Good afternoon everyone.
Welcome to the SNP’s annual conference – an occasion much enjoyed by party members across the country.
Sadly, we are meeting online again.
Given current circumstances, this is sensible – but I hope, in spring, we’ll be together in person.
Our debates and discussion – if not always the conference karaoke – are much better when we meet up, and I can’t wait to see you all again.
Of course being forced to take a political conference online is a mere inconvenience compared to the sacrifices made by so many over these past two years.
Life today is much more normal than it was when I spoke to you a year ago.
We have come so far and – while it has not been easy – a spirit of solidarity with, and compassion for, each other has helped us through.
Now, as the emergence of the new Omicron variant has reminded us, we must harness that spirit again as we prepare for a winter that might be tougher than most of us have ever experienced.
In recent weeks, we have had much in Scotland to feel thankful for.
Compared to many countries across Europe, Covid cases here have been stable – indeed they have been declining slightly.
To be frank, that’s a much better position that I had dared hope for a couple of months ago.
But there are big and very real challenges ahead over the winter months.
Cases are rising in countries all around us.
We know that colder weather, forcing us indoors, coupled with festive socialising will create increased opportunities for the virus to spread.
And, most seriously of all, the Omicron variant is causing profound concern here and across the world
So we must not drop our guard. This is a time to be more vigilant, not less.
In the past few days, the new variant has led the Scottish Government to impose tighter restrictions again at our borders.
A number of countries have been added to the travel red list.
Travellers from these countries must go into managed quarantine.
And we are asking all travellers – no matter where they are travelling from – to isolate until they get a negative result from a PCR test that they must do on day 2 after their arrival.
We are also asking close contacts of any confirmed cases of Omicron to isolate.
That none of this was even contemplated just a few days ago, is a reminder of how fast this virus can move and change.
We must, all of us, therefore redouble our efforts to stop it in its tracks.
The good news is that we know how to do that. We’ve done it before.
So today, before I talk to you about politics, I want to ask again for your help.
Over these next weeks of winter, we need to pull together and look after each other.
I promise that the government will do our job.
That means getting all of you who are eligible vaccinated with boosters as fast as possible.
Thanks to teams across the country, Scotland is already the most vaccinated part of the UK – but we will not let up. Instead we are working to speed up.
And while I still hope it will not be necessary, if difficult decisions need to be made to keep us safe, we will not shy away from them.
Steering the country through this winter is my priority. It is my duty.
But no government can fight a virus alone.
We all need to play our part.
That was true before the detection of Omicron, and it is even more so now.
If all of us increase our compliance with the protections already in place, we will help slow transmission.
So I am asking everyone to please, take the time now to think afresh about the basic steps you can take to keep yourself, your loved ones and the country safe.
Wear a face covering in indoor public places.
Keep following hygiene advice – wash your hands and surfaces.
Open windows if you have people round – ventilation really helps.
Work from home if possible.
And please, please – if you haven’t done so already – get every dose of vaccine you are eligible for, including flu.
I know there is a concern that the vaccines might be less effective against Omicron than against other variants.
We don’t know yet if that’s the case.
But even if it is, getting vaccinated will still matter.
Less effective does not mean ineffective.
You will still be much more protected with vaccines than you will be without.
So if you could be fully vaccinated right now and you have chosen not to be, you are putting your own life at risk.
You may say that’s your choice – though it is one I really struggle to understand.
But it’s not just your own life you are risking.
You could be risking the life of everyone you come into contact with.
Vaccines save lives.
And don’t just take my word for that.
A World Health Organisation study published last week demonstrates that life saving power.
Hundreds of thousands of people across the world who would otherwise be dead from Covid, are alive today only because of vaccines.
Here’s what the WHO said about us:
“In countries like Scotland, where vaccination rollout was early and uptake was high, a larger share of lives were saved”.
It found that in Scotland, without vaccines, around 32,000 people over the age of 60 would have died from Covid this year.
86% of these deaths were prevented by vaccines.
That’s 27,000 people alive today who would not be if we had no vaccines.
For all I know that might include my mum and dad, or yours. Or indeed many of you.
So, for goodness sake, get vaccinated – with your 1st, 2nd and, if eligible, your 3rd and booster doses as soon as you can.
If you don’t do it for your own sake – though you really should – do it for those you love.
Being vaccinated is the most precious gift we can give this Christmas.
But there is one more, really important festive effort I am asking everyone to make.
And, once again, the emergence of Omicron makes this even more vital.
Lots of people with Covid don’t have symptoms – they might never know they have the virus and so spread it inadvertently.
That’s why we’ve been asking everyone to test with lateral flow devices twice a week.
But from now, through the festive period, we are asking you to test much more.
Please – even if you are feeling fine – test yourself on each and every occasion you intend to mix with people from outside your household.
That means before you go to the pub, or to a restaurant, or to someone’s house, or even to a shopping centre.
And if the test shows up positive do not go.
Instead, get a confirmatory PCR test and self isolate until you get the result of that.
If you don’t have a supply of tests, order them now through NHS Inform or pick them up from a local pharmacy or test centre.
They are free so get as many as you need and keep your supply topped up.
If we all do this, we will slow the spread.
And we will maximise our chances, not just of a more normal Christmas but a safer Christmas too and, let’s all hope, a much brighter new year.
I talked earlier about the government’s responsibility in leading the fight against this virus. It is a solemn duty.
But I am all too aware that the heaviest burden in tackling the virus has been carried by those working in our NHS and in social care.
If we all follow the advice on fighting Covid we will be helping them, as well as ourselves.
That really matters. Health and care services are under more pressure now than ever before.
The staff who care for us in our times of need are exhausted – physically and in many cases emotionally.
Words will never adequately express my gratitude to them.
But words are not enough.
I am proud that NHS staff in Scotland have been awarded the highest pay rise in the UK.
And that we have promised to increase investment in the NHS – already at record levels – by a further 20 per cent over this term of Parliament.
I can confirm today that our budget on 9 December will deliver a significant down payment on that commitment.
In the years ahead, this extra funding will help build new capacity in the NHS and improve the way care is delivered through, for example, a network of elective treatment centres.
And at the heart of our plans for reform is the establishment of a National Care Service.
Just as the National Health Service became in the aftermath of the Second World War, this new National Care Service, if we get it right – as we must – will be a fitting legacy from the trauma of Covid.
So our plans to build and secure a sustainable future for our health and care services are bold, and rightly so.
And to help right now, we have committed an additional £300 million for winter support.
This money is supporting the immediate recruitment of 1,000 extra NHS workers.
It is helping increase the pay of social care staff – giving those earning the living wage a rise of over five per cent.
And it is funding more care home places and care at home packages to ensure that older people don’t languish in hospital when they would be better cared for elsewhere – and in the process free up hospital beds for those who do need them.
The frontline of the NHS is so often primary care and general practice.
Good access to GPs and other primary care services is essential for patients – but it also helps reduce unnecessary pressure on hospitals.
I know how hard GPs and practice staff are working just now.
Face-to-face appointments are resuming – although phone and video consultations will continue to play an important part in any modern healthcare system.
And we know demand is increasing due to the direct impact of the pandemic and the backlogs caused by lockdown.
So GPs and those who support them are working overtime to meet patient needs.
I want to thank them for all they do.
Of course, we must do more than say thank you, and we will.
That’s why I can announce today funding of £30 million to help GPs further increase primary care services in their communities
GPs will be able to use this funding – which will be delivered in December and April, in two equal instalments – in ways they judge will deliver the greatest impact for patients.
That might be through extra GP sessions or additional practice nurse time.
In short, it will allow practices to target investment where it is most needed to improve access to primary care and help ensure patients get the care they need as close to home as possible.
Tackling the pandemic, supporting and protecting the NHS and social care – these duties will be the focus of the Scottish Government each and every day as we navigate this winter and beyond.
That is what people across Scotland expect, having placed their trust in us – once again – to govern and lead our country.
However, as we emerge from the darkness of winter into what we all hope will be a brighter spring, with Covid more firmly in the rearview mirror, it will be time to look ahead with optimism and consider the kind of country we want to rebuild.
We should embrace that opportunity with relish. I certainly do.
As you know, I’ve just marked seven years as First Minister.
In some ways, I find it impossible to believe that so much time has passed – but then, of course, I look in the mirror and see the evidence of what I am sorry to say seems more much than seven years!
Being elected to lead this country is a privilege and it is a serious responsibility.
Seven months ago, the people of Scotland gave me and all of us in the SNP a job to do when they re-elected us so emphatically.
They voted for us in historically high numbers, and told us to get on with the job.
I intend to repay that trust – to lead Scotland not just through Covid, but into and through the process of recovery and renewal.
The duty and responsibility of being First Minister weighs heavily on me every single day – as it should.
But it is not a job I do out of duty alone.
I do it because I relish the opportunities that lie ahead for Scotland.
And I know that to harness these, Scotland needs a government – like ours – with ambition, aspiration and real confidence in this country.
We already have a track record of delivery.
We are laying the foundations for a stronger future.
When people ask me what I’m proudest of so far in my time as First Minister, I always point to our transformational – and I use that word deliberately – our transformational support for children.
Today, for example, we’ve announced that the 200,000th baby box has been delivered in Scotland.
A practical, tangible and powerful manifestation of our commitment to every child – no matter their family circumstances – having an equal start in life.
And then there’s the doubling – yes, doubling – of state funded early years education and childcare.
Every 3 and 4 year old – and 2 year olds from the most vulnerable backgrounds – are now entitled to the same number of hours in early years settings as older children get in school.
This policy saves parents thousands of pounds a year. But much more importantly, it gives children the best start in education.
In my first conference speech as SNP leader, I said this would the most important infrastructure investment of my first full term as First Minister – and in August this year, we marked its delivery.
We have also created, from scratch, a new social security system.
It has measures to tackle child poverty – the root cause of the poverty-related attainment gap in education – at its heart.
All of this is underpinned by a new income tax system – just like Social Security Scotland, built entirely from scratch, and with the progressive principle embedded from the outset.
And – also with an eye to the future – we have set up the new Scottish National Investment Bank.
This is the first development bank of its kind anywhere in the UK, and it is already making investments to drive our journey to net zero and build a more sustainable future for this and future generations.
We don’t see the full benefits of transformational policies like these overnight.
But they and many like them are already changing the future of tens of thousands of children, and of the country as a whole.
So we have much to be proud of. But we have so much more still to do.
It is that combination of delivery and ambition that drives the SNP’s success.
The fact is governments don’t get re-elected – and certainly not with the level of support we won in May – unless we have improved people’s lives and offer a clear and credible vision of what’s possible for the future.
Most of our opponents seem incapable of accepting the basic point that our success is hard earned – it is not an accident or a fluke.
So they end up dismissing as irrelevant the choices voters have made.
Or even worse – as with the current assault on devolution – they seek to over-turn those choices.
They act like they think the ambitions of people across Scotland have got out of hand and need to be reined in by those who know better.
The SNP will not let that happen.
We’re not here to see the aspirations of people in Scotland reined in or diminished.
We want to raise those ambitions ever higher.
We dedicate ourselves to that every day.
And we recognise that working with others who also want to move Scotland forward will help us all achieve more.
That’s why we struck a Co-operation Agreement with the Scottish Green Party.
Putting our differences aside to co-operate where we agree won’t always be comfortable, for either us or the Greens – but it is not meant to be.
Forcing each other out of our comfort zones so we can raise the bar of achievement higher is the whole point.
In my view this kind of collaborative working is exactly what most people want.
But given the challenges all countries face, it is also what we need.
Scotland is about to enter a new world.
A world of possibility but also of urgency.
I hope soon, a post-pandemic world.
And, certainly, a world we must adapt to ensure that our planet remains habitable in the years, decades and centuries to come.
We can’t escape these challenges, and nor should we want to.
Inherent in them are massive opportunities waiting to be grasped.
The big question for Scotland is how we best equip ourselves to do this, and ensure that the ambitions of all those who live here can be realised in this new world.
These ambitions are not unreasonable or out of reach.
A higher standard of living.
Good jobs for the future.
A clean environment.
Sustainable public services.
And for Scotland as a whole – the ability to harness our vast resources in line with our own priorities and values, and contribute as an equal partner to building a better world.
To meet those ambitions in this new world we must lay secure foundations on which a better country can be built.
That’s what the SNP is endeavouring to do.
In this task we are working in partnership as far we can.
But this current Westminster government is not a willing partner.
Instead of helping to lay those foundations, it is undermining them.
And let us be clear about this – this UK government is not just seeking to block Scottish democracy and deny Scotland the choice of moving forward to independence.
That would be bad enough.
But worse than just standing in the way of progress, it is trying to force Scottish democracy into reverse.
Make no mistake about it:
Boris Johnson’s government is actively eroding the power of our democratically elected Scottish Parliament.
It has already transferred funding from the Scottish Parliament to Westminster.
It has torn up the convention that the UK Parliament should not pass laws in devolved policy areas without Holyrood consent.
And it has passed a law – the Internal Market Act – that the Labour First Minister of Wales has called, and I quote, ‘a smash and grab’ on the devolution settlement.
This crystallises the choice Scotland faces.
If we don’t choose to move our Parliament forward and make it stronger with independence – the Tories will drag it backwards and make it weaker.
This assault on the Scottish Parliament is of course reflected in the Tories’ wider disdain for democracy.
Whether it is threatening to rip up anti-lobbying rules when one its own was found guilty, or restricting the right to judicial review, or undermining the independence of the Electoral Commission, the message is clear.
Whenever the checks and balances of democracy get in its way, this UK government will try to overturn them.
That is dangerous.
But don’t just take my word for it.
Ken Clarke – a former, very senior Tory Cabinet minister – has warned, quite extraordinarily, that the UK is ‘dangerously close’ to being an ‘elected dictatorship’.
During the run-up to the independence referendum in 2014 the head of the No campaign dismissed the idea of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister as a ‘scare story’.
We’ve been reminded over these past few weeks – and in many different ways – just why anti-independence leaders were so keen to rubbish the prospect of Boris Johnson entering Downing Street.
The reality of it has been everything many people back then feared.
But it’s not just about him as an individual.
The much bigger problem is a Westminster system that enables someone like him to become Prime Minister in the first place.
That is not a secure foundation on which Scotland can build a better future.
Our future must be built on a platform of democracy, fairness and economic prosperity.
That’s what we are seeking to build now.
And it is why we want Scotland to become independent.
In the here and now, as well as working in partnership with the Greens inside the Holyrood chamber, we are seeking to extend participation in democratic decision-making outside it too.
We are pioneering Citizens’ Assemblies and will soon establish one for under 16s – so that the generation who will live with the impact of decisions we take now are more involved in making them.
This cooperative, inclusive approach to politics offers a more secure basis from which to move a country forward.
Just as our foundation must be democratic, so too must fairness permeate every stone.
A fairer, more equal society isn’t just morally right – though it is.
Evidence shows that the most successful independent countries of Scotland’s size are also more equal.
A sense of social cohesion and solidarity provides the basis for long-term prosperity.
The Tory government’s decision last month to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week could not be further removed from that ideal.
That decision – especially at a time of price inflation and tax rises – was cruel and shocking.
It was condemned by each of the UK children’s commissioners; by the social security committees of all four UK parliaments; by all three devolved governments; by countless campaigners; and even by former Conservative Cabinet Ministers.
But the cut went ahead regardless and in Scotland it will push 60,000 families and 20,000 children into poverty.
The Scottish Government is taking a different approach.
We are determined to lift children out of poverty.
Of the £2 billion a year that the Scottish Government invests to support people on low incomes, over £670 million is already targeted at children.
Through the range of new payments delivered by Social Security Scotland, low income families receive, in the early years of each child’s life, £5,000 of additional financial support.
At the heart of this is the Scottish Child Payment – the only payment of its kind anywhere in the UK, designed solely to lift children out of poverty and give them better lives.
The Scottish Child Payment currently provides low income families with £10 per week for every child under age 6.
Over 105,000 children are already benefiting.
Next year, it will be extended to all children in low income families under the age of 16.
At the election, we committed to doubling the payment to £20 per child per week within this term of Parliament.
Our co-operation agreement with the Greens committed us to achieving this as quickly as possible.
I am very pleased – indeed proud – to announce today that our budget on 9 December will fund the doubling of the Scottish Child Payment immediately from the start of the new financial year.
The Scottish Child Payment will increase to £20 per child per week – four times the amount originally demanded by campaigners – from April.
That means the doubled payments will reach over 100,000 children under age 6 in just four months’ time.
And when we extend the Scottish Child Payment to all under 16s at the end of next year, over 400,000 children and their families will be eligible.
This is, without doubt, the boldest and most ambitious anti-poverty measure anywhere in the UK.
Delivering it isn’t easy. It will involve hard choices elsewhere in our budget.
But it is a choice we in the SNP – in partnership with the Greens – are opting to make.
Poverty scars too many childhoods.
It deprives too many children of the chance to make the most of their education and enjoy life to the full.
And it robs of our country of far too much potential.
Eradicating child poverty is essential if we are to build the strongest foundation for Scotland’s future.
And that is what we are determined to do.
Democracy and fairness are key to building a better Scotland.
So too is a strong, sustainable economy.
Scotland is blessed with natural economic advantages.
We have unrivalled energy resources.
We are at the cutting edge of the industries of the future, and are home to some of the world’s best universities.
Our food and drink industry is an extraordinary international success story.
We are a highly skilled and educated people with a history of enterprise and innovation.
Through the Scottish National Investment Bank, the National Manufacturing Institute and the Young Persons Guarantee, we are building for the future.
But just as on child poverty, a UK Government that Scotland didn’t vote for us is undermining the strong foundations we are seeking to build.
This UK government has taken Scotland out of the EU; out of European Single Market; and out of the Customs Union – all against the wishes of the majority who live here.
The Brexit it has imposed upon us is already damaging our economy and restricting opportunities for our young people.
All of that is bad enough – but there may well be much worse to come.
The Tories appear to have embarked on permanent conflict with the European Union.
Instead of building bridges they are burning them.
They are threatening to rip up the Withdrawal Agreement that Boris Johnson himself hailed as fantastic and ‘oven-ready’.
And in so doing, they risk a trade dispute with the EU that will set back our recovery from the pandemic and do untold damage to our economy.
This may suit a Tory Party that sees EU-bashing as a vote winner.
But it would be a disaster for Scotland.
Years or even decades of arguments with the EU is a recipe for instability and economic weakness.
In the post-pandemic world we will need more co-operation between independent countries, not less.
And the only way for Scotland to build those relationships on a secure basis is through independence.
Nowhere is co-operation more essential than in tackling the climate emergency.
As a rich developed nation, Scotland shares a responsibility for a climate crisis which is already wreaking havoc in some parts of the world.
Just as we have helped cause the problem, Scotland has a moral duty to be part of the solution.
And whether independent or not, Scotland, with an SNP government, will always show leadership on this most pressing of issues.
That means leading by example – which we did, and were recognised as doing, throughout COP26.
It means making the investments needed for our transition to Net Zero – our forthcoming budget will set out the next steps we intend to take.
It demands accelerating our move away from fossil fuels, but doing so in a fair way which protects the livelihoods of those working in oil and gas and secures a low carbon energy supply.
That’s why we are establishing the North East Just Transition fund.
These transitions are not easy but they demand leadership, urgency and rational decision-making.
And here, again, we have a UK government that too often hinders rather than helps our progress.
In the run-up to COP, the Tory government made two inexplicable decisions which passed none of these tests of leadership, urgency and reason – decisions which will undermine efforts to tackle the climate emergency.
Firstly, it cut Air Passenger Duty for short haul flights within the UK.
And, second, it refused to give priority backing to the obvious site in the North-East of Scotland for Carbon Capture and Storage.
This is a decision that will cost Scotland jobs and make our journey to net zero even more difficult.
It should be reversed.
But we should not be reduced to pleading with a UK government to do the right thing.
With independence, we won’t have to.
My task as First Minister, above all, is to do whatever I can to keep Scotland safe.
That is my first duty – and during this pandemic it is the heaviest duty imaginable.
I will always seek to discharge my responsibilities as First Minister with energy and commitment and to the very best of my ability.
But keeping a country safe is not just about the short term.
It is also about building the strongest possible foundation on which to build our future.
I defy anyone to look at the broken, corrupt, self-serving Westminster system that we are currently part of and conclude that it provides a secure basis for the future of Scotland.
So I would not be discharging my duty to the people of Scotland if I did not seek to keep the promise on which we were elected – to offer the people of Scotland the choice of a better future through independence.
Next year, Covid permitting, as we emerge from winter into spring, the campaign to persuade a majority of people in Scotland that our future will be more secure as an independent nation will resume in earnest.
In the course of next year, I will initiate the process necessary to enable a referendum before the end of 2023.
And just as importantly, our party will set out afresh the positive case for independence.
We will outline the opportunities and advantages that independence will open up.
The opportunity to repair the damage of Covid – including the fiscal challenges it has created for all countries – in a way that aligns with our values and priorities as a nation.
To use our financial and human resources to tackle poverty and give young people a better life.
To use our vast natural resources to help safeguard our planet and secure green jobs for the future.
And to rejoin the European family of nations, so that we can expand not narrow our horizons, and grow our trade across the whole of the continent.
We will also be candid about the challenges the transition to independence will present, and set out clearly how we can and will overcome them.
And then, friends, we will ask the people to decide.
Now, what the UK government’s response to this will be is not up to me, but my message to Prime Minister is this:
If you have any respect at all for democracy – and if you have any confidence whatsoever in your argument against independence – you too will let the people decide.
Let us make our case with confidence.
Often in Scotland, we talk about becoming independent as if it’s something unusual, something that no country has ever done.
The reality is very different. In the last 60 years or so, more than 100 countries have become independent.
Very few – if any of them – have the resources and advantages of Scotland.
The fact is independence is the normal state of affairs for countries the world over.
The self government it encapsulates is the building block for the progressive internationalism that we stand for.
And for countries of Scotland’s size, the simple truth is this: independence works.
Our neighbours across north-west Europe are all wealthier than the UK, more equal than the UK and have lower levels of poverty than the UK.
With all the resources and talents we have available to us, I simply do not believe that Scotland can’t match – perhaps even surpass – the success of Denmark, Norway, Ireland, Austria and the many other prosperous independent countries that are all around us.
I do believe, more than ever in this new world we are facing, that the best way to secure a better Scotland is to take our future into our own hands.
An independent Scotland will be an outward looking, welcoming nation.
A country that celebrates diversity and works with others to shape a better world.
We will be a partner with our closest friends in the rest of the UK, and an EU member committed to values of equality, democracy and human dignity.
For people today and for generations to come that is a future worth standing up for.
It is a future worth campaigning for.
And it is a future worth winning.
So let us put our shoulders to the wheel of winning and building that better Scotland.