A warm welcome to all of you here today.
As we return to Parliament next week, after a summer in which the work has never really stopped, we have a big job ahead of us.
So to focus minds at the outset, let me remind you of the results of the most recent Scottish Social Attitudes survey.
It examined the extent to which people in Scotland trust the Scottish and UK Governments to act in the country’s best interests.
The findings are telling: trust in the Scottish Government – our SNP government – is at the highest level since devolution began.
In total, 73% of people said that they trust the Scottish Government to act in Scotland’s best interests.
By contrast – sharp contrast – less than 25% said that they trust the UK Government.
And that was before the Tories dragged us to the EU exit door against our will.
These findings should encourage us – but they should also serve as a reminder.
A reminder of the responsibility we carry every single day – in Holyrood, at Westminster and in communities across the country.
The responsibility to earn and re-earn the trust of the people of Scotland.
Our job is to act, at all times, in Scotland’s best interests.
Standing up for Scotland is what our party was born to do. It is in our DNA.
And it will always be our guiding principle.
That’s why at Westminster, it is the SNP that holds the Tory government to account.
It is the SNP that stands up for the vulnerable; the SNP that is the voice of principle against Tory austerity; the SNP that stands against plans to rip up our human rights protections.
And it is the SNP that is leading the charge against the obscenity of wasting £200 billion on a new generation of nuclear weapons.
Make no mistake – at Westminster, we are not just an effective opposition, we are the only effective opposition to the Tory Government.
And at Holyrood we are getting on with the job of creating a wealthier, fairer Scotland.
On Tuesday, I will set out our Programme for Government for the year ahead – a programme based firmly on the manifesto we were so resoundingly re-elected on in May.
It will build on the progress we have already made as a country and focus firmly on the big challenges that confront us.
At its heart will be measures to support our economy through the uncertainty caused by Brexit.
As the UK government dithers, we will outline further plans to stimulate the economy and support jobs.
We will set out the next steps in our plans to improve education and close the achievement gap.
Our school reforms will be centre stage – but they will sit alongside measures to tackle child poverty, expand early years education and build a social security system with fairness and dignity at its heart.
It will also set out how we will continue to equip our NHS for the challenges of the future.
The latest patient experience survey, published earlier this week, shows record levels of satisfaction with our NHS – a real credit to healthcare staff across the country. But as demand continues to rise, we cannot and we will not rest on our laurels.
So as the NHS in England prepares for yet more strikes by junior doctors, our focus will be on expanding primary, community and social care services, building five new elective treatment centres and improving mental health care.
Community empowerment, land reform, new measures to tackle domestic abuse and improve gender balance will also feature in a programme focused firmly on delivering for Scotland.
Of course, this Programme for Government comes against the backdrop of the damaging uncertainty caused by the UK wide vote to leave the EU – the first of two seismic political events that have occurred over this summer.
Ten weeks after accidentally leading the UK to the EU exit door, it really does beggar belief that the Tories are no further forward in setting out the detail of what Brexit actually means.
Instead of a detailed negotiating plan, there is just a meaningless soundbite.
The lack of planning before or since the referendum, the lack of direction, the lack of detail about what our future relationship with the EU might look like, the lack of any semblance of a clue about what happens next is disgraceful.
It is reckless and irresponsible and the Tories – especially their cheerleaders here in Scotland, who told us that staying in the UK was the only way to protect our place in Europe – should be deeply ashamed of themselves.
What makes matters even worse is that the signals that are emerging point firmly in the direction of a deeply damaging hard Brexit.
Any hope of some common sense from Chequers this week turned out to be in vain.
What emerged instead was evidence that the hardline Brexiteers really are running the show.
For Scotland, that means we face the prospect not just of being taken out of the EU against our will – but being taken out of the single market altogether.
If that happens, the damage to our economy will be deep and permanent.
Well, let me clear about this. As First Minister, I am not prepared to stand by and let that happen without a battle.
I’ve already set out the vital Scottish interests that are now under threat – our democratic and economic interests, our interest in social protection and solidarity, and our interest in influencing the world around us.
And I’ve set out why they matter – to jobs, trade and investment, to our universities and our environment, to our security and place in the world and to our very sense of who we are.
My job – our job – is to defend these interests and that is what we are determined to do.
I intend to hold the Prime Minister to her word that Scotland’s voice will be heard.
As the UK government develops its position ahead of triggering article 50, we expect to be at the table and we intend to make our presence felt.
I have appointed Mike Russell to lead these discussions on behalf of the Scottish Government and I know he will be a strong and determined voice for Scotland.
The approach we will take in the months ahead will be threefold.
Firstly, we will seek to use whatever influence we have to shape the best – or more accurately, the least bad – outcome, not just for Scotland, but for the whole UK.
Let me be explicit today about what, in my view, that means. It means the UK continuing as a member of the single market.
My message to the Prime Minister is this – you may have a mandate in England and Wales to leave the EU but you do not have a clear mandate to take any part of the UK out of the single market.
I hope that all parties in Scotland, all those who campaigned to Remain and, indeed, the many Leave campaigners who said that leaving the EU did not mean leaving the single market, will unite behind us when we make this case.
Secondly, and regardless of the direction the UK government decides to take, we will seek to find ways to protect, as best we can, Scotland’s place in Europe and our vital national interests and embed them in the UK’s negotiating strategy.
Our Standing Council of Experts met this week and is already working on a spectrum of options to protect what matters most to Scotland and to consider the additional powers our parliament would need to make them work – for example, how can we protect the benefits to our businesses of the single market and free movement, how can we protect workers’ rights, the place of our universities in Horizon 2020, the continued ability of our students to participate in Erasmus, and the enhanced security that comes from Europol and the European Arrest Warrant.
I am determined that we will pursue these objectives in good faith and as hard as we can.
And to the Prime Minister, I say this. It is your party that has put Scotland into this position. We didn’t choose it – indeed we voted against it. So, if you value the UK as you say you do, the onus is now on you to prove that the UK can work for Scotland and that our interests can be protected.
I hope the Prime Minister keeps her word to listen to Scotland.
But every time I hear high handed, arrogant comments from the Tories to the effect that Scotland should know her place, that Westminster is boss and that we will simply have to like it or lump it, whatever is decided, I know we are right to keep our third option on the table.
That is the option of considering again, in these very different circumstances, if Scotland should become an independent country.
Of course, choosing independence would be a big decision – just as it would have been in 2014. There would be many issues for people to weigh up. I don’t presume that the case has yet been won – though every poll since 23 June has shown support for independence higher than it was on 18 September 2014. And, while I take nothing for granted, I suspect support for independence will be even higher if it becomes clear that it is the best or only way to protect our interests.
The fact that they are already resorting to fear tactics shows that the Tories understand this all too well.
For example, they tell us that Scotland choosing independence would mean turning our back on trade and open borders with the rest of the U.K.
The problem for those making this argument is that we are able to read what they are saying elsewhere.
Just yesterday, David Davis made a speech in Belfast. He said that Brexit would not mean the end of the common travel area with independent Ireland, that it would not lead to a hard border between the north and south of Ireland and that it would not result in barriers to trade.
Instead, he said, and I quote “we will deliver a practical solution that will work in everyone’s interests”.
The UK government cannot say that in Ireland but then get away with saying the opposite here in Scotland. It simply will not wash.
There can be no doubt that Brexit raises afresh the issue of independence.
But there are two truths that we must never forget.
First, Scotland will only become independent when a majority of people choose it. There are no shortcuts – we still have to make the case and win the argument.
And, second, important though the issue of EU membership is, the case for independence is about more than that.
Indeed, in many respects, Brexit is simply one illustration – albeit a material one – of the democratic deficit at the heart of the Westminster system.
Whether you voted to Remain in the EU or to Leave, the more fundamental question is “who decides?”
Do we control our own destiny as a country or we will always be at the mercy of decisions taken elsewhere?
That democratic deficit is not new to us.
But it is likely to become more acute as a result of the second seismic event to have occurred this summer – the decision of the Labour Party to press the self destruct button.
Labour is in a state of utter chaos and collapse. It has shown itself completely unable to oppose, let alone govern. The leader that their MPs refuse to unite behind is almost certain to be re-elected.
Not a single serious commentator thinks they can win a general election.
Not even the leader of the Scottish Labour Party thinks they can win a general election.
There is now the very real possibility that we are witnessing the end of Labour as a force to be reckoned with in British politics – perhaps the end of the Labour Party full stop.
And that has real consequences. In their self indulgence, Labour has opened the door to years, perhaps decades, of Tory government. What a disgraceful abdication of responsibility that is.
So, here’s the double whammy that we face in Scotland if things stay as they are.
On the one hand, the uncertainty of Brexit leading to the hard reality of a life outside the single market – with a cost of billions of pounds in lost growth, lost investment, lost opportunities and narrowed horizons.
And on the other hand, years and years of Tory Governments. Governments that are anti European, anti immigration, anti human rights. Governments that will chase economic competitiveness through de-regulation and a race to the bottom. Governments that we don’t vote for.
All of that makes the idea of Westminster as some sort of safe harbour for Scotland completely redundant.
But there is an alternative to just hoping for the best at Westminster.
Yes, it would present its own challenges and complexities.
But it would allow us to take control of our own destiny – to build our own prosperity on strong and stable foundations, create a fairer society, and safeguard our place in the world.
That’s why I believe it is right that our party does now lead a new debate on independence.
Today, I want to set out the principles that will guide that debate.
First, it will be a new debate. It will not be a rerun of 2014.
The UK that Scotland voted to stay part of in 2014 has changed – and so too have the arguments for and against independence. We must not assume that people’s views – yes or no – are the same today as they were in 2014. Instead we must engage the arguments with a fresh eye and an open mind.
And that takes me to the second principle. Before we start talking we must listen.
So today, we are launching – as the first phase in our new independence initiative – the biggest listening exercise in our party’s history. It will run from now until St Andrew’s Day.
We want to understand in detail how people feel now about Europe, Brexit and independence. We want to know the concerns that people have and the questions they want answered. We want to build, if we can, a consensus on the way ahead.
I encourage as many people as possible to take part and let us know their views – whether they are for independence, against independence or undecided.
Members of the public can take part through a new dedicated website going live today –www.survey2016.scot.
Every one of our 120,000 members will be sent a pack of survey cards. I am asking all members today to commit to completing the survey with 5 people each month for the next three months.
Our activists will be hitting the doorsteps as well – asking people to take part and delivering a new leaflet explaining why.
I am also asking all of our parliamentarians to hold at least one town hall event to engage directly with people across your own constituencies.
All in all, we plan to speak to at least 2 million people across Scotland between now and the 30 November, Scotland’s national day.
The wealth of information and insight that we gather will then inform the next stage of our campaign.
The third principle that I commit to today is this one. We will not duck the tough issues.
Last week, the glee of the unionist parties at the publication of the latest GERS figures was as predictable as it was misplaced.
They got very excited that Scotland, like most countries, has a fiscal deficit, while Norway has a surplus of 5%. According to them, this seals the case against independence.
Well, I beg to differ. Norway’s strength is actually a brilliant advert for small, independent countries.
Scotland’s fiscal position is not a verdict on independence – it is an indictment of generations of Westminster government.
But here’s the hard bit. That fact only takes us so far.
If we want to be independent, the legacy of that Westminster mismanagement will be ours to repair.
So we must set out, clearly and convincingly, how we intend to do that.
That’s why I am also announcing today the establishment of a new Party Growth Commission.
The Commission will inform our thinking on how growth can be sustained in the here and now and during the period of uncertainty caused by Brexit.
But it will also examine the projections for Scotland’s finances in the context of independence and consider a policy programme – with social justice at its heart – to grow the economy and reduce Scotland’s deficit to a sustainable level. It will also consider the monetary arrangements that would best support and underpin a strategy for sustainable growth.
The Commission will be chaired by former MSP, Andrew Wilson. It will include our Finance Secretary Derek McKay. Our Westminster Group will be represented by Roger Mullin MP and our Holyrood Group by Kate Forbes MSP.
The full membership of the Commission – which will be published alongside its remit within the next two weeks – will draw on a range of economic, academic and business expertise.
And while its work is intended to inform SNP policy, it will also seek views from across the political spectrum.
Scotland is a wealthy country. We have resources and talents that other countries can only dream about.
The real question is why, for so many people, it doesn’t feel that way. Why hasn’t Westminster control of our economy translated the wealth of our country into greater prosperity for our people?
The real challenge for us is to close the gap between our potential and the reality.
And to decide what gives us the strongest foundation and the best opportunity to do so.
I believe we will do better if we stay part of the world’s biggest single market – building prosperity from a stable base – rather than allowing ourselves to be removed from it against our will.
I believe we will be more successful if we keep our economy and our society open to the skills and talents of those who do us the privilege of making Scotland their home.
I believe we will all be better off if we retain our rights to travel, live and study across Europe, learning from other cultures and enriching ourselves in the process.
I believe we will serve our own interests better by contributing positively to the world we live in, rather than by allowing a Tory government – the real separatists – to cut us off.
I believe all of that is in Scotland’s best interests.
So let me end today where I started.
Scotland’s interests will always be our guiding principle.
That means doing everything we can to protect our place in Europe.
It means leading an open, honest and inclusive debate about Scotland’s future.
It means governing for everyone to create opportunity for all.
And it means setting out how we create the best conditions to increase economic opportunity and build economic security.
There is real work to be done.
Let’s get on with the job.
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