Bringing the powers home to build a better nation
“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”
That wonderful TS Eliot quotation always makes me think of Scotland.
As a nation, we have done a lot of exploring – we were a sovereign, independent country, and then gave our independence away.
We helped to build an empire, and saw it decay.
We transformed a rural economy into the workshop of the world – and then watched as the work left.
We discovered oil and stood by as the revenues were spent by others.
And today - with more oil, in value, still in the North Sea than has already been extracted - we stand on the brink of a renewable energy revolution.
Politically, we have been a Liberal stronghold. We have voted Tory in huge numbers - hard though it is to believe that now. We have been a bastion for the Labour party.
We have argued over our best form of government for centuries and after three hundred years without it now have our own parliament. A parliament that was intended to kill demand for independence stone dead, but is now governed by a pro independence majority.
And in 2014, we will decide if we want to complete our parliament's powers and restore our nation's sovereignty. And that is when Scotland will have the chance to bring home the powers we need to build a better country.
Today I want to talk, as a Scottish Government Minister, about the Scottish Government‘s case for independence and our vision for an independent Scotland.
Of course, we are not the only voice on the Yes side of the independence debate and others will have different ideas – ideas that they will be able to put to the people in elections to an independent Scottish Parliament.
As with the other side of the campaign, those supporting a Yes vote will not agree on everything. That is healthy. Indeed, it is confirmation of the vibrant democracy that an independent Scotland would be.
But, as Scotland’s elected government, we have a duty to set out our plans and our vision and that is what we will do.
Today I want to set out why independence is essential for Scotland – not as an end in itself but as a means to achieve the Scotland we seek.
A country with a stable economy that works for the many and not just the few; one that knows it must create the wealth it needs to support the strong public services we value; a country that manages our vast resources responsibly, with an eye to the future; a country that gets the government it votes for; a country that has fairness at its core and and allows all of us as individuals to reach our full potential.
That is the destination of our journey – Scotland. The Scotland we want to be.
A nation like any other, a nation bound in the grasp of other nations as we are all united in a globalised world, but a nation that knows itself, perhaps for the first time.
A nation that makes its own decisions and shapes its own future.
That, for me, is the point of independence.
One of the great intellectuals of the nationalist movement - and someone we all miss dearly – the late Professor Sir Neil MacCormick, distinguished between what he called the existentialist and the utilitarian strands of the nationalist movement. The former described those who thought Scotland was entitled to be independent simply because we are a nation, the latter that independence was a tool to deliver a better society.
While I recognise the distinction Neil drew and realise that there are some in our national movement who base their political beliefs more on the fact of nationhood, I would suggest that today most SNP members are an amalgam of these two strands.
For my part, and I believe for my generation, I have never doubted that Scotland is a nation. And while I might not go on about a thousand years of history and that sort of thing I take it for granted as a simple fact that Scotland is a nation with an inalienable right to self-determination.
But for me the fact of nationhood or Scottish identity is not the motive force for independence. Nor do I believe that independence, however desirable, is essential for the preservation of our distinctive Scottish identity. And I don’t agree at all that feeling British – with all of the shared social, family and cultural heritage that makes up such an identity – is in any way inconsistent with a pragmatic, utilitarian support for political independence.
My conviction that Scotland should be independent stems from the principles, not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice.
Firstly I believe that Scotland has a democratic right to choose our own government and determine her own future, a democratic right to put in place her own values and a democratic duty to make her own decisions.
And secondly, I want Scotland to be a country that sees enterprise and fairness as two sides of the same coin.
Down the years, many people have asked me why I ended up in the SNP and not the Labour Party. Why did a young girl, growing up in a working class family in the west of Scotland - a part of the country where in those days, they would joke that the Labour vote was weighed rather than counted; someone who was, just like Labour was in those days, anti-Trident and pro-social justice and went on to work as a social justice lawyer in Drumchapel - why does that person end up in the SNP instead of Labour?
The reason is simple. I joined the SNP because it was obvious to me then - as it still is today - that you cannot guarantee social justice unless you are in control of the delivery.
And that is my central argument to you today. Not just that independence is more than an end in itself. But that it is only by bringing the powers home, by being independent, that we can build the better nation we all want.
And I ask you, as you make up your minds over these next two years, to base your decision, not on how Scottish or British you feel, but on what kind of country you want Scotland to be and how best you think that can be achieved.
Our referendum may be asking only one question, but in truth Scotland faces two choices – the first is whether to bring the powers home to govern ourselves, rather than stick with UK governance.
And the second is – what kind of society do we want to be.
But we don't get to make the second choice without being prepared to make the first.
The powers of independence are the tools we need to build the country we want to be.
The challenges we face as a country today are real - and they are not just short term effects of the recession or global problems shared by all other countries.
The poverty and inequality that is a scar on the face of our nation, the lag in economic growth, the flow of our brightest and best out of Scotland – these are not recent problems. These are long-standing and long-term challenges that UK governments of whatever colour have failed to address.
The UK today is the 4th most unequal society in the developed world. 1 in 5 Scottish children live in poverty. 800,000 Scots live in fuel poverty.
Over the past 50 years, Scotland’s average economic growth rate has been 40% lower than equivalent, independent countries.
Recently, the Economist Intelligence Unit published its ‘where to be born’ index that looks at a range of quality of life measures. The UK ranked 27th. But four out of the top five countries - Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark - are countries with many similarities to Scotland.
What do these other small countries have that we don’t? It's not resources, talent or the determination of our people.
What they do have is the independence to take decisions that are right for them.
The example of these other countries should tell us that the challenges we face today are not inevitable. The problems can be solved – but only if we equip ourselves with the powers we need to solve them.
So the debate we will have over these next two years must be a debate about the most effective political and economic unit to achieve the economic growth and the social justice that the Scottish people want. It is, in many ways, our version of the same question being asked across all mature western democracies. How to build a thriving but sustainable economy that benefits the many not the few.
The Westminster system of government has had its chance - and failed.
Today, independence is the pragmatic way forward.
Back in 1707, the Union was formed out of the self-interest of the elites of both nations – and it could never be said to have been the democratic choice of Scotland.
The purpose of the state then was to advance trade, wage wars and provide a structure of social order.
Then, in the mid-20th century, the creation of the welfare state played an overwhelming role in giving the union a new purpose. Britain lost the colony of India, but we all gained a new territory in the shape of free health care and social protection from cradle to grave. Alongside the BBC, these things began to define British-ness.
And, of course, devolution - to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - was itself an attempt to renew the UK state.
But the UK’s ability to re-invent itself is spent. The Westminster parties are at best sceptical and at worst hostile to further substantial reform in Scotland’s interests. The post-war economic decline has continued and now the very institutions which once made us distinct, the welfare state and - in England - the NHS, are under attack from the Westminster system of government.
What we do we get from leaving our powers in the control of others? A high risk economy and an eroding social fabric.
And let us be clear - to vote no in 2014 consigns us to that path.
A deeply indebted state spending money on Trident weapons of mass destruction while cutting welfare.
A state adrift from Europe and increasingly isolated on the wider stage.
And to those who say that the answer is to change the occupant of number 10 and the colour of the UK government, I say we have been there and done that and the challenges we face remain undiminished.
Labour’s argument is that Scotland should bear the storms of UK membership when the Tories are in office because, in the event of a Labour government, things will improve more than they ever could with independence.
To me, that argument is deeply flawed.
First, I simply do not believe that Scotland should have to put up with long periods of UK government led by a party we did not vote for. It is - surely - democratically indefensible that although the Tories have never won a majority of votes or seats in Scotland in my entire lifetime – or even come anywhere close – they have nevertheless governed Scotland for more than half of my lifetime.
Second, it is clear from its record that for Labour to be elected across the UK, it must become something different to what Scotland wants.
Social justice becomes a policy to be bartered against other interests - wars, nuclear weapons and welfare cuts.
In the end the Blair government elected in 1997 was not an alternative to Conservatism. It was business as usual.
So when the promise of ‘no more boom and bust’ went bust the banks were rescued and ordinary families left to pay the price - facing joblessness, bankruptcy, falling living standards, a sense of uncertainty about the future and the prospect of being the first generation unable say with confidence that our children will be better off than we are.
So I reject the argument that the best route to achieve our vision for social justice is to stay in the United Kingdom and hope for a different government.
The record of recent governments of all three UK parties, stretching back more than 30 years, is of failure to address the problems that hold back our economy and our society.
To vote no would be to pass on the ability to achieve the social justice we want – because history shows that the Westminster system of government won't deliver it.
So if that is the critique of the current United Kingdom and its parties, what is the alternative?
What is the positive case for independence to achieve our vision of a more prosperous and socially just nation?
To vote yes is to vote not just for new powers – but for new powers that we will use for a purpose.
To bring the powers home to make a fresh start. A chance to begin again in response to the 21st century,
There is little point in bringing the powers home to just carry on as before. When devolution was delivered, it brought powers home but Labour didn’t have a clear enough idea of what it wanted to do with them. We know what we want to do.
Our overwhelming objective is to benefit, not just this, but the next and future generations.
Bringing the powers home has to be the in interests of long term substantial change.
Yes, we will make changes in the short term – the sensible use of borrowing powers to get our economy growing faster, for example. Or action to deal with sky-high air passenger duty that is damaging trade and tourism. Or changes to Tory welfare reforms.
But we are not just talking just about a few presents which keep us happy on Independence Day. This is about change for the long term.
It is about ending, once and for all, the cycle of deprivation so that our people can enter a thriving economy and contribute more meaningfully to their own well-being and that of the world.
Over the next 12 months, as we approach the publication of the independence White Paper, through a range of papers, speeches and events, we will show how we would set about that task.
We will set out the ‘how’ of bringing the powers home. These will cover issues like the macro-economic framework, regulation and the transition to an independent welfare system - in other words, the infrastructure of the state. Our purpose in this body of work is simple – to show that we will be the most prepared nation in the world gaining new powers, so that the transition is smooth.
UK politicians will say this is all too difficult. It can’t be done. It won’t work. Of course they will say that. Not because its true but because they want to scare you off. It is in their vested interest to say so.
Some may believe it. Most will not. Because in the end, the how of independence can be done. We will explain how it will be done in Scotland, and just a moment’s reflection on the number of new states that have emerged in the years since the second world war proves that it can be done - because so many have already done it.
And let’s never forget how far along the road to independence Scotland already is. We are not starting from scratch. Donald Dewar’s Scotland Act of 1998 may come to be seen as one the finest pieces of legislation ever. It set up a parliament which was fit for the 21st century – we are already governing in a manner which is light years from the UK. We have in place a great foundation – it was designed to be built on.
In the 13 years of devolution, great changes have occurred. We lose sight of them in the pell mell of politics – but unlike the privatisation process south of the border, our health service remains true to Nye Bevan’s founding principles; our education system has a new curriculum fit for modern teaching and learning; our universities offer education based on the ability to learn not the ability to pay; and our older people have more security in their later years.
So we will remind people that we are already half way there – we have brought half the powers home, and made a success of it. Now we must build on the foundation and bring the home the rest. It is time to finish the job.
And if Scotland votes yes, I have no doubt that everyone – regardless of which side of the debate they were on – will want and work for the best for Scotland.
The Edinburgh Agreement makes clear that the Scottish and UK governments will work together to implement the outcome in the best interests of the people of Scotland and the rest of the UK.
And although the independence negotiations that will follow a yes vote will be led by the Scottish Government, we will not act alone.
If there is a yes vote for independence, then let me make it clear - the Scottish Government will invite representatives of the other political parties and of civic Scotland to contribute to those negotiations.
We will have had our debate and taken our decision. Each of us will have argued our case strongly and passionately. But when the people have spoken, we will emerge from it as one united nation.
We will be team Scotland, and at that moment in our history, I am sure – whatever they say this side of the referendum - that Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie will argue Scotland’s case as strongly as Alex Salmond and Patrick Harvie.
So, the process of how we will become independent is important. People want to know that and they will.
But what really matters is the ‘why’ of independence. What will we do with the new powers we will have to build a better nation? It will be the answers to that question that will persuade people that the process of getting there – of becoming an independent nation – is worthwhile.
So the second strand of our work over the next 12 months will be to lay out our ideas – and open up for wider debate – the ways in which the powers of independence can be used to address the deep seated challenges in our economy and society – and to achieve the vision that I have laid out today.
How do we build a more sustainable economy and a fair society? How do we get our economy growing and ensure that the proceeds of that growth benefit the many not the few. What changes will we make to tax and welfare to incentivise hard work and protect the vulnerable? How will we close the gap between rich and poor? How do we, once and for all, end the scandal of child poverty in energy rich Scotland?
The great thing about devolution has been the ability to use the powers we have to find – as the late Donald Dewar put it - Scottish solutions to Scottish problems.
Imagine being able to put our minds to solving Scotland’s challenges with all of the important powers that normal, independent countries have at their disposal.
To get the chance that new powers and responsibilities will give us to re-think the purpose of government, to harness the energy of our entrepreneurs and our community spirit to find the solutions to these long-standing challenges, to get the chance to re-shape our nation – that truly is an historic opportunity.
It is exciting. It is inspiring. And it is infinitely better than accepting the status quo, stay the same, business as usual approach that a no vote would ensure - and which I am sure most people in Scotland would come to regret if it happened.
To me it is the ‘why’ that counts. Anyone can say that it’s too hard, or that it will be too much hassle or that it will never work – that’s the default position, the negative position.
But the world isn’t changed by those who accept things as they are or who think that making things better is too difficult. It is changed by people who - to quote that old Bobby Kennedy favourite – don’t look at things as they are and ask why, but who look at things as they could be and ask why not.
When I think of the why of independence, I think of a child. Let’s call her Kirsty. She is part of the new generation in this land.
According to where Kirsty is born, and what her parents will do, much of her life will be pre-determined.
If we let Kirsty down in the first months of her life, then the chances are that all the welfare, free education, and state intervention that we can provide, will never quite make up for that. If we fail her when she is young, then we have failed her for life.
Not only that – but by denying Kirsty proper support we have switched her from being an asset – to herself, her community and Scotland - and turned her into a demand – for money, services and help.
Every time we fail Kirsty, we fail our own future. Because Kirsty will be the carer to tomorrow’s pensioners and the Chief Executive of tomorrow’s companies. She will be the inheritor of our mistakes. Fail her now, and we fail her again and again and again, until she is just another figure shuffling through our welfare statistics, set to die a decade or so earlier than her richer neighbours.
I think of Kirsty because none of us in the movement to bring powers home are doing it just for the here and now. We are doing it for Kirsty, for our own version of that child, for the thousands of children right now growing up in poverty, for the disabled person facing welfare cuts, for our friends who can’t get a job or who are worrying about how to pay the mortgage, for the single mother slaving away at two jobs but still struggling to put food on the table.
We are doing it because we believe that it shouldn’t be that way; that is doesn’t have to be that way; and that the UK system of government has had long enough to fix it – and failed.
That is the reason I am here – the Deputy First Minister of an SNP government, when everything about me suggests I should have joined the Labour party.
And that is the reason why powers must come home. To give ourselves the means to match the ambition, to make a fresh start, to build a society fit for the future.
It is our duty to decide if future generations will live in charge of their own fate, capable of tackling their own problems - or if we are going to allow the mistakes of the past to be repeated into the future.
The sequence is clear. We vote in autumn 2014. The result will be clear as Scotland wakes up the next day.
If Scots have voted no, then we will get the steady erosion of our services and society that is already apparent under Westminster government.
If Scotland votes yes, it will have decided that there is a different way, a better way.
The transition to independence will give us a once in a generation opportunity to reinvent the purpose of government, and direct the wealth of our nation in a way that liberates all the lives in our land.
Business as usual or a chance to build a new future – that’s the real choice we face.
Bringing powers home is - to return to TS Eliot - to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time - to know it by knowing the purpose for which we are here.
Devolution started a journey for Scotland - it was not an end.
Independence will not be the end either.
The end will be the country we can build with the powers that independence will give us.
A country that earns its wealth and shares it more fairly. A country where every child has the chance to grow up and fulfil their potential.
A country confident in itself and its place in the world.
And a country that enjoys excellent relations with its friends across these islands - as an independent Scotland will do.
On that last point, I ask you, just for a moment, to imagine a post-independence declaration between the Scottish and UK governments. It might go something like this:
'The relationship between our two countries has never been stronger or more settled, as complex or as important as it is today.
Our citizens, uniquely linked by geography and history, are connected today as never before through business, politics, culture and sport, travel and technology and, of course, family ties.
Our two economies benefit from a flow of people, goods, investment, capital and ideas on a scale that is rare even in this era of global economic integration.'
Ladies and gentleman, that is not an imagined declaration. It is an actual one. These are the opening paragraphs of the joint statement made by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in March this year on the state of British-Irish relations - a powerful illustration of the fact that political independence is not about separation. It is about a relationship of equals based on shared interests.
I started with a quote from TS Eliot. Let me end with Alasdair Gray. He urged us to work as if we live in the early years of a better nation.
I believe we do live in the early days of a better nation. The journey towards a better Scotland has started. The duty of our generation is to ensure that the next generation has the ability to complete that journey.