organisational structure for the work, ready to rapidly go up the gears when the Referendum Bill enters Parliament.
Of course, the decision about when that is must lie with the First Minster and the Scottish Government.
That Government, strengthened by the imaginative partnership with the Greens, has much to do. It is delivering for Scotland across a wide range of areas .
It must bring the final part of the Referendum legislation to the Scottish Parliament at the optimum moment, so as to ensure that any independence referendum campaign can not only be held safely and in a way that maximises the opportunity for conversion – but also when it is most likely to conclude with the victory which we must have.
I am not a member of that Government or of that Parliament.
My task , as a volunteer like almost everybody who is part of this movement, is to contribute what I can to the preparations we need, so that we are ready when they are required.
But readiness is not just about us as committed supporters of independence.
We must ensure that our fellow citizens are ready for the campaign and are more and more interested in, and receptive to the positive message we bring.
We have not only to argue for change, by our actions and our approach.
We have to be the change – to look and to embody the absolute opposite of the dismal, desperately unattractive gurning of the Unionists in Scotland and the bully and bluster of Johnson and his corrupt cronies.
Convener, Tony Benn once memorably said that he was leaving Parliament to spend more time on politics.
In the last few months I have felt that I am in danger of having done the same, but I am honoured to have been elected the President of this party and I think the job of President, whilst not defined in the constitution, should be a working one.
So I am pleased to be doing what I can to further the cause, for which I joined this party almost half a century ago.
During that time this party has changed out of all recognition.
We have moved from the fringes of Scottish politics to centre stage.
We are in our fifteenth year of delivering as a Government with as strong a determination as ever to serve all our fellow citizens to the best of our ability.
But we have still not gained independence and until we do, Scotland will not be able to fulfil the potential of all the people who live here, and ensure for them the right to choose how they live their lives.
That becomes more important with every passing day and I become more impatient for it every passing day too.
Age does that to people – as those who don’t know will at some stage discover.
I am keen to get on and get the job done, but like all jobs it needs planning, determination and collaboration.
Let’s finish the task.
Let’s do so positively together, hand in hand with those who share our cause if not our party.
Let’s do so as a nation seeking unity among ourselves, friendship with our neighbours and an equal place in the world.
A talented, outward looking, confident nation, building forward after the pandemic .
Building forward to Scotland’s new normal – independence.