Speech by Economy Secretary Keith Brown to the 2017 SNP Spring Conference

Below is the speech given by Economy Secretary Keith Brown to the 2017 SNP Spring Conference in Aberdeen. Check against delivery. 

Conference, only a month ago here in Aberdeen, the European capital of the oil and gas sector, we formally launched the Oil and Gas Technology Centre with a Scottish Government investment of £90m over 10 years.

An example of your Government making a long term commitment to Aberdeen and the North East and protecting a vital industry and thousands of jobs now, and in the future.

We meet in the North East of Scotland at an historic moment. The First Minister has made clear that the people of Scotland have a choice.

We will put our proposition, based firmly on this government’s democratic mandate, to the Scottish Parliament next week, and then we will put our formal proposals to the UK Government.

If the Prime Minister refuses to engage on the terms of a referendum before the UK leaves the EU then she is single-handedly blocking the people of Scotland having a choice over their future. That would be a democratic outrage.

The status quo is no longer an option. We now face a hard Brexit from a hard right Tory Government, and all the damage that will cause to jobs and the economy of Scotland.

They offer us a race to the bottom with a damaged economy and the inevitable job losses that will follow as they rip us out of the single market against our will and all of it just to satisfy an internal Tory party squabble on the EU.

Well the Tories may say ‘no you can’t’ and ‘no you won’t’ but we say the people of Scotland and not the Tory party will choose our future.

While the Tories tie themselves in knots over Brexit and Labour run round in ever decreasing circles, your Government has been getting on with working hard to grow the economy. And while there remains a lot of hard work to do we are making a real and positive difference.

Since we came to power, renewable electricity output in Scotland has more than trebled and is now equivalent to over half the electricity consumed in Scotland, while 43,500 jobs are supported by the low carbon and renewable energy sector, generating a turnover of £10.7 billion.

Our investments are making a difference. This week we saw the latest labour market figures and Scotland saw its overall unemployment rate fall to 4.7 per cent, while female unemployment in Scotland fell to 4.6 per cent and we saw our youth unemployment rate fall to the second lowest youth unemployment rate in the whole of the EU, with only Germany being lower.

Conference, people believe that fake news is something new, emerging as one of the phrases of the last year, but we know different. The Unionist parties in Scotland are past masters at talking Scotland down.

They’ve been spreading fake news for years about our economy, our resources and the kind of future that we could build if Scotland chose an independent future. Talking Scotland down is their stock in trade.

Just two weeks ago I undertook a trade mission to Germany to meet with business leaders to reaffirm the position that Scotland remains open for business. Instead of welcoming this move, I was accused by the Tories of using the opportunity to ‘talk up Scotland’.

Conference, I put my hands up, I confess. I freely admit that I have been going round promoting Scottish businesses and I can tell you without fear of contradiction that I have been talking up Scotland, and I’ve been doing it deliberately.

Our opponents regularly complain that Scotland can’t be independent because of the volume of trade between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Conference, it may come as a surprise to some people but trading with your nearest neighbour is the norm the world over, but the inconvenient fact for our opponents is that these countries who trade with their neighbours are in fact independent countries.

Canada’s biggest trading partner is unsurprisingly the USA, with more than 75 per cent of their exports going to the United States. Are our opponents really saying that Canada cannot be independent because their largest trading partner is America?

Of course not, because their argument is illogical nonsense.

As Theresa May and Boris Johnson run round the world desperate to strike a trade deal with anyone and everyone, we are supposed to believe that they will trade with every other country, but not an independent Scotland.

They have so tied themselves in knots with their absurd proposition that they are saying Scotland in the Single Market can’t trade with the UK, which can only mean that the UK won’t trade with any other member of the Single Market.

We know it’s rubbish and so do they. But it shows us that Project Fear is back!

Scotland’s economy is strong, diverse and has proved itself to be resilient in the face of the most challenging global conditions. However, we cannot shy away from the challenges we face.

Like every other country in the world we are dealing with the recession and the downturn in the world economy, but unlike our international competitors we have to operate without control of the full levers of the economy that these independent countries have.

Conference, I want to give you some facts about what we have been doing.

Since 2007 the number of registered businesses in Scotland has grown by 15 per cent, rising to an all-time record level.

The value of Scotland’s international exports has increased by 41 per cent between 2007 and 2015.

Between 2010 and 2015 total turnover of our food and drink industry increased from £10bn to £14.4 billion. Their exports in 2016 were worth £5.5 billion, an increase of 40% since 2007 and I want to pay tribute to Richard Lochhead and his tremendous work to support and promote the sector during his time as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment.

For decades people across Scotland have been crying out for investment in their infrastructure. A plea that often went ignored, but since 2007 this government has taken forward the largest investment ever in the country’s transport infrastructure.

Conference, it is this Scottish Government that had the foresight and the vision to get on and build the £1.35 billion Forth Replacement Crossing. A vital piece of this nation’s transport infrastructure and a new engineering marvel that will rival the other great bridges of the world.

As well as being a bridge that will be admired the world over, and provide security for this vital link in our transport infrastructure, this project has given 10,000 people the opportunity to work on the site and on average has directly employed 1,289 people on building this new bridge.

We can be proud of all that we have achieved so far but I am also focused on building an ambitious future for Scotland’s businesses – a key example is Scotland’s Life Sciences sector.

This sector provides high skilled jobs to over 37,000 people across the country and company turnover is in excess of £4.2 billion, an increase of 29 per cent since 2010.

And recently, the sector announced its plan to nearly double the value of the industry to £8bn by 2025 – I applaud this drive and ambition. Life Sciences is an industry we can be proud of, a highly skilled, multi-billion pound Scottish success story.

The Tories are revelling in their hard Brexit, caring not at all about the impact of their plans, but we know the damage they will wreak to Scotland’s economy if they drag us out of the single market against our democratically expressed wishes.

The Fraser of Allander Institute has warned that the Tory’s Brexit plans could result in Scotland’s GDP being over 5 per cent lower than would otherwise be the case.

That is an £8 billion loss to Scotland.

Our exports could be over 11 per cent lower.

Real wages are expected to be 7 per cent lower, equivalent to a reduction of around £2000 per year.

And the number of people in employment could be 3 per cent lower. That is 80,000 fewer jobs.

The Tories might think casting aside the livelihoods of 80,000 families is a price worth paying for their Brexit dreams, but we don’t agree.  But then, there is no price too high for the Tory and Labour parties for defending the Union, as long as someone else is paying the price.

The Tories fantasy is laid bare by the ever changing story they try and tell the Scottish people.

First they told us that the only way to leave the EU was to vote Yes in 2014, but the opposite was true. Then Ruth Davidson told us that Brexit would be a disaster for Scotland but now she is cheerleader in chief for a path that she told us was a disaster.

Next the Tories told us we would be leaving the EU while staying in the single market, but now say we’ll be leaving the single market.

In fact some of them are pushing for a no deal Brexit which would result in us having no trade agreements.

Finally they threaten Europe, saying that if the EU doesn’t give them what they demand they’ll cut regulation, cut wages and lead a race to the bottom.

The Tories are not only heading over a hard Brexit cliff, they are determined to destroy all of the social protections that help to make our country a nation that respects and cherishes all of its citizens.

Conference, their bleak vision is not a future that I want to see for my children or all the other children of Scotland.

I don’t work every day to support Scottish businesses and grow our economy just for the sake of it, I do it to help build a fairer Scotland.

My aim is to provide opportunities for all our citizens, I don’t want to leave anyone behind and that is why at the heart of everything we do is equality and fairness for all.

For young people we have provided around 200,000 Modern Apprenticeships since 2007. Recently it has been 25,000 a year with a target of 26,000 this year and our ambitious target is to reach 30,000 MA starts per year by 2020. Real ambition targeted at giving young Scots equal chances and choices to succeed in life.

Last year we signed up 500 employers as accredited Living Wage employers and our aim is to double that to 1,000 by autumn 2017.

Conference, we recently broke through the 750 barrier and this week we stand at 758 accredited Living Wage employers across Scotland. I want to thank every one of those companies who have signed up to the Living Wage and encourage every employer across Scotland to sign up to this ambitious programme to help lift people out of poverty, by giving them the real living wage.

Our young people are our most important asset and we must ensure that we give them every opportunity to succeed. Young people who have experience of care are one group who can face challenges in their lives, but this government won’t leave them behind.

At our October conference last year the First Minister announced a root and branch review of the care system, driven by those who have experience of care. We are continuing that work across Government to improve the life chances of care leavers.

So I am delighted to announce today that we are launching a one year pilot programme backed with £1 million of funding specifically aimed at helping care experienced young people into positive destinations. A fulfilment of a manifesto pledge.

We like to do that!

Of course it isn’t just care leavers who need our support to get into the labour market. Some women who have taken time away from employment, often to support their families, can need some support to return to work.

In our 2016 manifesto we promised that we would introduce a scheme to help women returners, and as you know we keep our manifesto promises.

Therefore today I can announce that we will provide funding to support at least 200 women returners get back into work.

We know that by tackling issues of poverty, inequality and social exclusion, we can build a sustainable economy. By tackling these barriers we can ensure that more people can contribute to our economy and reach their full potential.

Conference, despite the underlying strength of the Scottish economy there is much work to do.

I and my Ministerial colleagues, Jamie Hepburn and Paul Wheelhouse are doing what we can within the constraints of devolution to grow the economy, increase productivity, expand our exports, increase employment and provide opportunities for all the citizens of Scotland.

We have high ambitions for our country, its businesses and people.

Our guiding principles drive us to work every day to ensure that no person is left behind on the Tories hard Brexit bus as it careers towards the cliff edge.

And that, conference, includes those who do us the huge complement of coming to live and work in our country.

The people of Scotland can choose a different path and a different future than the one Brexit offers, a future where we can build a progressive and successful modern democratic European country. 

Conference this debate comes down to Scotland versus the Tories and this time Scotland is going to win.