Nicola Sturgeon speech marking 20 years since Scotland’s devolution referendum

On this day twenty years ago the people of Scotland were casting their votes on whether or not to establish a new Scottish Parliament.

The referendum that day was the result of decades of campaigning – bringing to a point of decision a journey that had many ups and downs and false starts along the way.

It was the intensity of the campaign in the 1980s and 1990s – following on from the disappointment of the 1979 referendum – that led directly to the establishment of the Parliament at Holyrood.

The election of Margaret Thatcher, followed by 18 years of Tory government that people in Scotland consistently rejected, were undoubtedly major factors in the events that led to the referendum

But the demand for some form of Scottish self-government long pre-dated the Thatcher premiership – and  when considered in the sweep of history was, and remains, far more deep-rooted and fundamental than a reaction against an unpopular government.

Famously in 1707 Chancellor Seafield brought the old Scottish Parliament to a close with the words:

Now theres ane end of ane auld sang.


But the signing of the Act of Union didn’t just mean the end of an old song.

It was also the start of a new story.

A story of the new relationship with our friends and neighbours in these islands.

As Westminster Parliamentary democracy took hold, so too did a long-running Home Rule story.

It was, though, in the post-war era that politicians from different political traditions worked with renewed vigour to re-energise the Home Rule cause.

Notably, from the early SNP, there was John MacCormick and later his idea of a Scottish Covenant Association to campaign across the country and across parties for a devolved Scottish Parliament.

And from Labour, at a time when devolution was opposed by his party leadership, John P Mackintosh.

Indeed, there is a quotation from Mackintosh at the entrance to the Donald Dewar reading room in the Scottish Parliament, taken from a speech he gave to the House of Commons in 1976. It says this:

“People in Scotland want a degree of government for themselves.  It is not beyond the wit of man to devise the institutions to meet these demands.”

21 years after those words were spoken – in 1997 –politicians and activists from the SNP, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, from other parties and from none, were campaigning together to win just such an institution – the Parliament that sits in Edinburgh at Holyrood today.

One of the things that marked out that campaign, 20 years ago  – in some ways similar to the independence referendum of 2014 – was the involvement of those beyond party politics.

The churches, trade unions, writers, artists, businesspeople all had their say and were driving forces in building the momentum that led Labour to promise a referendum and the people of Scotland to vote for a Parliament with tax varying powers.

Indeed, it was a clergyman, the late Canon Kenyon Wright, who chaired the constitutional convention.

Kenyon revered the words of the 1989 Claim of Right, which asserted:

the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs”.

That claim, that sovereignty lies with the people, is a direct counter to the Westminster view of sovereignty lying with Parliament.

The Claim of Right was described by Kenyon as a watershed in Scottish democracy and there is no doubt that it is a document of major historic constitutional significance.

For politicians and non-politicians alike it was a time of optimism, hope and of shared endeavour.

Competition between political parties is essential for a vibrant democracy. We should always celebrate, not decry, a battle of ideas and robust debate.

But what we proved 20 years ago is that, even though we disagreed on the final destination, it was still possible to reach a consensus on the direction of our country.

20 years ago a broad consensus in Scotland was reached on two key points:

 – that to satisfy basic democratic principles, decisions about Scotland across a range of policy areas should be taken here and not by governments at Westminster;

– and that by taking decisions in Scotland the lives of the people of this country would be improved.

More generally we reached agreement as a nation that the resources and talent we have in abundance could be put to use to build a better Scotland.

So today, on the anniversary of the devolution referendum, I want to assess the key drivers of the campaign 20 years on and ask whether devolution has indeed improved both Scottish democracy and the lives of the people who live here.

But more importantly, I also want to look forward.

It has often been said that devolution is a process not an event.

So, I will argue that by continuing that process and enhancing even further the powers of our national Parliament, we will not only build upon the home rule tradition, but also equip our Parliament better for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

And I will argue that even though there is still disagreement – passionate disagreement – about the final destination of our constitutional journey, we should seek a new spirit of consensus to match that achieved in 1997.

Indeed, I will argue that, with Brexit now threatening the underpinning principle of devolution and many of our vital national interests, it is essential that we do so.

And in thinking ahead, we should reflect on one key difference between the circumstances of today and those of 20 years ago.

Before devolution, because almost all political power rested in London, those looking to achieve, or resist, change had to look south.

There was no choice do to otherwise – Westminster was where the decisions were taken.

Back in 1997 the dominant debate therefore was about our place in the UK and our relationship with Westminster.

That is, of course, still very much a live debate today – how could it be otherwise, when significant power to shape life in Scotland still lies there.

But the big difference is this:

After devolution we were able to look, not just south, but all around us, to our fellow European nations and to countries across the globe.

And we could contribute our ideas, learn from others and then put those ideas into practice here in Scotland.

Far from narrowing our vision, devolution has widened our horizon.

We are represented today through Scottish Government offices in Washington, Beijing, Dublin, Brussels, London and Toronto, and soon will be in Berlin and Paris.

Because of the initiative of Jack McConnell we are active in development efforts in Africa.

So as we look ahead, the debate we need to have about our future is not just about our place in the UK, it is about our place in the world.

And the political relationship we need to consider is not just that with Westminster but with the European Union and the wider global community.

But, firstly, let us assess whether devolution has improved Scottish democracy and the lives of the people who live here.

There is no doubt, in my view, that the democratic gains have been substantial.

Power has been brought closer to the people.

Decisions about Scotland in many policy areas are now taken by the people who live and work here. Our Parliament is more open and accessible than Westminster.

Issues that would never have found their way onto a Westminster agenda with little time for Scottish legislation, now command attention and priority.

The way MSPs are elected has brought about a new way of carrying out the business of government.

The system demands compromise, working together, give and take – to reflect the views and interests of all of Scotland.

Governments – and indeed opposition parties – do well to remember this reality, because it is as true today as it was in 1999.

Our voting system has also allowed new voices to be heard. It had ensured representation, over the years, from the Greens, Scottish Socialists and Independents.

Our national life has been enhanced by the contribution of those such as Dennis Canavan and the late Margo MacDonald.

And in local government the days when one party could win virtually every seat on a council on less than half the votes are gone.

That said, it is important that we now to look again at the way local decisions are made.

That is why the Scottish Government has committed to working with councils to review how local democracy is working.

We will examine how local decisions are made to benefit communities the most.

And we will encourage the spread of community participation in budget decisions.

However, there is no doubt that big democratic gains were made possible because of the decision taken on this day 20 years ago.

Of course, people who voted back in 1997 will have made their decision on what was best not just for their own generation but for the generations to come.

So it is important to consider the impact of devolution on today’s younger generation.

What impact has the decision their parents made 20 years ago had on the lives of today’s 16-year-olds – who, of course, have no memory whatsoever of life before the Scottish Parliament.

The most obvious democratic gain for a 16-year-old today is that thanks to devolution, he or she can vote.

They can help shape the democracy, the kind of country, they live in.

Today’s 16 and 17 year olds can vote in Holyrood and local government elections.

And it’s high time they were allowed to vote in UK general elections too.

But it is the impact on young people’s daily lives that the benefits of devolution can be seen most clearly.

While we have challenges in education – which we are determined to address – there have also been improvements.

A 16-year-old today is part of a school system delivering record Higher passes – a 30 per cent increase in the last ten years alone.

If our 16 year old is from a low income background he or she can still apply for the Education Maintenance Allowance to help them stay on at school – something not possible south of the border, and a policy choice only made possible by the Yes result of the referendum 20 years ago.

And because of the ability to take our own decisions, our 16-year-old can look forward to a university education free from the burden of £9,000 a year tuition fees.

If he or she decides not to go to university then they will be entering a labour market in which youth unemployment is at half the rate it was at the time of the referendum, and now one of the lowest in Europe.

Teenagers today will grow up not just in a more prosperous country but in a safer and healthier Scotland too.

Having our own parliament had allowed us to safeguard the founding principles of the NHS – and while like health services across the globe, our faces demographic pressures, we have the best performing emergency services anywhere in the UK.

Crime is at a 42-year-low.

The number of 15-year-olds who smoke regularly has dropped by more than two thirds in the last decade, the lowest level since surveys began – no doubt in part because of the Scottish Parliament’s ability to take the lead in banning smoking in public places.

Last week the Scottish Government announced further action to tackle obesity – to match the groundbreaking action we have already taken to tackle alcohol misuse –  setting out plans to use our own powers to limit the marketing of products high in fat, sugar and salt, even if Westminster decides not to.

And we are working hard to ensure our children and teenagers grow up in Scotland with cleaner air and less pollution.

Having our own Scottish Parliament enabled us to adopt the most ambitious climate change legislation anywhere in the world – and set a 100 per cent target for gross electricity consumption from renewable sources.

We’re now seeking support from the Parliament to go further: boosting cycling and walking and phasing out the need for new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032, eight years ahead of the target set by the UK government.

The Parliament has been characterised by a determination to drive forward equality and tackle discrimination. In many respects – those I’ve mentioned and more besides – we have led the way.

So what all this tells us is this:

The decisions today’s generation make can and do have a profound impact on tomorrow’s.

Some of the policies I mentioned were brought in by the SNP.

Others by different parties.

Some decisions have been contentious.

Others, like free personal care, commanded widespread support.

Of course, the Parliament has also made mistakes – and there are areas where people wish progress had been faster and gone further. That’s in the nature of democracy.

But there are few people in Scotland today, even those who campaigned for a No vote 20 years ago, who would deny that taking decisions in Scotland is a good thing.

On any reasonable assessment both Scottish democracy and the life of the nation have been enhanced by the bold, democratic step we took together as a country.

And this brings me to the future.

If the last 20 years have proven the worth of having a Parliament of our own, what will the future hold?

Despite our collective achievements, we have much still to do and overcome.

Today’s 16 year olds have advantages previous generations did not enjoy.

But, in other respects, they face greater challenges.

The jobs market is changing.

Technology is moving at an extraordinary pace – that can mean greater opportunity, but greater insecurity too.

As our population ages, the need not only to support our older citizens but also provide fairness across the generations, is greater than ever.

The gap between rich and poor is still too wide.

And social mobility is too narrow.

Last week, using the current powers of devolution, I unveiled the Scottish Government’s programme for the coming year.

The changes we are proposing are far-reaching. We have examined every area of devolved policy and asked what more can be done to help create the best country we can – for young and old.

And given the importance of human rights – and the fact that they are so are hardwired into the devolution settlement – we also made clear that we will oppose vigorously any attempt to undermine the Human Rights Act or withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.

We want instead, to ensure Scotland continues to lead by example.

Indeed, I am delighted to confirm today that the former chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, Professor Alan Miller, has agreed to chair an expert group to give independent advice to the Scottish Government.

The group will lead a process, with participation at its heart, engaging as many people as possible, to make recommendations on how we can protect and enhance economic, social, cultural, environmental and other rights.

So there is much we can, and are, doing.

But we should always be restless in our ambition to make life better for the people who live here.

And the more powers our Parliament has the more we can, collectively, do for Scotland.

So today I want to talk about how we can build a new consensus in 2017 to match the spirit of 1997.

Respecting our differences and then working together – not as government and opposition – but as equal partners, to win more powers for the Parliament and assert and protect its rights

In 1997 the SNP, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and others had competing views of Scotland’s constitutional future.

That is as true today, as it was then.

Everyone knows that I believe that becoming an independent country would be the best future for Scotland.

And that, as I said in June, at the end of the Brexit process, I believe that the people of Scotland should have a choice about our future direction as a country.

Indeed, at its heart, independence is the natural extension of the principle that decisions should be taken in Scotland, and that doing so improves the lives of the people who live here.

Others, of course, disagree.

But the key point is this – 20 years ago that disagreement about the final destination did not stop us from working together to make progress where we could.

And it shouldn’t today.

We should work, today, as we did then, to find and make progress on the areas where agreement exists.

That will take effort and compromise by all of us.

So over the coming months the Scottish Government will play our part.

We will publish a series of evidence-based papers, making the case for extending the powers of our Parliament – they will cover the issues of employment and employability, social security, immigration and trade.

They will not be intended as the final word – but to stimulate debate and seek consensus.

Today, however, I want to focus on three areas in particular, where I believe a new consensus can be built – and where the needs of the country demand that it is.

On immigration

On our relationship with the European Union.

And on social security

And as we consider each of these issues, we should think not just about the needs of today but also about the impact on, and our responsibility to, the next generation.

Let me deal, firstly, with immigration – rarely an easy issue for politicians, but one where the needs of our economy and society demand honesty and straight talking.

20 years ago, before devolution, the number of people working in Scotland and our overall population were both projected to fall.

To their credit, the Labour/Liberal Democrat administration of the time recognized that – that’s why the Fresh Talent initiative was devised.

But the real turn-around in Scotland’s population came about in large part because of our place in the European Union and the enlargement process.

Our economy, society and culture have been enriched by those who have settled here in Scotland.

And in turn people in Scotland today have the right to work and study in 27 other European Union countries.

I believe today’s 16-year-olds should enjoy that same right.

And that they should continue to benefit from the contribution of their fellow EU citizens who choose to make Scotland their home.

Today the UK government celebrates when the number of people coming to Britain falls.

They have a target – based on ideology rather than any rational consideration – to cut net inward migration to the tens of thousands.

But let’s be clear what that would mean for Scotland.

It would place a bigger burden on today’s young people.

It raises again the likelihood of a falling working population.

And that in turn would mean skills shortages, fewer jobs and fewer tax-payers to pay for a growing demand for public services.

A debate and a target driven largely by the needs and priorities of other parts of the UK could have devastating consequences for our economy and society.

And under current powers, there is nothing we can do about it.

That is one reason why there is now growing support for Scotland to have flexibility over immigration policy.

It would give us the ability to take decisions to suit our needs and protect our economy.

And it would give us the opportunity to stay true to the words of Donald Dewar in his great opening address to the Scottish Parliament.

On that day, the late First Minister said this of Scotland’s renewed democracy:

This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves

Offering a welcoming hand and an open heart to those seeking to make a contribution here in Scotland will honour that fine sentiment.

So on this issue, perhaps above all others, I believe the prospect of building a Scotland-wide consensus is both necessary and possible.

The question of immigration is bound up with freedom of movement and our relationship with the European Union.

Looking back to the House of Commons debates on devolution in 1997, it is noticeable that the question of how Scotland would be represented in Europe was prominent.

The issue then was who would argue for Scotland’s interests in the Council of Ministers.

No-one back then seriously contemplated that in 20 years’ time Scotland was in danger of not being represented at all.

But despite voting overwhelmingly to remain within the EU that is the danger we are facing today.

In all this it is important to remember that the EU is not standing still.

The Single Market, already the world’s most lucrative market-place, is still evolving.

There will be additional benefits when it is complete.

The digital single market could add hundreds of billions of Euros to the European economy.

With our universities, our tech businesses, resources and talent, few countries are better placed to take advantage than Scotland.

For today’s young generation that represents a huge opportunity.

That is one of the reasons the Scottish Government, notwithstanding our opposition to leaving the EU, is so determined to at least maintain our place in the Single Market.

It is a view shared by the vast majority of the Scottish Parliament and across Scottish society.

And the Parliamentary arithmetic at Westminster means that, if we work together, there is now a real possibility of limiting the damage and forcing Theresa May to change course.

In these circumstances Scottish MPs have real power.

They could make the difference.

So in Holyrood, all those who oppose an extreme Brexit must first of all come together.

And then work with our colleagues in the House of Commons to keep Scotland in the Single Market.

That is a consensus – in the national interest – that we must build and make count.

The growth of the Single Market and advances in digital technology are examples of the benefits of globalisation.

But we know that global forces, which are only going to increase in scale, can also bring insecurity and inequality.

That reinforces the need for a social safety net, a decent social security system, that we should all be able to rely on in times of need.

In the coming years this will be more important than ever for young people growing up in Scotland today.

But it is a safety net that is sadly being removed from too many.

From the sanctions regime, to the treatment of disabled people, to the rape clause, the UK government’s approach has caused widespread revulsion.

Around £1 billion a year will be cut from welfare spending in Scotland by 2021-22.

We can try to mitigate some of the worst of the Tory policy. And we have.


We’ve invested over £350m to mitigate the Bedroom Tax.

We’ve spent more than £120 million to help nearly a quarter of a million households through the Scottish Welfare Fund.

And as part of our drive to tackle poverty, we’ve also invested more than £1 billion over the last four years in the Council Tax Reduction scheme, helping almost half a million households each year to meet their bills.

But this poses real questions about the purpose of the Scottish Parliament.

Is it to act as a sticking plaster to mitigate bad decisions taken at Westminster?

Or should it have the power to take better decisions in the interests of the people of people of Scotland?

That latter purpose is surely the reason so many people campaigned for, and voted for devolution 20 years ago.

So the time has come to build on the limited social security powers the Parliament currently has – powers which we will use to deliver better and more humane support for carers, low income families and those with disabilities – and seek a consensus to ensure many more decisions about welfare are taken here in Scotland.

That would allow us to protect more people in the short term but also to contemplate more fundamental reform for the longer term, for example the option of a citizens’ basic income that I spoke about last week.

For my part, I believe that if we are prepared to put party interest aside in favour of the national interest, it is possible to reach agreement on a cross-party basis to protect and modernise the post-war welfare state.

So the opportunity is there now, if we puts aside our difference and work together, to build a new consensus on our relationship with Europe, and on winning the powers to take decisions here in Scotland on immigration and social security.

It is important for the next generation that we do so.

But it is important for the here and now too. Today, I’ve spoken about the opportunities for enhancing devolution in the future.

But the reality is that we face a more urgent task – one that is not so much about enhancing devolution, as it is about protecting it.

Today, ironically on the very anniversary of the vote to establish devolution, there is an attempt to erode the settlement the people of Scotland voted for.

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill which the UK Government is attempting to take through the House of Commons today threatens the very principle on which our Parliament is founded.

The devolution settlement – the Scotland Act that established our Parliament – is based on the principle that everything is automatically devolved unless it is reserved.

The Withdrawal Bill turns that principle on its head. As it stands, it will mean that devolved policy areas such as agriculture, fishing and the environment, which are currently carried out at EU level will be automatically reserved, unless the UK government decides to devolve.

Westminster will decide what areas of devolved policy will actually remain devolved.

So on the very day that we should be celebrating devolution, we are being called upon to defend it.

Let’s be clear.

The people of Scotland voted for the Parliament.

The settlement, on which it is based, belongs to them: not to this or any other UK Government.

So the bill must be changed. Our Parliament must be protected.

These developments mean the question facing us today is whether we will continue to go forward or be taken backwards.

We must ask what kind of society do we want for today’s and future generations.

Despite the sound and fury of Scottish politics, on the issues I have outlined today I believe there is more that unites us than divides us.

The majority of us want to maintain Scotland’s reputation as an outward-looking, welcoming nation.

We want today’s young Scots to have the opportunity to live in an outward-looking, welcoming, European country.

We want to be a country that can take advantage of the opportunities a globalised world can offer.

We are a country that values and promotes democracy, co-operation and solidarity.

20 years ago we proved we could put differences aside to build a better democracy, a better economy and a better society.

It’s time to go forward in that spirit again. Not to allow ourselves to be blinded by our disagreements – but to explore, identify and advance our areas of agreement instead.

Our job today is to protect what we won in 1997 – and then make sure we continue to build upon it, both in tribute to those whose efforts over generations delivered our own Scottish Parliament, but also in the best interests of all those we serve today and in the future.