Good morning, and welcome.
I’m delighted to be launching the SNP’s manifesto for the local government election.
And let me say, first of all, what an absolute pleasure it is to be here with all of you in person today.
After the last couple of years, being together is one of many things in our lives which we should never again take for granted.
Of course, the pandemic is not over – not by a long shot
But things are starting to look much brighter – and I know that we would never have got this far without the compassion, resilience and determination of people and communities across our country.
So from the bottom of my heart, to the people of Scotland, I say thank you.
Elections to local councils across the country are always important – the quality of local services and local representation really matters.
But this election is particularly crucial.
The last two years have shown us the value of local services and encouraged a stronger sense of community and cohesion.
And, of course, these elections come at a time when the situation both here at home and overseas is acutely serious.
Vladimir Putin’s despicable and illegal invasion of Ukraine has sparked a humanitarian crisis which demands a response from all countries – including Scotland.
The Ukrainian people have been truly inspirational in the heroic defence of their homeland against his violence and aggression.
We join with the democratic world in solidarity with the government and people of Ukraine, as they fight for democracy and for the independence and territorial integrity of their country.
And for those seeking sanctuary on our shores, we have opened our hearts and homes and stand ready to extend a warm welcome to Scotland.
Here at home, we are seeing the brutal impact of a cost of living crisis more severe than most of us have ever known.
People are struggling to heat their homes and pay for essentials.
They are terrified to open bills.
I know just how hard things are for people. But understanding isn’t enough.
People want hope – hope grounded in a plan which offers as much practical help as possible.
When I think about the last couple of years, of how we all pulled together in the face of huge uncertainty… I know that, by working together, with the right leadership, we can confront the challenges we are facing today and build a better tomorrow.
What we need over the coming period is nothing less than a pandemic-level, “Team Scotland” response to these challenges.
And that’s why I am asking people across our country to back the SNP on May 5.
The immediate priority of every SNP councillor will be supporting families through the current cost of living crisis – not just in words but in action.
Of course, supporting household budgets has been a key priority for the SNP throughout our entire time in office.
Free university tuition.
The fairest income tax policy in the UK.
Council tax bills hundreds of pounds lower, on average, in Scotland than in England.
These were always important policies.
But during these tough times they show their true benefit.
And that is why I pledge today that for as long as we are in office, the SNP will continue to protect and prioritise these policies.
But our plan is not just about protecting existing cost of living policies – it’s also about using all the powers and resources at our disposal to deliver as much help as we can now.
The SNP battled long and hard to win social security powers for the Scottish Parliament – they are still too limited but I’m proud that we are using them to build a system based on fairness, dignity and respect.
The contrast with Westminster’s – at times – despicable treatment of those who rely on the social security safety net could not be starker
We are now delivering twelve benefits in Scotland
7 of these are new and unique – they don’t exist anywhere else in the UK.
And we have taken the decision this year to increase benefits within the control of the Scottish Government by 6% – almost double the increase in UK government controlled payments,
In tough times, all of this makes a difference.
Take the Scottish Child Payment, which we began rolling out last year.
It gives targeted support to help lift families with kids out of poverty.
It’s one of the most ambitious interventions in the history of devolution – described by campaigners as a “game-changer” in the fight against child poverty.
We know that families are struggling right now.
That’s why we’ve just doubled the weekly payment to £20 a week.
And later this year, as we roll out the payment to even more families, we’ll raise it again to £25 a week.
That is a huge help for those who need it.
The Child Poverty Action Group published research recently confirming that the combined effect of Scottish Government policies and lower childcare costs will reduce the cost of bringing up a child for lower income families in Scotland by up to 31% – that amounts to £24,000.
That is a powerful illustration of the positive difference voting SNP makes.
It is an investment in a fairer country.
A down-payment on a better Scotland.
As well as the actions taken by the SNP Government, local councils have a massive role in tackling the cost of living crisis.
Today’s manifesto outlines the ambitious plans that SNP councillors will prioritise.
Last year, councils delivered pandemic payments of £130 to low income families.
And this year they are delivering help worth £150 to almost three out of every four households in Scotland.
Working together, the SNP government and local councils are shielding Scots from some of the worst Tory policies such as the Bedroom Tax and the benefit cap.
And we’re providing free school meals to children.
All children in P1-P5 are now benefitting, and we will soon extend free school meals in P6 and P7.
Working together, we’ve also delivered a transformational expansion of childcare, and this manifesto commits us to going even further.
SNP councillors will prioritise expansion of free early years education to all 1 and 2 year olds, starting with children from low income households…
And build a system of wraparound childcare, providing year-round, before-and-after school care – which will be free for those on the lowest incomes.
Today’s manifesto also outlines plans to build a fair, green and resilient recovery from COVID in every community in Scotland.
That includes supporting local businesses and creating high-quality jobs…
Making progress towards our target of 110,000 more affordable homes over the next decade…
And working together to deliver a National Care Service to transform the way care and support is delivered for people who use community health and social care.
These are the SNP’s priorities.
They are the right priorities to help families and communities through the cost of living crisis today
And to build a better tomorrow.
This is the difference voting SNP on May 5 can make.
I am proud of the actions we are taking – but equally determined to step up our ambition even further.
It is a fact, though, that most of the levers and resources needed to tackle the cost of living crisis are in the hands of the Westminster government.
And while the SNP has a plan to help Scotland through this crisis and onwards to a better future, the UK Tory government has its head in the sand and is dragging Scotland back.
Their support to families struggling with rising bills is woefully inadequate.
But it’s worse than that. They are actually making things harder for many.
They boasted about tax cuts while hiking National Insurance by 10%.
And as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation made clear, it is those on the lowest incomes who will suffer the most because of the Chancellor’s decisions.
Of course, this cost of living crisis didn’t just begin in the last few months.
It has been years in the making – the result of catastrophic Westminster policy decisions.
From the moment they took power, the Tories have been methodically chipping away at living standards and family incomes.
Years of benefit freezes and a cut of a £20 a week in universal credit.
A five-week wait for Universal Credit and cruel sanctions that are literally taking away money people need to eat.
The bedroom tax, the benefit cap, two child limit and the rape clause.
Scrapping the triple lock on pensions and threatening to raise the pension age.
They rammed through the hardest possible Brexit, at the worst possible moment – against the will of the people of Scotland – crippling trade and hurting household incomes in the process.
And despite the abundance of clean energy resources at our disposal, they banned subsidies for wind power – while obsessing over expensive nuclear power and dangerous technology like fracking.
Thanks to years of Westminster policy failings, people in the UK are facing the biggest drop in living standards since the 1950s.
That is the consequences of Westminster control over Scotland.
Friends, these deeply damaging decisions of the Tory government were not necessary.
They were ideological.
They were deliberate.
They were harmful.
That is the difference between the SNP Government and the Tory government.
The SNP is investing in individuals and communities.
The Tories are ripping support away.
The SNP is delivering a strong social security net.
The Tories have created an entire system based on social insecurity.
So in this election, let us use our votes carefully.
First and foremost, I am asking people across Scotland to vote for the positive difference that the SNP has made and will make…
But I am asking you also to send the strongest possible message to this corrupt, out of touch Tory government.
Back in the independence campaign in 2014, the SNP raised the prospect of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister one day. Leading opponents of independence laughed at that.
I well remember the Director of the No campaign saying that Boris Johnson was a clown.
And that the idea of him ever entering Number 10 Downing Street was just scaremongering.
As we know now, it was never that – and the prospect was never funny.
Repeatedly breaking the rules at the height of a lockdown and then misleading parliament about it isn’t funny.
Imposing a hard, damaging Brexit on Scotland isn’t funny.
Cutting Universal Credit amid a cost of living crisis isn’t funny.
The Rwandan asylum seeker scheme isn’t funny. It’s disgraceful and abhorrent.
All of that – and more – though is the reality of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.
But this isn’t about one man – however unfit for office he is. And he is.
It is, much more fundamentally, about a Westminster system that time and again imposes on Scotland governments we don’t vote for – and then pursue damaging policies we don’t support.
Boris Johnson may or may not be forced out of office – though I strongly suspect that is now be a matter of when, not if.
But when he goes, those Tory policies – and the worldview that drives them – will remain.
Policies that hit Scotland’s economy hard.
Policies that heap misery on the poorest and the most vulnerable.
So as we in Scotland consider our future, there is a fundamental question we need to ask – and answer.
Why should we continue to pay the price and suffer the damage of Tory governments we don’t elect?
When I look at the world today, there is so much that I know that Scotland can offer.
We have the natural resources and the human talent to play a key role in solving the global challenges of the 21st century.
We need to decide if we want to continue to live in a Westminster system where scandal, sleaze, contempt for Parliament, contempt for democracy and the institutions it depends on, is fast becoming the norm.
Where people seeking sanctuary on our shores – who are often fleeing persecution and torture – are treated like bargaining chips to appease the Tories’ right wing base.
Or do we choose instead to become a normal independent country –
A country that always gets the governments its people vote for.
Governments that will then deploy all of our vast resources to tackle inequality and fuel poverty and build a fairer society.
A country – albeit a relatively small one – that can nevertheless be a beacon for democracy, for human rights and climate justice, and be a positive voice on the global stage.
The SNP will always stand up for Scotland. It’s what we do. It’s who we are.
Today, we live in the most serious of times.
And in these serious times people, families and communities across Scotland need and expect serious leadership.
In the months and years ahead, let us – all of us – come together in a national pandemic-level effort to steer Scotland through the cost of living crisis and build a better future.
SNP Councillors – in partnership with our government at Holyrood – will strain every sinew to help families and communities through to that better future.
And we will demand the Tory government at Westminster takes action on the crisis that it has done so much to create.
This is the clear choice facing the people of Scotland on 5th May
It is a choice between SNP action, compassion and leadership.
Or Tory inaction, self-interest, complacency and sleaze.
To people across Scotland – please do not sit this election out.
Don’t let others decide your future for you.
Let’s tell the Tories exactly what we think of their antics and their inaction.
And most importantly, let’s vote for a better future.
Please use your vote to elect a strong team of SNP councillors in your area.
Vote for the party with a plan – a plan to help you through the tough times of today.
And a plan to build a better tomorrow. Vote SNP on May 5.