For me, this is very much a week of final acts.
Tomorrow I will chair my final meeting of the Scottish Cabinet. On Thursday I will answer my last set of First Minister’s Questions.
And this speech is the last I will make in London as First Minister. It is a pleasure to deliver it here at the Royal Society of Arts.
That’s mainly because of the respect I have for the RSA’s commitment to public debate and discussion.
And, of course, some of your core projects match closely with Scottish Government priorities – as I’ll mention later.
But it’s also because – as many of you will know – this building, and this room, were designed by the Scottish Architect, Robert Adam. He also designed Bute House, the First Minister’s official residence in Edinburgh.
So this is possibly the closest I get to a home from home in this great city.
Almost inevitably, given my imminent departure from government, in thinking about this speech, I’ve been looking back.
My last visit to the RSA, for example, was in late 2018, almost half-way through my time as First Minister.
Back then, the UK was at the midpoint in the Brexit process – or should I say, the midpoint in the Brexit process so far, as I am not sure it is yet complete.
I had come to London to talk about the Chequers agreement – remember that? – and in an attempt to persuade the UK Government to opt for single market and customs union membership as part of a compromise approach to Brexit.
Based on that success, you will be glad to know, I am not trying to persuade the UK Government of anything today.
Instead, I’m going to be a bit more reflective. Although it’s less than 4 ½ years since I gave that speech, it feels much longer.
Since then, the UK has left the EU – even if many of the issues raised by Brexit are yet to be resolved.
We have lived through a global pandemic – the biggest single crisis the UK has faced in the post-war period and certainly the most difficult and challenging experience of my time as First Minister.
War has broken out in Europe – provoked by Russia – on a scale that we all hoped would never be seen again.
And the impact of the climate and nature crises is becoming more evident, and ever more urgent.
Indeed there’s a strong case for saying that the past eight and half years have been the most volatile and eventful in the UK’s postwar history.
To illustrate that, in the slightly more than a quarter of century between me leaving primary school and becoming Deputy First Minister of Scotland, the UK had just three Prime Ministers.
During the 8 and a half years I’ve been First Minister, it’s had 5.
Now, the sheer extent of that volatility presents me with something of a dilemma in contemplating a retrospective of my time in office.
It means I can’t possibly cover all the various twists and turns, and you’ll be glad to know I’m not going to try.
Instead I want to reflect on three issues in particular which have mattered a lot to me during my time as First Minister, and which I think will continue to shape politics – not just in Scotland but far more widely – in the years to come.
I’ll reflect on two interlinked issues – addressing inequality and tackling climate change. They’ve been central to my ambitions as First Minister, and so I’ll talk about their importance to our social and political future.
But before I do that, I want touch on a topic which is not so much about what we do as politicians, but how we do it.
I want to make some observations on the nature of our political and public discourse – because I increasingly fear it is undermining our ability, not just in Scotland or the UK generally but in much of the democratic world, to address the big issues of substance that will shape our futures.
As an aside, I should probably acknowledge that might seem like a brave topic for me, given that my own party is in the midst of – how should I describe it – a somewhat fractious leadership election.
But, in fact, that actually helps illustrate my point.
I would hope it is obvious, given that I have chosen to stand down as leader, that I think this is a moment for my party – after 16 years in government – to change, refresh and renew.
The circumstances in which we are doing so, however, are a bit unusual. Normally, parties go through a process like this after an election defeat.
That’s not the situation the SNP is in. We haven’t lost an election in Scotland since 2010.
In fact, in my 8 years as leader, we’ve won no fewer than 8 landslide victories.
So we are electing a new leader from a position of electoral strength.
And in some ways – counter-intuitively – that makes the task harder, because striking the balance between change on the one hand and protecting the essential ingredients of our success on the other is tricky.
We need to take care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
All of that calls for a balanced and nuanced debate and yet the nature of modern media, social media in particular, can make that more difficult than it should be.
Now, of course, that is by no means the only factor at play in the SNP contest – and I should say, while it might not feel like it, I am firmly of the view my party will emerge from this process in a strong position.
My point, though, is a wider one.
Social media has many benefits.
It has helped democratise political discourse and access to information.
It brings together people who, for reasons of geography, age, experience, would never previously have connected.
It enables politicians to communicate with the public more quickly, and in a more direct and unfiltered way.
But right now it feels that the damage social media is doing – globally – to public discourse and our democracies is outweighing the benefits.
I haven’t always – or even often – in my political career agreed with Tony Blair. But I recently heard him express the view that social media is a plague on politics – and while I don’t agree that this is an inevitability, I do think it is the reality right now.
It is distorting debate.
The sheer pace of rolling news encourages us all to speak first and think later.
Minor dramas become crises and then catastrophes in what can feel like nano seconds.
Algorithms create echo chambers, obliterate nuance, and force us into binary positions that polarise even the most complex of issues.
The distinction between objective fact and subjective opinion has all but disappeared. Absolutely everything is contested, which makes common ground harder to find.
And all of this undermines rational decision making.
Decision makers are under pressure to take positions and respond to events at breakneck speed with next to no time to weigh up complexities or uncertainties.
The amplification effect of social media too often leads politicians to think that extreme opinions are the view of the majority, when they are most definitely not.
And then there is the abuse that is hurled at anyone who puts their head above the parapet.
Politics has always been tough – and it should be.
But social media is creating an environment that, frankly, is harsher and more hostile – particularly for women and those from minority communities – than at any time in my political career.
It gives racism, misogyny, sexism, bigotry generally – not new phenomena by any means – a platform and a vehicle.
And if we are not careful, it will drive the kind of people we desperately need to see more of in politics and public life even further away.
Now, to be clear, I know we can’t turn the clock back.
Social media – in one form or another – is here to stay.
But I am firmly of the view that if it continues to dominate and shape – or rather mis-shape – debate in the way it does now, if we continue to allow the negatives to outweigh the positives, we risk destroying our ability to address the massive, era-defining issues that the world faces.
We must, as a matter of urgency, rediscover and recharge one of the basic functions of democracy – to peaceably and civilly resolve our differences.
I’m often struck, on the issue of Scottish independence, by how often I hear people say we shouldn’t debate it at all because it is ‘divisive’.
I couldn’t disagree more with that view – and not just on the question of independence. We cannot shy away from legitimate political, economic, social or constitutional issues because they divide opinion or involve hard choices.
Instead – for the sake of democracy – we must find ways of debating and resolving these issues with respect, reason, civility and good faith.
Indeed, in my view, and based on many years of experience, this is now one of the most pressing issues confronting democracies everywhere.
And the reason is simple: unless we improve the quality of our debate, discourse and decision-making, and underpin it with reason and social cohesion, we will be incapable of finding the solutions to the massive economic, social and environmental challenges we face – and we will certainly not do so with anything like the consensus needed for successful implementation.
And that is certainly true of the two issues I want to touch on today – inequality and climate change.
These are without doubt amongst the biggest issues we face. And they are inextricably linked.
Put bluntly, those who struggle to heat their homes or feed their families now will be less able to make the changes needed to save the planet in future. They will also, often, be more severely affected by the impacts of climate change.
And unless we put fairness firmly at the heart of our efforts to combat climate change, we will deepen inequality, not the reverse.
The need to tackle both these challenges head on – and in tandem – has never been clearer. Scotland has much to do – but we are seeking to lead by example.
During Covid it was clear that while we were all living through the pandemic, our experiences were not the same.
Our experiences differed depending on the jobs we did, the degree of financial security we enjoyed and the type of home we lived in.
Those on lower incomes or from minority communities were more likely to become seriously ill or die as a result of Covid.
And it quickly became clear just how much we depended on those who work in relatively low paid sectors – like social care, essential retail and delivery services.
That led to a desire and demand from the public that we build back better after the pandemic. In Scotland we are trying to do that.
Since the pandemic, we have redoubled our efforts to tackle poverty, especially child poverty, and better support those on low incomes.
We have the highest proportion of workers of any UK nation paid the real living wage.
We have a more progressive system of income tax.
While the majority of taxpayers in Scotland pay slightly less tax than counterparts elsewhere in the UK, we ask those who earn most to pay a bit more – both to help fund public services and tackle poverty.
The Scottish Child Payment is unique across these islands. It takes the form of a payment of £25 per week per child for low-income families.
According to a recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies the poorest families with children in Scotland are now £2000 better off as a result of our policies.
It is redistribution in action and, for some families, over this most recent winter, it will have made the difference between having food on the table or not.
We have also taken a different approach to public sector pay, choosing negotiation over confrontation.
As a result, we are the only UK nation to have avoided strikes in the NHS this winter.
And, on average, our public sector workers are paid more than in the rest of the UK, helping to tackle low pay.
And for those who say our approach to tackling inequality damages our economic competitiveness, the evidence suggests otherwise.
Obviously the UK, including Scotland, faces sluggish growth, not helped by Brexit.
But right now Scotland has higher employment, lower unemployment and lower economic inactivity than the UK as a whole.
We also remain the most attractive part of the UK – outside London and the south east – for foreign direct investment.
A focus on tackling inequality has always been important. I’ve argued for a long time that it should be the aim of government to improve and measure wellbeing, as well as economic growth.
There is a wealth of evidence after all that economic prosperity and social justice are mutually reinforcing.
But I believe that addressing inequality is even more urgent as we accelerate our efforts to tackle the climate crisis. The synthesis report which has just been published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlines – once again – the need for that acceleration.
The transition to net zero is not easy – far from it – but it offers us significant economic opportunities.
To take advantage of these opportunities, though, we need more inclusive and targeted industrial policies that encourage public and private collaboration for the common good. We also need the benefits of economic activity to be shared more equitably.
That reality is reflected strongly in President Biden’s industrial policy in the form of the Inflation Reduction and CHIPS Acts.
The EU is starting to reflect it too. And while the UK is, in my view, lagging behind – and risking further economic damage as a result – in Scotland we are working hard to get it right.
Our major offshore wind programme, ScotWind, is the leading example of that. It has the potential to generate up to 28 GW of wind power in years to come – and to support a significant green hydrogen industry too.
And as a result of ‘conditionalities’ applied in the process of awarding seabed leases, ScotWind could also deliver up to £28 billion of supply chain work in Scotland.
That will help create quality jobs and support a just transition from oil and gas to renewables.
Let me be clear though – we have more to do. Mariana Mazzucato – who spoke here last month with PM Mia Mottley of Barbados – is one of those advising us on how to maximise this approach.
And it is vital, because the transition to net zero – like any economic disruption – creates a significant risk that some people and communities get left behind.
For me there’s a strong lesson from Scotland’s relatively recent history that we must learn.
I grew up in Ayrshire, in the west of Scotland, in the 1970s and 80s. It was my experiences back then that, in many ways, shaped the political beliefs that I hold today.
That part of Scotland I grew up in – and others too – was deeply scarred by the closure of coal mines and heavy industries. Some of these communities still bear these scars today.
And that was because a process of deindustrialization was allowed to unfold without any effort to mitigate or manage the consequences.
That weighs heavily on me as we accelerate the process of decarbonisation.
It is why the Scottish Government set up a Just Transition Commission in 2019 and established a Just Transition Fund for the north-east of Scotland – where the oil and gas sector is currently a major employer.
And we have been doing some interesting work with this institution. It has involved consulting closely with people in an old industrial town, Leven in Fife, and also in Dumfries, a more rural community, to explore people’s hopes, priorities and concerns about the move to net zero.
It’s a relatively small project, but one which is helping inform our work in an important way.
And it helps demonstrate, I think, how these twin challenges of inequality and climate come together.
The reimagining of our way of life – for example, reducing our reliance on cars and changing how we heat our homes – that is so necessary to reduce our impact on the planet, also gives us a unique opportunity to tackle deep seated inequalities.
If we are building new infrastructure – as we must do – and redesigning our energy systems, and creating new growth opportunities, we can do that with fairness as the underlying principle.
We can design transport systems better suited to the needs of the lower paid, of women and of those – like almost half the households in my home city of Glasgow – who don’t own cars.
We can install heating systems in social housing that are cheaper to run, helping us meet our climate goals and eliminate fuel poverty.
And new industries can start out with a commitment to gender equality, instead of trying to retrofit it afterwards.
I know I am making this sound relatively simple – and it is anything but. Equally though, we mustn’t tell ourselves it is too difficult. We have a precious opportunity in the years ahead to address multiple challenges in a genuinely joined up way.
These are the necessary tasks – and yes, they are on a grand scale – that lie ahead of current and future leaders.
In Scotland the groundwork is being laid.
With the right investment, commitment, and drive, I believe we have a unique opportunity to deliver a fair and just transition.
And we can also use this moment, this opportunity, to tackle the poverty and inequality that has seemed so entrenched for too long.
This principle applies internationally, as well as within nations.
Indeed, it is why, when Glasgow played host to the COP26 climate conference in 2021, the Scottish Government conducted a series of dialogues with the global south. Amongst other things, that led us to become the first developed country in the world to commit funding for climate loss and damage.
We recognised that the global north needs to do much more – not just to help countries mitigate or adapt to climate change – but also to address the loss and damage that many are facing already as a result of climate change.
Scotland, of course, is a small country and so our commitments on loss and damage are small compared to scale of the issue.
But by listening to the global South – and by acting – we’ve helped build bridges that could, if the world follows our lead, help avoid a deepening of the global divide.
There’s is no doubt that the importance of a just transition – internationally and within nation states – will become ever greater in the years to come.
The final point I want to make is that the issues I’ve covered today – equality and the climate crisis, and the nature of political debate – are in some respects distinct. But they are also deeply connected.
An argument which weighs more heavily on me now than it did eight years ago at the outset of my leadership – is that promoting fairness is essential to preserve faith in politics and democratic institutions.
The sense that people have been ignored and disregarded by their governments has fuelled the wave of populism that has gripped parts of the developed world, including the UK and the USA. Brexit is an example of it.
It has deepened the polarisation of debate I mentioned earlier – which in turn makes it harder to have a genuine dialogue about difficult and contentious issues.
We need to break out of that cycle, and in my view we can.
I mentioned earlier that leading Scotland through the pandemic was – by far – the toughest challenge of my time as First Minister.
But that experience also taught me that the public is more than capable – when treated like grown ups – of understanding and accepting complexity, uncertainty and nuance.
The pandemic also showed us how much we can achieve when we face huge challenges with common purpose.
Businesses adapted ways of working in days. Testing infrastructure was set up almost from scratch. Vaccines were developed from a standing start.
And people came together – virtually – to care for each other.
We got an insight into exactly what government, businesses and society can do when united behind a common goal and shared imperatives.
The climate crisis works over a longer timescale than the pandemic, and inequality in our society has been ingrained for generations. That makes it harder – much harder – to summon similar energy and urgency in dealing with those challenges.
But if we can bring even some of it to bear, and if we are honest about the challenges, the trade -offs, and the difficulties;
If we treat each other with respect and if we are open about the uncertainties we all face, then we can bring people with us, even as we make tough decisions.
So as I prepare to demit office in just 7 days’ time if I have any words of so-called wisdom to offer, not just to my successor but to other leaders, advice that is drawn from my weaknesses as well as my strengths, it would be these.
Don’t shy away from uncertainties, doubts and complexities – embrace them and ask those you serve to do so too.
And be as bold as you can be – especially on the issues that matter most.
All governments must prioritise the issues to take on. But when I look back at the achievements I am proudest of – reforming the income tax system, setting up the Scottish Child Payment, establishing a national investment bank with a net zero mission and, in a country shaped by oil and gas for half a century, setting the pace on the transition to renewables – they all involved taking steps that were difficult but vital.
None of this guarantees electoral success – although it is my belief and my experience that it will increase the chances of it. Much more importantly, it will increase your chances of making a positive difference to politics, and to the people you serve.
As the leaders who come after me take on these challenges, they will benefit – as I have done – from the vital work of institutions like the RSA.
I am sure that you will continue to support, inform and challenge the next generation of politicians – as together we try to create a better politics, a better society, and hopefully, a better world.