On 14th July 2022, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon launched the second of the Scottish Government’s Building A New Second papers, Renewing Democracy Through Independence. This is the full speech from that launch.
Today we are launching the second in the Building A New Scotland series of papers, refreshing the case for independence.
Just to recap, in the months ahead we intend to cover currency, public finances and the economy, social security and pensions, defence, and a range of other issues that are all intended to fully inform the choice on independence.
Today’s paper, though, focuses on democracy and democratic renewal. It exposes the significant and increasing democratic deficit that Scotland suffers as part of the Union.
It shows that, far from being abstract, this deficit has real consequences for individuals, families and businesses. From the impact of austerity, to the implications of a Brexit that Scotland did not vote for.
And it argues that only independence can strengthen and embed democracy in Scotland, and so provide a secure foundation from which to overcome challenges and so fulfil our potential.
Now, this discussion could not be more timely. The democratic deficit Scotland faces is not a new or a recent phenomenon, but the evidence of it now is arguably starker than it has ever been.
A prime minister with no democratic endorsement from Scotland will be replaced by another prime minister that Scotland hasn’t vote for – indeed, wouldn’t vote for, even if we were given the opportunity.
And the change of Tory leader seems virtually certain to be accompanied by a shift even further to the right. And that means a shift even further away from the mainstream of Scottish opinion and values.
A race to the bottom on tax, cuts to public services and support for families, more posturing over Brexit, hurting businesses and trade, abandonment of the fight against climate change, and a toxic, indeed, wholly manufactured culture war, putting equalities and human rights protections at risk.
We may be just a few days into this Tory leadership contest, but it is already crystal clear that the issues Scotland is focused on – tackling child poverty, supporting NHS recovery, building a fairer economy, and making a Just Transition to net zero, will be hindered, not helped, by whoever becomes Prime Minister in the weeks ahead.
Added to all of that, the principle which is long accepted until now, that the UK is a voluntary union of nations within which Scotland has the right to self-determination, is being torn to shreds.
Indeed, all Scotland hears from UK politicians these days is democracy denial. They trade opinions on how many years it should be before Westminster might allow us to make a democratic choice about our own future.
The fact that the Scottish people have repeatedly elected a majority in the Scottish Parliament committed to an independence referendum is treated as immaterial. You don’t have to be a supporter of Scottish independence to know that that is not democracy.
That attitude is not surprising from Tories, and if it was just the Conservatives, it might matter less – given the political death spiral they appear to be in. But these days, where the Tories go, Labour seems obliged to follow.
So scared is Labour of Tory attacks from the right, and so obsessed with neutralising, rather than standing up to these attacks, that they are becoming a pale imitation of the Tories, rather than a real alternative.
Now, that has implications for the direction of the UK as a whole, and across the spectrum of social and economic policy. But here’s what it means for Scotland.
This is Labour’s pitch to Scotland in a nutshell – to help Labour win in England, Scotland must suck up what we did not vote for. Brexit, and all of its dire consequences, must be accepted – with no possible route back into the EU or even the single market.
But what we did vote for – what we have repeatedly voted for – an independence referendum and the possibility of a better alternative, will be blocked by Labour in all circumstances, and for all time.
As in 2014, they are teaming up with the Tories to frustrate the will of the Scottish people. Earlier this week, we even had the grotesque spectacle of a Labour MP actually bragging about councillors in Edinburgh being suspended for refusing to back the Tories over the SNP.
Labour’s positions are nothing to do with the interests or the democratic wishes of Scotland – they are cynical political calculations based on, in my view, the deeply misguided belief that the way back to power is to adopt, wholesale, the policies of the Tory Government they claim to oppose.
For Scotland, this means again that our interests and democracy are to be sacrificed, sold out on the altar of winning Tory votes.
It is, perhaps, history repeating itself.
Margaret Thatcher, after she had left office, was reportedly once asked what she thought her greatest achievement was, and she replied ‘Tony Blair and New Labour’.
What she meant, obviously, was that she had forced Labour into adopting many of her policies in order to win power.
Now, Boris Johnson’s legacy will surely be defined by his manifest unfitness for office, but forcing Keir Starmer to make the journey from champion of Remain to arch-Brexiteer may be seen, in years to come, as one of his only achievements.
In short, what Scotland is hearing and seeing from Westminster parties encapsulates the democratic deficit that we face as part of the UK.
Parties and policies that we reject, forced upon us, but the democratic right to choose an alternative, denied to us.
It underlines this point. Scotland doesn’t really need, nor does it want, a pale imitation of, or a temporary respite from Tory Government.
Scotland needs the real and permanent alternative that only independence offers.
Because, stark though it now is, the democratic deficit isn’t new. As today’s paper sets out, it has existed over decades. Devolution has helped mitigate it, but it has not removed it.
And that links back to the key theme of the first paper in this series. In that, we presented the extent to which, on a range of economic and social measures, neighbouring independent countries, similar in many ways to Scotland, are outperforming the UK.
We highlighted the fact that Scotland, as part of the UK, is effectively locked in to that underperformance, despite all of the advantages we enjoy in human and natural resources.
I firmly believe that it is only with the democratic powers to take the key decisions affecting our lives here that we can close that gap and reach our potential.
And that is a key point. Independence is not separate from bread and butter issues. It is all about those issues. Independence is about building a stronger and fairer economy. It is about protecting the NHS and public services. It is about tackling the cost of living and ensuring that, in this energy-rich country, the cost of heating our homes doesn’t plunge people into dire poverty. It is about safeguarding the climate, human rights, and our place in the world.
So, in this paper, we set out where Scotland stands democratically – and how that impacts on our economy and society.
We show how out of sync Scotland’s governance by Westminster is with our voting patterns and democratic choices – not just now, but over the long term.
Not once in my entire lifetime have the Tories won a majority, or even plurality of seats in Scotland – and yet for around two-thirds of my lifetime, Scotland has had to thole Tory prime ministers and policies.
That is not democracy.
Nor is it abstract. Austerity, Brexit, anti-immigration measures. These are all policies we didn’t vote for in Scotland, but which are damaging lives and living standards across our country.
Finally, and fundamentally, this paper makes the case that the democratic deficit cannot be fixed within a system founded on the principle of Westminster sovereignty.
There is no constitutional reform in the UK that cannot be overturned or undermined on the whim of a Westminster majority – and we have seen that very clearly since the Brexit vote of 2016.
Assertions of Westminster authority have become ever more pronounced, and the lack of institutional safeguards for devolution, ever more obvious.
Key Westminster decisions – on Brexit, social security, energy, immigration, and much more besides – are having profound and damaging effects on Scotland. There are no constitutional safeguards to properly protect the people of Scotland from these decisions.
Even the Sewell Convention, which was, of course, designed to ensure that UK governments and Parliament did not legislate on devolved matters without the consent of the Scottish Parliament, has been completely and utterly trashed.
Prior to Brexit, the exercise of Westminster sovereignty to frustrate Scottish Parliament decisions tended to be by financial means only. The refusal to transfer funds in relation to free personal care, for example, in the earlier days of the Scottish Parliament.
But since 2016, Westminster has legislated against the express wishes of Holyrood not once, or even twice, but on no fewer than seven occasions.
And so it is in this light, I think, that pledges of more devolution, or even a legal duty to cooperate, as per the pathetically flimsy proposal put forward by Labour last week, must be seen.
Because even if the intention to deliver was in any way credible, it doesn’t resolve the democratic deficit – because ultimate power is retained by Westminster.
And that really is the fundamental problem. No UK Government, of any party, has ever shown the appetite for the fundamental, UK-wide reform required to guarantee self-government for Scotland within the UK.
Because that would require Westminster to accept that it is not sovereign on all issues at all times – and I simply cannot see that ever happening.
So in fact, independence is not just the best route to renewing and ensuring democracy in Scotland – to ensuring that we get governments we vote for, that our democratically elected parliament cannot be overridden and undermined, and that we have a secure foundation on which to build the economic and social future that we want.
Independence is not just the best route to all of that.
Independence is the only credible route to that.
Which is why offering Scotland the choice of independence, particularly in the context we are in today, is essential.
So I’ll end by reiterating my commitment to do exactly that and, in so doing, to deliver on the mandate of the Scottish people.
The Lord Advocate has now referred to the Supreme Court the question of whether the Scottish Parliament legislation providing for an independence referendum without a Section 30 order relates to a reserved matter.
This is intended to put the lawfulness of a referendum beyond doubt. It will also deny the Westminster establishment the ability to take refuge in endless arguments about process as a means of avoiding the substantive debate on independence.
Now, I hope the court’s decision will clear the path to a referendum on the 19th of October next year. That is what we are planning for.
Of course, we cannot preclude the possibility that Westminster will succeed in blocking the route to a referendum. But that cannot, must not, and will be allowed to mean that they succeed in blocking the right of the Scottish people to have our say on independence.
So while we hope and plan for a referendum, this should also be clear. If a referendum is blocked by Westminster, we will put the choice to the people of Scotland in the general election.
Either way, Scotland will have a choice.
And not only will democracy then prevail – it will become the foundation stone on which we build a better nation.