A very happy St Andrew’s Day to all of you.
Scotland shares our patron saint with countries like Greece and Romania.
Others, like Poland, hold festivals and celebrations in his name.
That is a small but timely reminder of our interconnectedness and shared humanity.
These connections run deep in the ethos of our party.
The SNP is the party of independence.
We want Scotland to take her place as an equal, independent country.
To be in the global family of nations, playing our part in building a better world.
Our vision is open, internationalist and outward looking.
These values should never be taken for granted.
The last few years have shown us that.
Across the Atlantic, the tide may be turning again in their favour.
But here in the UK, the threat of Brexit looms.
In just a month’s time, Scotland will be forced – against our will – into a much more distant relationship with our friends across the European Union.
So, before we go any further, I want to send this message to our European friends and neighbours.
You are – and always will be – part of who we are.
You are not distant to us.
To those of you who have come from other countries to live here in ours, thank you.
And to the other countries of the EU, Scotland wants to return.
And we hope to do so soon, as an independent member state.
Of course, this year, we’ve faced an even bigger threat to the ties that bind us.
Covid has turned our way of life upside down. It has shaken us to our core.
Recently, I came across a photo taken just after my speech to conference last autumn.
The auditorium was packed and the photo shows me hugging an elderly lady at the side of the stage.
When I look at it now – normal human connection in the midst of a crowded event – it’s like viewing a different world. A bygone age.
That’s the cruelty of Covid.
It has turned those cherished connections between people and countries into our biggest vulnerability.
Borders have been closed, travel restricted, and we’ve been forced to live most of this year apart from our nearest and dearest.
This has been, and still is, the toughest of times.
The challenges we’ve faced, and the sacrifices we’ve all been asked to make, would have been unthinkable this time last year.
If you feel utterly exhausted by it all, believe me, you’re not alone.
Politicians usually run a mile from admitting human frailty.
But these aren’t normal times.
I don’t mind saying that these last 9 months have been the hardest of my life.
I’ve had many dark days and sleepless nights, struggling with the horrendous choices the pandemic has forced upon us.
At times I’ve felt completely overwhelmed – as I’m sure many of you have.
And I feel a deep sadness for the lives that have been lost.
Not a single day passes that I don’t think of families who are grieving.
Like governments everywhere, ours has had to wrestle with almost impossible decisions.
Every action necessary to reduce the harm of the virus and save lives, puts jobs and businesses on the line and causes suffering in so many other ways.
But without those necessary measures, more lives will be lost.
I’ve done my best to get these decisions as right as I can.
And I’ve had the support of an outstanding team of ministers and advisers.
I can never thank them enough.
But I know we’ve made mistakes.
And the responsibility for that is mine and mine alone.
I feel it deeply, and I always will.
But I feel immense gratitude too.
I want to thank everyone across the country for bearing the sacrifices asked of you with such strength and patience, and for the love and care you have shown each other.
I pay particular tribute to our incredible NHS staff, our social care workers, our police officers and teachers and every public servant and key worker who has contributed so much to helping us through.
And now, as well as gratitude – and for the first time in what feels like forever – I also feel a sense of hope.
There is light at the end of the tunnel.
Over the tough winter months that still lie ahead, there will be times when we struggle to see the light.
But it’s there and it’s getting brighter.
We are going to come through this.
We’ll pull through by continuing to love, care for and protect each other.
And by placing our faith in the astonishing efforts of those in the global scientific and health community who are working so hard to produce vaccines and treatments.
And when we do come through – as we will – we’ll put our shoulders to the wheel to build a better Scotland.
We are living through the crisis together. Every one of us is struggling.
But it would be wrong to pretend we’ve all been affected equally.
Many will be desperate to get back to the way things were because life was good.
But others will be desperate not go to back to the way things were because life was much more difficult than it should be.
The pandemic has highlighted and deepened inequalities that have existed in our country for generations.
And, in so doing, it has laid down a challenge.
The challenge of no longer accepting problems as inevitable or insoluble.
This must be a moment – if I can paraphrase the late Bobby Kennedy – not to look at the challenges our country faces and ask why.
But to imagine instead how we overcome these challenges and ask why not?
Covid has caused incalculable grief and suffering.
But just maybe we can draw something of value from it too.
A determination to never again take for granted something as simple as giving another person a hug.
And a renewed belief that what we once thought impossible, can be done if we put our minds to it.
In the face of crisis, we’ve shown that.
We created new domestic supply lines for PPE.
Within days, whole new systems were built to deliver support to the vulnerable.
Rough sleepers were given homes.
Armies of volunteers sprung into action.
And in a matter of weeks, a brand new hospital was ready to open its doors.
As we emerge from crisis, we must harness that same can-do spirit.
Things may have come apart this year, all over the world.
But we have an opportunity now to put them back together in a better way.
We are a country of more than five million individuals, with different preferences, hopes and dreams, but we share common aspirations.
Fulfilling jobs, financial security, happy homes and healthy families, and a sense of optimism about the future.
That’s what everyone in Scotland deserves.
Our task, in the SNP, is to do all we can to help people fulfil those aspirations.
As a party, we are stronger than we have ever been.
I want to thank you, our members, for your hard work and commitment.
You are the party.
You shape it, and it’s down to your efforts that so many people now believe that independence is the best future for Scotland.
But we must never forget this.
We serve the people – they do not serve us.
We earned the trust we enjoy today, by focussing on what matters.
That’s what we must always do.
That means protecting our NHS.
Giving young people the best start in life.
Taking action every day to improve lives.
And, yes, winning the powers that come with independence.
So that, together, we can build the better, fairer Scotland we know is possible.
The independence case is a powerful one.
More and more people in Scotland are being persuaded by it.
And I believe – passionately – that it is one with the power to unite.
An independent country, where those of us who live here shape the future and work together to overcome our challenges, will be good for all of us.
A country fairer and more equal than it is now will be good for all of us.
An economy that provides greater job and income security will be good for all of us.
A Scotland that is an equal partner with our friends in the rest of the UK and across Europe will be good for all of us.
So as we set about the task of rebuilding our country, there’s a question that all of us in Scotland must ask ourselves.
The answer to this question will define our country’s destiny and determine the life-chances of this and generations to come.
Who do we want to be in the driving seat of shaping Scotland’s future?
Should it be Scottish Governments – of whatever party – elected by the people of Scotland and with the priorities and interests of Scotland at heart?
Or Westminster governments that time and again we have rejected?
Will we, the people of Scotland, place trust in ourselves?
Or will we leave our future in the hands of a Westminster system that is so clearly taking us in the wrong direction?
You know, one of the arguments often used against independence is that in tough times we need the ‘broad shoulders’ of the UK.
Well, right now, we are living through the toughest of times.
The Scottish Government hasn’t got everything right – far from it.
But I doubt there are many people in Scotland who would have wanted Westminster to be more in charge of our pandemic response.
In the depth of crisis, we have looked to and trusted our own government and Parliament to steer us through.
We should do the same now as we look to rebuild.
Our opponents will argue independence is a distraction from that.
They could not be more wrong.
If we want to make sure the country we rebuild is the one we want it to be, with kindness, compassion, fairness, equality and enterprise at its heart…
And not one built in the image of Boris Johnson and his band of Brexiteers.
We must work to the right plan, with all the tools we need to do the job.
Independence is not a distraction from the task of post Covid reconstruction.
It is essential to getting it right.
Of course, we won’t wait to be independent to start doing the right things now.
I’m about to give you concrete examples of how, even in areas that are still substantially reserved to Westminster, the Scottish Government is nevertheless acting now to rebuild and renew.
And as I do so, ask yourself this.
If this is what we can do with limited powers, how much more could we achieve if we didn’t have one hand tied behind our backs? Take social security.
The pandemic has reinforced as never before the necessity of strong social protection that will be there for all of us in times in need.
For many people in Scotland the post-war welfare state has been a reason to support the union.
But both the values and the practical measures that underpin that system are being dismantled by Westminster governments we don’t vote for.
When the pandemic hit, the UK had one of the lowest levels of statutory sick pay in the whole of Europe.
It still does.
Brutal cuts to welfare have forced families into poverty and taken hundreds, even thousands of pounds a year out of the pockets of those who can least afford it.
Westminster has given us the bedroom tax, benefit sanctions, the two child cap and the abhorrent rape clause.
And their rhetoric has sought to divide and stigmatise.
We take a different approach.
On Saturday, John Swinney made the truly landmark commitment that if we are re-elected in May, lunches and breakfasts will be available free of charge all year round for every primary school child in Scotland.
This – alongside the baby box and the doubling of early years education – is part of our commitment to making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up.
At the heart of that commitment, is the new Scottish Child Payment.
We will shortly become the only part of the UK to give low income families an extra £10 per week for every child – initially for children up to age 6 and then for every child up to age 16.
This has been described as a game changer in the fight to end child poverty.
The first payments will be made in February.
But I know that for families struggling now, February is still a long way off.
So I am announcing today a £100 million package to bridge that gap, and help others struggling most with the impact of Covid over the winter months.
It will include money to help people pay their fuel bills and make sure children don’t go hungry.
It will offer additional help for the homeless, and fund an initiative to get older people online and connected.
And, most importantly of all, it will provide a cash grant of £100 for every family with children in receipt of free school meals.
The money will be paid before Christmas and families can use it for whatever will help them through the winter.
That could be food, new shoes or a winter coat for the kids.
Families will know best what they need.
That’s not for government to decide.
Initiatives like this are not just about providing practical help to those who need it most.
They are an expression of our values and of the kind of country we are seeking to build.
A more equal Scotland where we look out for each other in a spirit of solidarity and compassion.
So as we rebuild our country, let us ask this.
Who do we want to be in charge of our social security system?
Scottish Governments elected by you – with your priorities at heart – or Westminster governments that have to be shamed into feeding hungry children?
The pandemic has forced all governments to take decisions we could never have imagined just a year ago.
The restrictions we’ve had to put in place are essential to reduce stop the virus spreading.
To stop people getting ill and needing hospital care – and to save lives.
But we know they’re having a huge impact on businesses and jobs.
The most effective way to support jobs is to control the virus.
It’s the only sustainable way to bring back the consumer and business confidence that will drive the economy forward.
But there is real hardship today, and it is heart-breaking to see.
We have already put in place a package of business support worth around £2.4 billion.
And with optimism about vaccines now growing, I promise we will continue to do everything we can to help business through.
For young people, in particular, the impact has been severe.
Their school, college and university experiences have been disrupted.
But the sense of hope that comes with being young – if I can remember that far back – is precious.
So we must help this generation of young people caught so cruelly in the eye of the Covid storm.
To do that we’ve established the Young Person’s Guarantee.
It aims to give everyone aged 16-24 the guarantee of work, education or training.
And, today, as part of that commitment, I can announce new support for apprenticeships.
Our Pathway to Apprenticeships programme will provide work-based training and a £100 a week allowance for school leavers up to age 18.
It will start by helping 1,200 young people gain key skills in sectors like construction, business, IT, engineering and early years.
We will also invest £15 million to help more employers take on an apprentice.
Businesses want to give young people opportunities, but for many the impact of the pandemic will make the costs too hard to meet.
So we’ll pay employers £5000 for every new modern apprentice they take on between the ages of 16 and 24.
For apprentices who are care leavers, disabled or from minority ethnic communities, the £5000 grant will be available up to the age of 29.
More generally, for every apprentice age 25 or over, we will pay employers a grant of £3,500.
This investment will enable thousands more young people to secure an apprenticeship as they start their working lives.
These are the kind of measures we are taking, working alongside business and trade unions, as part of a national mission to create jobs as we recover from Covid.
And, of course, the economic recovery must be a green one.
Our new Scottish National Investment Bank opened its doors last week and has the transition to net zero as its top mission.
We’re investing heavily in heat and energy efficiency and supporting the creation of green jobs.
We must not – and will not – waver from our commitment to a net zero society by 2045.
And as Scotland prepares to host the global climate change talks in Glasgow next year, it is good to know that sitting around the table will be a new US government that shares that commitment.
COVID has created a jobs crisis that none of us could have been foreseen.
But we face another massive economic crisis which was foreseeable.
It was also entirely avoidable.
When the pandemic hit, we put campaigning for independence on hold.
We had no choice. Our first and only responsibility as Scotland’s government was to steer the country through.
But the UK Government refused to do the same with their disastrous Brexit plans
Back in the summer we said they should wait.
That the Brexit transition period must be extended.
We produced detailed evidence of the hit to the economy that ending it in the middle of a global pandemic would cause.
The Vote Leave gang ignored us.
So, in just one month, on Hogmanay, we face a hard Brexit. – with either no deal or a low deal.
Scotland will be taken out of the European Single Market, which in population terms is seven times the size of the UK.
We will be taken out of the EU Customs Union.
And the Tories are already celebrating the end of freedom of movement.
That would be huge, damaging change at the best of times.
But in these most difficult of times it is unforgivable.
The short-term damage of leaving the EU will be severe.
But the long-term term impact will be worse.
So, again, the question we must ask is this.
Who do we trust to rebuild our economy for the future?
A Scottish government elected by us, accountable, outward looking, internationalist, and with Scotland’s interests at heart?
Or Boris Johnson’s band of Brexiteers?
You know, the Tories haven’t won a general election in Scotland for 60 years.
But that hasn’t stopped them imposing damaging policies on Scotland.
Policies like Brexit, austerity, the rape clause, Trident nuclear weapons.
Thankfully, the Scottish Parliament has offered protection in devolved areas like health, education and the environment.
The Tories don’t like that.
But they have a problem – they know they’re unlikely to win an election to the Scottish Parliament.
So they’ve decided instead to undermine it and find another way to impose their agenda.
Having – in their minds – taken control back from the EU they now want to take it back from Scotland too.
Boris Johnson is using Brexit – which people in Scotland voted overwhelmingly against – to fundamentally undermine the Scottish Parliament – which people in Scotland voted overwhelmingly for.
That’s turning democracy on its head.
They’ve torn up the constitutional rule that stops them passing laws in devolved areas without the consent of Holyrood.
They’ve imposed the EU Withdrawal Act which constrains the Scottish Parliament’s powers.
They’ve even gone to court to strike down an act of the Scottish Parliament they didn’t like.
And now they’ve opened a new front -t he Internal Market Bill.
This is – quite simply – a Trojan Horse that will allow Westminster to work its way into the very heart of the devolution settlement.
I suppose the only thing I can say in their favour is that they are being perfectly open about all of this.
They’re not trying to hide their intent.
Here’s what one Tory said recently – “the Internal Market Bill is just the start. The UK Government is back in Scotland. Get used to it.”
Charming bunch, aren’t they?
Boris Johnson himself has called devolution a disaster.
That was no slip of the tongue.
From the perspective of Boris Johnson and those with his world view devolution has has been disastrous.
Disastrous for them.
It has loosened Westminster control.
And given the people of Scotland a voice.
And it’s meant Tory prime ministers having to pretend to listen to First Ministers like me.
Believe me, they really, really don’t like that.
But, to be serious, I know there are many people in Scotland who would prefer a stronger Scottish Parliament to independence.
I respect that – but the hard truth is this.
A stronger Scottish Parliament is not on offer from Westminster.
Far from it. They intend to take away powers our Parliament already has.
And we can’t say we haven’t been warned.
Jacob Rees-Mogg – that shining advertisement for modern democracy…not – couldn’t have been clearer last week.
He wants to “undo” devolution.
So the choice for Scotland is pressing.
Are we prepared to have the powers we voted for stripped away – at a time when we need them most?
Are we prepared for our Scottish Parliament to be undermined and dragged down by Westminster?
Or will we decide to make our Scottish Parliament independent?
The answer to that question matters for many reasons.
And the NHS is close to the top of the list.
Health policy may be devolved, but the NHS faces Westminster threats.
Trade deals could result in a big increase in the price our health service pays for drugs – reducing funds for patient care.
And the end of freedom of movement with the EU is already making it much harder to attract the NHS and social care staff we need.
The challenges facing our NHS are huge.
Changing demographics meant that was true before Covid.
But Covid has made it even more so.
I can promise you today that the SNP will continue to provide record investment in the NHS.
But nothing is more important to the health of our NHS than those who work in it.
No matter how much technology we have, or how many new drugs are developed, it is the doctors and nurses, the clinical staff who support them, the porters, cleaners and admin staff that we depend on most.
And that is true of social care workers too.
When they care for our loved ones, they can almost become like part of our families.
And without them, the NHS simply couldn’t do its job.
So supporting our cherished NHS must always start with valuing those whose hard work and commitment make it what it is.
Back in the spring, at the height of the first wave of Covid, many of us publicly – and often loudly – showed our appreciation for the work our NHS and social care staff were doing.
People across many different occupations have been indispensable to the Covid response.
But there was, and remains, a particular recognition of the incredible, often heroic, efforts of those who work in hospitals and other health and care settings.
That is why many of us put rainbows in our windows and stood on our doorsteps to applaud them.
The applause was important. But it was never enough.
Our appreciation must be shown in a more tangible way.
Now, as it happens, NHS staff in Scotland are already the best paid anywhere in the UK.
And adult social care workers here are paid at least the Real Living Wage – a higher rate than many of their colleagues in England and Wales.
We are also in the early stages of negotiating a new pay deal for NHS Agenda for Change staff.
The UK government’s public sector pay policy will not make that task easy.
But we will do our level best to give NHS staff the pay increase they deserve.
However, that negotiation will take time to conclude.
Those who have worked in our hospitals and care homes – caring for the sick and dying, at the sharpest end of the Covid trauma – deserve recognition now.
So I can announce today that, on behalf of us all, the Scottish Government will give every full time NHS and adult social care worker £500 as a one-off thank you payment for their extraordinary service in this toughest of years.
Those who work part time will get a proportionate share.
The money will be paid in this financial year and it will be separate from any negotiations about pay for the longer term. There are no strings attached.
Of course, a payment like this can never come close to expressing our full admiration for those who have cared for us so heroically.
But to our health and care workers, it is a demonstration of what we collectively owe you – and a heartfelt thank you for the sacrifices you have made.
The Scottish Government is choosing to do this now from our own resources.
We are asking nothing of the UK government – with one exception.
Because we don’t control the full tax and benefits system, we don’t have the power to make this payment tax free.
But Prime Minister, you do.
So I am asking you this – please allow our health and care heroes to keep every penny of Scotland’s thank you to them.
Do not take any of it away in tax.
Across the range of public services we’ve demonstrated the value of taking decisions in Scotland.
Our government has delivered the baby box – giving every child in Scotland the best start in life.
Record numbers of students from the most deprived backgrounds are now winning a place at university.
Council tax bills remain lower here.
We’ve introduced a progressive income tax system and a fairer social security system.
We’ve set up a brand new development bank.
We’ve delivered nearly 100,000 affordable homes.
And kept more than 1,000 extra officers on our streets.
That’s a record to build on.
Next May we will ask you, the people of Scotland, to put your trust in us to continue that task of building a better country.
I will ask you to judge us on our record and endorse our plans for the future.
And in that election, I will seek your authority – no-one else’s – for a legal independence referendum to be held in the early part of the new Parliament.
And then, collectively, we can answer those fundamental questions I have posed today.
Who is best placed to lead Scotland’s recovery and build a better future.
Westminster governments we don’t vote for?
Or independent Scottish Governments – of whatever party – chosen by us and with Scotland’s best interests at heart.
As we look ahead, we should have every confidence in what is possible if we do take our future into our own hands.
Far from being too wee, Scotland is the ideal size to succeed.
Independent nations of similar size to us are amongst the wealthiest, fairest and happiest in Europe.
If Denmark can be a successful independent country, why not Scotland?
If Ireland can and Norway can, why not Scotland?
We have the resources, the wealth and the talent.
As an independent country we can decide how best to use all those resources, all that wealth and all that talent.
We will be the decision-makers.
Our relationship with our closest friends in the rest of the UK won’t come to an end.
It will be a stronger and better one.
Because it will be a partnership of equals.
As equal partners we will co-operate and work together. We will learn from each other.
But we in Scotland will be decision makers, able to chart our own course and build our own future.
As an independent country, we can be bridge-builders too.
A bridge between the UK and Europe.
Helping to create economic opportunity, deepen understanding and bring people closer together.
Friends, as you know, I’m a bit of a bookworm.
The Turkish novelist, Elif Shafak, is one of my favourites.
She wrote this about what it means to belong in many places at once:
“A human being, every human being, is boundless and contains multitudes.”
People in Scotland recognise that sentiment. We are a people comfortable with multiple identities.
As an independent country, we can be decision-makers, partners, bridge-builders.
And we have a right, if a majority of us want it, to choose that future.
That inalienable right of self determination cannot, and will not, be subject to a Westminster veto.
We are seeing across the Atlantic, what happens to those who try to hold back the tide of democracy.
They get swept away.
So let us keep faith in the right and the power of the people to bring about democratic change.
Friends, in the hardest of times, the pandemic has taught us much about ourselves and our country.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of all is that we must have confidence in each other.
We have a tough winter yet ahead of us.
I pledge today that I will dedicate every ounce of my energy to steer us through it as safely as I possibly can.
And then we have a great, collective rebuilding task on our hands.
Creating jobs. Protecting our precious NHS.
Building a fairer Scotland.
And forging a new partnership of equals.
That’s the task that before us.
There’s no-one better to carry it out that than the five and a half million of us who live in this beautiful, amazing country of ours.
Wherever we come from – and whoever we vote for – we all care for Scotland.
So let’s get to it with hope, love and compassion.
Let’s continue to support each other through these turbulent times.
And then, together, build that better Scotland we know is possible.