This is the first gathering of the SNP since our election victory in May.
So let me begin with a big, heartfelt thank you.
Firstly, and most importantly, to the people of Scotland – thank you for again putting your trust in me as First Minister and in the SNP as your Government.
As I say often, we don’t – and won’t – get everything right.
But I give this guarantee.
We will work as hard as we can to make your lives better and retain your trust.
And thank you to SNP members across the country.
You did so much to secure victory in what was an election like no other.
You are the heartbeat of our party.
You know, in recent months, I’ve attended far too many funerals of much loved party stalwarts.
We miss them all.
Most recently the SNP family bid farewell to our dear friend, and sheer force of nature, Calum Cashley – taken from us far too soon.
Calum wasn’t a household name. He wasn’t an MSP or MP or councillor.
But his tireless, energetic contribution to the cause of independence was immense.
His brother said of him:
“My brother was a man driven to see Scotland become all it could be.
“It wasn’t just an independent Scotland he longed for, it was a better Scotland.”
Calum, like all of you, worked day in, day out to bring about that better country.
Let us take inspiration from his life and resolve that everything we do will be dedicated to making Scotland all it can be.
And that word “all” is important.
It is about everyone in Scotland.
It is about those born here, and those who honour us by making this country their home.
The Scottish election was the first time refugees and all foreign nationals with leave to remain had the right to vote.
That was important for its own sake.
But it is also a symbol of the country we are seeking to build.
Open, welcoming, diverse.
Refugees from Syria and elsewhere have settled in Alloa, on Bute, in Glasgow, in the Highlands, and many places in between.
They are a part of who we are.
They enrich our society in so many ways.
We should take pride from the fact that people who came here to escape persecution and war could, often for the first time in their lives, exercise what should be a universal democratic right.
One of the lessons that humanity seems destined to have to relearn time and again is that the rights we enjoy today can never be taken for granted.
That feels especially true just now.
But sadly for many people across the world – especially women and girls – these rights are still a distant aspiration.
Not just the right to vote, but the right to go to school, to freedom of expression, to be treated equally.
In recent weeks, we’ve heard heart-breaking stories from Afghanistan.
And we have witnessed scenes of extraordinary bravery.
People risking all in desperate attempts to save their children.
Women demonstrating in defence of the most basic rights – in the face of a truly barbaric regime
We can only imagine the courage that takes.
In Scotland, we are committed to welcoming and supporting those fleeing the Taliban.
The UK has a heavy responsibility, particularly to those who supported British interests over the past 20 years and now face mortal peril.
They must not be abandoned.
There must be a credible plan to bring each and every one to safety and security.
And we also have a continued moral and humanitarian obligation to provide hope and support to those who remain, particularly those striving to preserve the progress of the last two decades.
The Afghan crisis has also shone a spotlight on the UK Government’s wider asylum policy.
I know that speaking out about this issue is not always popular.
But offering asylum to those in dire need is an expression of our common humanity.
The UK Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill fails that basic test of humanity.
It could criminalise those seeking sanctuary from oppression simply for claiming asylum.
The UN refugee agency says the bill would violate the 1951 Refugee Convention.
These proposals are a stain on this Westminster government.
They run counter to the kind of country we are seeking to build.
And I look forward to the day when our asylum and migration policy is decided here in Scotland, not by a government in Westminster that sees it as an opportunity to show how tough it is, rather than how much it cares.
In May, the people of Scotland placed their trust in us again: in our values, our beliefs, in our welcoming vision of Scotland and in the practical actions we are taking to improve lives.
Their verdict was decisive.
And it was truly historic.
Judged by any standard of democracy, our victory in May represents an unarguable mandate to implement the manifesto we put before the country.
And that is what we intend to do.
It is called democracy.
During the election we said that tackling the pandemic would come first – and it will.
We said we would pursue the most ambitious programme for government ever put before the people of Scotland – we are doing exactly that.
And we said that when the covid crisis has passed, we would give the people of Scotland the choice of independence – and we will.
Let me take these in turn.
As First Minister my overriding priority every day is to keep Scotland as safe as possible.
Leading the country through the COVID crisis is the most important job I have ever had.
It has dominated my life over the past 18 months, as it has done for most of us.
It will continue to do so for as long as necessary.
Earlier this year, vaccines gave us renewed hope and they are providing us with life saving protection.
But just as vaccines have been a positive gamechanger in our battle against Covid, the much more transmissible Delta Variant has been a hugely negative one.
The recent, sharp rise in cases in Scotland, though we hope it is now slowing down, is a reminder of the risks we still face.
The collective, national effort over these past months has been nothing short of extraordinary.
I am acutely aware of the sacrifices people have made and the hardships many are still enduring.
I will never find the words to adequately express my gratitude.
But that great national effort is needed still.
To save lives and protect our NHS we must drive infections down again.
The government must lead – but we need the help of every person and every business in Scotland.
And vaccination is key.
Getting vaccinated is the most precious gift any us can give our loved ones.
It makes us and them so much safer.
To the millions across the country who have rolled up their sleeves – thank you.
To those who haven’t done so yet because you’re worried about things you’ve heard about vaccines, it’s not too late – please drop in to a clinic and speak to an expert.
I’m confident they’ll put your mind at rest.
Lastly, to the small but noisy minority who knowingly spread fear and misinformation about vaccines, I say this – stop being selfish and irresponsible.
Stop putting the health and well-being of the country at risk. It’s time to cease and desist.
Getting vaccinated is an expression of love and solidarity. It is about helping each other, and helping the NHS.
We do still have difficult days ahead of us in our fight against this virus.
My job in steering us through is not to do just what is popular.
It is do what is right to keep us as safe as possible.
No responsible leader should give false assurances.
But as we head into winter, our objective is clear – to get and keep infection down while keeping our economy and society open.
Our chance of success depends on all of us.
We need to keep doing the basic things that we know reduce the spread.
As well as getting vaccinated, please keep wearing your face masks, keep washing your hands, keep windows open when you gather indoors, keep a sensible distance from people in other households, and keep working from home if you can.
All of these basic mitigations make a difference.
So too will the limited system of vaccine certification approved by Parliament last week.
I hope it won’t be necessary for long.
But if the simple act of showing that we’ve been vaccinated helps keep businesses open and our lives free of restrictions, then I believe it will be worth it.
The sacrifices we are all being asked to make now may not be as great as a few months ago – but they’re still hard.
They also make a big difference.
So let’s keep going.
And soon, I hope, we can look ahead with greater confidence to better days ahead.
The pandemic is one of those rare moments in history when there is intense focus both on the world as it is now, and how it could be in future.
In Scotland – as elsewhere – this is a time for reflection, for hope and for action.
We are in some ways a young democracy.
Our Parliament is just over 20 years old.
It was brought into being by an overwhelming desire for a better country, and a belief in the value of self-government.
At the birth of our Scottish Parliament in 1999, there was a powerful sense that co-operation and not just confrontation was the way forward.
That is the spirit in which we embark on this new phase of SNP Government.
We seek to do so, not as triumphant victors, but as constructive partners.
Standing proudly for what we believe in, yes, but debating difference with civility and respect, and seeking as much common ground as we can find.
I believe that’s what most people in Scotland want.
And, to be frank, it’s what is badly needed as we face up to the great challenges ahead.
Honest reflection is important for any party, even after election success.
It is especially important in the wake of heavy defeat.
The SNP understood that after of our loss in 2003.
We thought hard about the message voters had sent us, and what we had to do better to earn their trust.
That’s why we were able to win in 2007.
It utterly astonishes me, baffles me completely in fact, given the number and scale of their defeats, that Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats show absolutely no inclination to do likewise.
Instead of adapting positions that voters have rejected time and again, they are doubling down and expecting voters to adapt to them.
These parties demonstrate no sign at all of learning the lessons or making the changes necessary to move from opposition to government.
Which can lead to only one conclusion – they don’t aspire to be in government.
Now, all of that may be good for the SNP.
But it is bad for democracy.
Oppositions hungry to be in government are more effective.
And effective opposition matters in a democracy.
But that is not what we have in Scotland.
Instead, on virtually every issue, we have opposition simply for the sake of opposition.
It’s not about achieving or improving anything, or even holding power to account.
It is just about blocking the SNP at any cost.
It is crude, it lacks principle or consistency and it is utterly counter-productive.
The country deserves so much better than that.
The times we are living through and the challenges we face demand a better way of doing politics.
That’s why after this election, instead of taking what might have been the easy option – to carry on as before – we decided to be bolder and seek co-operation with the Scottish Greens
I am delighted that we were able to reach an agreement.
It means a change of gear for our Parliament and our country.
It means, after three terms of government, that the SNP is not resting on our laurels.
Instead we are challenging ourselves in the interests of those we serve.
And it means a renewed spirit of co-operation from two parties interested above all in changing our country, and the lives of everyone who lives here, for the better.
That ambition and determination is evident in the Programme for Government I set out to the Scottish Parliament last week.
A programme to kick-start and drive recovery from COVID, and build a greener, fairer, better future.
At the heart of the programme is our National Health Service.
The NHS is our most precious public service and once again I pay tribute to the incredible efforts of all those who have worked heroically to tackle the pandemic.
That work continues.
Because of Covid, the NHS is facing more intense pressure now than it has done at any time before.
The single most important job that our government has at this time is to support it through the difficult winter months that lie ahead.
It is one we will do with the utmost sense of responsibility.
But we must also look ahead and rebuild.
So we are implementing an NHS recovery plan.
It will be supported by record investment. By the end of this Parliament, the frontline health budget will be at least £2.5 billion higher than it is today.
We will also undertake the single biggest public service reform since the founding of the NHS – a new National Care Service.
Just like the creation of the NHS in the wake of the Second World War, the National Care Service will be a fitting legacy from the trauma of Covid.
It will enhance the quality and consistency of care and ensure that social care workers are better rewarded and treated with the respect they deserve.
To support the reform, we will increase funding for social care by at least £800 million – or 25% – over this term of Parliament.
Of course, last week, the Tories announced a UK wide hike in National Insurance Contributions.
It doesn’t just breach their own manifesto – it hits young people and those on lower incomes hardest.
It fails the basic test of fairness.
The SNP has taken a different approach.
With the very limited tax powers at our disposal we introduced an income tax system with fairness at its heart.
Those on lower incomes pay less, while those with the broadest shoulders pay a bit more.
It is progressive, transparent and demonstrates clearly the different vision of society we in the Scottish Government have from those at Westminster.
The pandemic has shone a harsh light on the deep inequalities that exist in our society.
That is why the Scottish Government is giving money directly to those who need it.
Our unique Scottish Child Payment already pays £10 per child per week to low income families with children under six.
By the end of next year we will extend it to all children in low income families under the age of 16 – with bridging payments between now and then.
And we intend to double the payment from £10 to £20 a week just as quickly as we can.
We know we have much more to do, but the SNP Government is lifting children out of poverty.
Shamefully, Boris Johnson’s government is about to do the reverse.
In a few weeks’ time the Tories intend to cut Universal Credit by £20 per week.
This will be the biggest overnight reduction to a basic rate of social security since the 1930s.
It will affect millions across the UK – and hundreds of thousands here in Scotland.
In Scotland alone it risks pushing 60,000 people – including 20,000 children – into the formal definition of poverty.
Most of those affected are either in work or not able to work due to health or caring responsibilities.
The loss of more than £1,000 a year will be utterly devastating.
It will quite literally take food out of children’s mouths.
It will drive people into debt and, in some cases, to destitution and despair.
And the Tories know all of this.
This is what a UK government official has said – and I quote:
“The internal modelling of ending the Universal Credit uplift is catastrophic. Homelessness and poverty are likely to rise, and food bank usage will soar. It could be the real disaster of the autumn.”
To even contemplate a cut like this displays a lack of basic understanding of the reality of life for those on the breadline – or maybe it’s actually a lack of care.
But to go ahead and implement this cut would expose an absence of basic humanity and moral compass.
Now, it’s no secret that I’m not Boris Johnson’s biggest fan, and no doubt the feeling is mutual.
But I really struggle to believe that anyone’s conscience would allow them to proceed with this.
So if this deeply cruel cut does happen, the only conclusion it will be possible to reach is that Boris Johnson simply has no shame.
Please, Prime Minister, for the sake of millions of desperate people across the country, do not let that be history’s verdict upon you.
Where Westminster imposes unfair tax rises and catastrophic cuts for those on the lowest incomes, the Scottish Government provides real, practical help.
We will invest a further £1 billion in this term of Parliament to tackle the poverty related attainment gap in education, and support the recruitment of 3,500 additional teachers and 500 classroom assistants.
We will secure our Young Person’s Guarantee – providing a job or a place in education or training, or a formal volunteering opportunity for every young person aged 16 to 24.
And we will deliver 110,000 more affordable homes across Scotland, helping ensure that everyone has a safe, warm place to call home.
Our programme is about putting values into action – building the fairer, more prosperous country we know is possible.
A country where everyone has security, a warm home and the chance to get on in life.
Making that vision a reality is what drives all of our work in government.
Last month I had the great pleasure of introducing Scotland’s new Makar, our national poet, Kathleen Jamie.
One of Kathleen’s best known poems is ‘Here Lies Our Land’.
In it, she talks movingly about the land around us.
She says: ‘if the land could speak, I’d wondered, what would it say? Something welcoming, hopefully. Something that opened out our vision and sense of ourselves. Something about belonging not to those who ‘own it’ but to those who love it.’
Today more than ever we must steward and protect this land of ours. It does belong to all of us.
The actions we take over the next few years will determine the state of the land and the world that we pass on to future generations.
The floods, wildfires, extreme heat and storms that have raged across the globe this year should be a wake up call.
We do indeed face a ‘code red’ for humanity.
But it is not too late to avert catastrophe.
In a few weeks’ time world leaders will gather here in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference – COP 26.
Make no mistake, this summit represents the world’s best chance – probably our last chance – to limit global warming to 1.5°C in line with the Paris Agreement.
No-one underestimates the scale of the challenge.
But no-one should underestimate the impact on lives – particularly the lives of the world’s poorest – if we fail to meet it.
As we approach COP26 some of the strongest voices pushing for urgent global action are those of children and young people.
They are speaking up to fight for their future. Their commitment is inspiring.
One of the most important events in the run up to any COP summit is what is called the Conference of Youth.
It is a coming together of young people from 140 countries around the world, specifically mandated by the UN to set out their asks of world leaders.
The Conference of Youth, which is now 16 years old, has always been funded by the government of the UN member state hosting COP.
Except this year.
Now I don’t know why the UK Government has decided not to fund it – and it doesn’t really matter – but I do know that we cannot allow the world’s children and young people to be silenced in Glasgow on an issue so vital to their future.
So I can confirm that the Scottish Government has decided to fund the Conference of Youth to meet for four days in Glasgow in the run up to COP.
Young people from Scotland will be invited to participate, and they will join with young people from across the globe to present their demands to the world’s leaders in the opening weekend of COP.
Scotland may not be the biggest country in the world. But we are one of the wealthiest.
And through our innovation, ingenuity and enterprise, we led the world into the Industrial Age.
We can – and we must – show that same leadership now as the world transitions to the net zero age.
A transformation of our national life is required – in transport, in how we build and heat our homes and buildings, in how we power industry, and in how we ensure that the transition is fair, both here at home and globally.
Leading this transformation is a moral obligation that we owe to future generations.
But done well, building on core Scottish strengths, natural resources and tapping once again into that spirit of innovation and enterprise, it can also be job-rich.
We were one of the first countries to declare a climate emergency and our targets and plans are among the world’s most ambitious.
Almost 100% of our gross electricity consumption already comes from renewable sources.
By 2030, our aim is to generate 50% of all the energy we use from renewables.
By 2050 we intend to have decarbonised our energy system completely.
We’re investing heavily in large scale, low carbon technology.
And in our natural economy too – restoring more woodlands, peatlands, and other natural habitats.
And we are doubling our Climate Justice Fund, helping to tackle climate change in the world’s poorest countries.
Of course, while we are increasing our commitment the UK Government has cut its overseas aid budget.
That might go down well with the right wing of the Conservative party.
But it will be the world’s poorest who pay the price.
And it is, of course, part of a bigger picture.
Too often these days, issues that were once just obsessions of the Tory right, become mainstream polices of the Tory government.
These policies are then imposed on Scotland against our wishes.
Brexit is a case in point.
It is now the defining article of faith for the hard-liners in charge of the UK Government.
Against Scotland’s will we have been taken out of the EU and the European Single Market.
The obsession is now so dominant in Tory ranks that they imposed a hard Brexit right in the midst of a global pandemic – when people and businesses were at their most vulnerable.
It was an unnecessary and unforgivable act.
And the impact is now being felt.
The short-term damage is all too real.
Brexit is a direct Tory hit on some of Scotland’s key strengths.
Our world-leading food and drink sector has been knocked for six.
Our brilliant universities have been damaged.
Manufacturers face increased costs.
The impact on daily life is becoming clear.
There are already shortages of some foods – yes, really, food shortages in one of the richest countries of the world.
That is what this Tory government has done – and there may yet be worse to come.
The combination of the pandemic and a deeply hostile immigration policy is also causing labour shortages across many sectors.
So the short-term costs are very clear – and very bad.
But even greater damage will be felt in the long-term.
Compared to continued EU membership, Brexit will make us poorer, year after year.
Trade with Europe will decline.
Our working population is likely to fall.
Who knows what will happen to our NHS in future trade deals.
All of that will be bad enough.
But there’s a double whammy that Scotland must be alert to – and resist with all we’ve got.
And it is this.
Westminster will use all that damage that they have inflicted as an argument for yet more Westminster control.
By making us poorer, they’ll say we can’t afford to be independent.
By cutting our trade with the EU, they’ll say we are too dependent on the rest of the UK.
By causing our working population to fall, they’ll say the country is aging too fast.
They want us to believe we are powerless in the face of the disastrous decisions they have taken for us and the damage those decisions is doing.
They want us to look inwards not outwards.
And the reason?
They know – and are terrified by the prospect – that when we look outwards we see all around us the evidence right there in front of our eyes.
The evidence that independence works.
For countries of Scotland’s size, independence works.
Our neighbours in north-west Europe are wealthier than the UK.
All of them.
They are more equal than the UK.
They have lower levels of poverty.
They have higher productivity, which drives better living standards.
All of them recovered better from the financial crash of 2008.
They have stronger public finances.
As a proportion of pre-retirement wages they all have higher pensions.
And of course they all get the governments they vote for.
In measure after measure the evidence is overwhelming and conclusive – independence works.
It works for Denmark, for Ireland, for Austria, for Norway, for Finland – and for so many others beside.
These are disparate countries with different resources and economies.
But independence works for all of them.
With all our resources and talent it will work for Scotland too.
It is up to us to show the people of Scotland how.
The Scottish Government is now re-starting work to make sure that the choice about our country’s future is a fully informed one.
No-one is saying there won’t be challenges to overcome.
We will set those out openly and honestly.
Nothing will fall into our laps.
But, like all countries, we face challenges whatever path we take.
The question is this: which option – becoming independent or being governed by Westminster – equips us best to meet these challenges.
The choice facing people in Scotland has never been clearer.
A Westminster Tory government rejected by the people of Scotland and taking us in the wrong direction.
A Tory government, happy for its Brexit obsession to damage our economy and content to take money from the poorest at the worst possible time.
Or an independent Scotland with governments people vote for and the full range of powers needed to make our country all it can be.
An EU member state in our own right – treated as an equal in a huge market seven time the size of the UK.
In May, people in Scotland elected a new Scottish Parliament.
That new Parliament has a clear and substantial majority in favour of an independence referendum.
As we emerge from the pandemic, decisions fall to be made that will shape Scotland for decades to come.
So we must decide. Who should be making those decisions: people here in Scotland or governments we don’t vote for at Westminster.
That is the choice we intend to offer the Scottish people in a legal referendum within this term of Parliament – Covid permitting, by the end of 2023.
I said earlier that my approach to government and to politics will be, as far as possible, co-operation not confrontation.
The experience of the pandemic and the challenges we face as a result reinforces my view that this is the right approach.
So it is in that spirit of co-operation that I hope the Scottish and UK governments can reach agreement – as we did in 2014 – to allow the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland to be heard and respected.
But, this much is clear. Democracy must – and will – prevail.
The United Kingdom is after all a voluntary union of nations.
Until recently no-one seriously challenged the right of the people in Scotland to choose whether or not they wished to become independent.
Frankly it is not up to a Westminster government which has just six MPs in Scotland to decide our future without the consent of the people who live here.
As an independent country, co-operation between Scotland and our friends across the rest of the UK will continue, but it will be on a better basis: Scotland will be an equal partner.
This is a time for reflection on the extraordinary experience we have lived through, in these last, difficult 18 months.
The sacrifices have been heart-breaking.
The crisis is not yet over, but we will get through it.
And then it will the time to think not of the past but of Scotland’s future.
To decide who should be in charge of that future.
And if we are ready to grab the opportunity to play our full, positive part in the world – as a welcoming, open European nation.
People in Scotland have the right to make that choice.
To decide to take our destiny into our own hands and shape a better future.
Trust me – the time for that choice is approaching.
So let us look to it with confidence, ambition and resolve.
And let us make Scotland all we know it can be.