"This is the second time in the last eight days that I’ve been next
door to the UK Cabinet. Last week they paid a flying visit to Aberdeen
while the Scottish Cabinet was in Portlethen a few miles away. This week
I’m here in the heart of Westminster.
And once again, I’ve been hoping that David Cameron might join me – I thought we could maybe have a debate...
However it’s a pleasure be back in Westminster to deliver this New
Statesman lecture. I hope you’ve all had a chance to look through this
week’s special issue, and I hope it’s given you some flavour of the
vitality of the debate currently taking place in Scotland.
I want to start tonight’s speech by emphasising one point which the media, and UK politicians, sometimes lose sight of.
If we vote YES in September then Scotland will become independent in
more promising circumstances than virtually any nation in history.
In fact, nobody really doubts that an independent Scotland could be successful.
Even David Cameron once put it well:
“Supporters of independence will always be able to cite examples
of small, independent and thriving economies … such as Finland,
Switzerland and Norway. It would be wrong to suggest that Scotland could
not be another such successful, independent country.”
David Cameron omitted to mention that Finland’s GDP per head is
nearly 10% higher than the UK’s; Switzerland’s is 50% higher, and
Norway’s is 85% higher. But his basic point was well made.
This consensus reflects Scotland’s underlying economic strength. We
would be among the wealthiest nations in the OECD. Scotland has
contributed more in taxes, per person, than the rest of the UK for every
single one of the last 30 years.
Standard and Poor’s, the ratings agency – which for the duration of
this speech I’m rechristening Standard and Rich – joined the consensus
last Thursday, noting “In brief we would expect Scotland to benefit from
all the attributes of an investment-grade sovereign credit
characterised by its wealthy economy (roughly the size of New
Zealand’s), high-quality human capital, flexible product and labour
markets, and transparent institutions”.
However, the current balance sheet is only part of the economic story. We should also look at the potential of the country.
We have more universities in the world top 200, per head of
population, than any other country on the planet; we have huge expertise
in engineering and life sciences; an astounding cultural heritage;
immense energy and natural resources; and a skilled and inventive
So there’s no doubt – none whatsoever – that Scotland could be an
independent country. The question the people of Scotland will answer on
18 September, is about whether we should be an independent country.
That’s essentially a choice between two futures – the real choice I’m
going to talk about this evening. With one, Scotland is part of an
increasingly imbalanced UK – with high social inequalities, growing
regional disparities, and more often than not governments we didn’t vote
for. With the other, we have the powers we need to create a better
country, to build the Scotland we want to see - the Scotland we seek.
I want to start with the letter sent recently by 27 Church of England bishops, blaming the rise in foodbanks on “cutbacks to and failures in the benefits system”.
The letter struck me for two reasons. The first is that when I packed
boxes alongside volunteers at the Edinburgh South foodbank just before
Christmas, the Trussel Trust told me that in 2011 they had one foodbank
in the whole of Scotland. Now they run 43.
50,000 people in Scotland have used them in the last nine months.
The second reason the letter struck me was the strength – the unusual
strength - of the language used by the good bishops. It’s been
reflected also in some of the comments recently made by the Archbishop
of Westminster, now Cardinal Vincent Nichols.
It’s 25 years ago this month that leaders of Scotland’s three largest
churches joined together to condemn a UK Government policy as “undemocratic, unjust, socially divisive and destructive of community and family life.”
That letter was written on the eve of the introduction of the poll
tax in Scotland. It expressed perfectly the widespread anger about the
tax, which commanded support from only 10 Scottish MPs out of 72.
The poll tax became a totemic issue in Scotland - the supreme example
of a policy imposed upon us in the teeth of massive public opposition.
And one reason why the Scottish people endorsed devolution so
overwhelmingly in 1997, was to stop anything similar ever happening
It’s worth repeating the phrase used by Scotland’s church leaders 25 years ago - “undemocratic, unjust, socially divisive and destructive of community and family life.”
Last April, the bedroom tax came into force. It is affecting more
than 70,000 households across Scotland – 80% of which include a disabled
person. It was opposed by more than 90% of Scotland’s MPs.
It’s part of a package of welfare reforms – again opposed by more
than 90% of Scotland’s MPs - which have seen the growth of foodbanks,
and which the children’s charities have forecast will see tens of
thousands more children born into poverty by 2020.
However, these policies are exacerbating social trends which have
prevailed over generations. The Organisation of Economic Co-operation
and Development reported three years ago that since 1975, inequality
among working-age people has increased faster in the UK than in any
other member country. Even before the current government came into
office, Professor Danny Dorling calculated that the UK was the 4th most
unequal country in the developed world – it hardly seems likely that the
position has improved!
And regional inequalities have grown alongside social inequalities.
The UK now has the highest levels of regional inequality of any country
in the European Union.
The UK Government’s Business Secretary, recently called London “a kind of giant suction machine, draining the life out of the rest of the country.”
Now, I’m much more moderate in my views than Vince Cable - London is
one of the great world cities; much of its success is to be celebrated.
And the economic gravitational pull of London is nothing new. This
building was constructed at the end of the 19th century, because the
Institution of Mechanical Engineers -which had been based in Birmingham
since 1847 - decided it needed a London headquarters.
But London’s influence is infinitely stronger now. And it’s
impossible to deny that the attraction of capital and talent to London
is now one of the defining features of the UK economy.
A recent report by the Centre for Cities noted that 80% of private sector job creation was taking place in London.
Prof Tony Travers of the London School for Economics has said: “London is the dark star of the economy, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy. Nobody quite knows how to control it.”
David Cameron argued before he became Prime Minister that “an economy with such a narrow foundation for growth is fundamentally wasteful and unstable.”
Yet his record is weaker than his words. A couple of years ago the
Institute of Public Policy for the Regions published a report – “On the Wrong Track”.
It found that public spending on major transport Infrastructure
amounted to £2,600 per head in London– and £5 per head in the north east
I’m First Minister of Scotland – meaning all of Scotland. If the
government I lead were responsible for such massive disparities, we
wouldn’t stand a chance of re-election.
There’s a growing realisation that wealth and opportunities are too
concentrated, geographically and socially. UK Government policies are
working for too few, and denying opportunities to too many. Britain is
When I sat across the road in the Westminster chamber, the
redoubtable Eric Heffer, MP for Liverpool Walton, used to sit on the
backbenches just behind me. Eric hadn’t always favoured devolution, but
the experience of Mrs Thatcher’s government had changed his mind. And
whenever I made speeches, I used to hear Eric’s growl behind me “Remember Alex – Liverpool’s coming with you!”
I’m not suggesting that we take up Eric Heffer’s offer, but it’s
interesting that in the last year we’ve seen a real determination from
councils and cities in the north of England to see a prosperous and
empowered Scotland as an opportunity rather than a threat.
The Association of North East Councils and Cumbria commissioned academic research which found that“the
prospect of further autonomy for Scotland is also stimulating a new
interest in the North East, Cumbria and Scotland to work more
We’re now seeing a practical expression of that as Local Authorities
in both countries, working together, begin to explore how best to
promote business, tourism and transport links.
This “Borderlands” initiative, as it is known, highlights the
practical cross-border co-operation which would continue and would be
strengthened by Scottish independence – when the nations of these
islands share a partnership of equals based on our many areas of common
And after Scottish independence, the growth of a strong economic
power in the north of these islands would benefit everyone – our closest
neighbours in the north of England more than anyone. There
would be a northern light to redress the influence of the dark star –
rebalancing the economic centre of gravity of these islands.
There are those who worry that Scottish independence would leave an “England … entrenched in conservatism” as Helena Kennedy puts it in her New Statesman article.
However it’s worth noting that since 1945, there have only been two
elections – in 1964 and the first of 1974 - where the largest party
would have been different if Scotland had been independent. Those two
governments sat for a total of 26 months.
Independence would have relatively little impact on the arithmetic at
Westminster – although it would, finally, provide the definitive answer
to the West Lothian question. Scottish MPs would no longer vote on
policies primarily or entirely concerning England.
Indeed, Scotland would be more influential and valuable as an
independent nation, than we can be by contributing 9% of Westminster’s
MPs. We wouldn’t always get things right – sometimes the rest of the UK
would learn from our mistakes – but we would exert a powerful and
positive influence through example – the beacon of progressive opinion.
And independence would address a profound democratic deficit in Scotland – not a passing inconvenience, but a debilitating disconnect at the very heart of politics.
I’m 59 years old. For more than half of my life, Scotland has been
ruled by parties with no majority. At the last four UK elections, the
Conservatives in Scotland have won 0, 1, 1, and 1 seat respectively.
That isn’t an abstract point of constitutional theory. It affects the
wellbeing and prosperity of individuals and communities across the
country. The Conservative Party have lost every General Election in
Scotland since 1959 but have succeeded in ending up in government for 31
of the last 55 years.
I spoke earlier about the bedroom tax. It’s a good example not simply
because it’s unjust – though it is – but because it’s a policy which
could never have been passed by a parliament with Scotland’s interests
at its heart. It is driven primarily by rising rental and housing
benefit costs here in London and south-east England, not by increases in
Scotland. And although 60,000 people in Scotland will be penalised
unless they move into single-bedroomed accommodation, we currently have a
supply of just 20,000 single-bedroomed homes for social rent. In many
parts of the UK, the bedroom tax is unpopular - in an independent
Scotland, it would have been unthinkable.
Because of devolution, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP have
been able to work together in the Scottish Parliament to mitigate the
impact of the bedroom tax. As a result, nobody will face eviction in
Scotland this year, solely as a result of the tax.
But we haven’t abolished the bedroom tax, because the Scottish
Parliament doesn’t have the power to abolish the bedroom tax. Instead,
we’ve had to develop a very expensive framework of measures, to cancel
out the consequences of a policy which nobody in Scotland could ever
have come up with in the first place. Wouldn’t it be better for us to
have responsibility for our own welfare system instead?
And the bedroom tax is not an isolated example. Scottish MPs have
voted against the welfare benefits uprating bill, child benefit
means-testing, cuts in capital spending, Royal Mail privatisation and
many more coalition policies. But despite that, all of those policies
have been or will be implemented in Scotland.
When people voted overwhelmingly for devolution in 1997, many of them
thought it would address the democratic deficit in Scotland. However
devolution has dramatised, not ended, that democratic deficit.
That’s partly because of the contrast people now see between the
record of the Scottish Parliament and the record of the Westminster
There’s a contrast of approach. In the north east of Scotland last
week, the UK Cabinet – on its third visit to Scotland in a century –
jetted into Aberdeen and jetted out, without any engagement with the
public. The Scottish Cabinet, on our 26th public meeting outside
Edinburgh in the last six years – advertised in the press to encourage
as many people as possible to come along to ask us questions for more
than an hour.
There’s a contrast of language. In some of the rhetoric that gets
used in the debate emanating from Westminster, people are labelled –
they’re termed “strivers” or “skivers”; “shirkers” or “workers”. That
language scarcely features in Scotland. There’s a shared recognition
that society isn’t divided between skivers and strivers – one group who
pay in and another who take out. Everyone contributes to society, in
different ways and at different times; and everyone needs public
support, in different ways and at different times.
And there’s a contrast in policies. Successive Scottish Parliaments –
and this is the parliament as a whole, rather than any single party -
have legislated for progressive purposes. We have promoted social
justice alongside economic prosperity. Indeed, we see social justice as
essential to sustainable economic prosperity.
The first Parliament introduced world leading homelessness
legislation. The second parliament tackled Scotland’s health
inequalities through the ban on smoking on public places. The third
parliament reintroduced free university tuition and unanimously passed
the most ambitious climate change targets in the world. This parliament
is seeing world leading action to address Scotland’s relationship with
alcohol, and legislation to expand and transform early years education
Alongside that, we have adopted policies to support economic growth –
cutting business rates, promoting Scotland abroad, giving co-ordinated
and innovative support to infrastructure and to key sectors of the
economy. We have higher employment, lower unemployment and lower
economic inactivity than the rest of the UK.
That doesn’t mean we’re perfect, or never make mistakes. It simply
reflects the fact that members of the Scottish parliament – of all
parties – have worked together to reflect the values, tackle the
priorities and promote the aspirations, of the people who voted for
That’s why there is a clear majority of people in Scotland who want
the Scottish Parliament to have control over welfare and taxation. I
believe that over the next six months, that view will translate into
clear support for independence.
It’s interesting to look at the most recent Scottish Social Attitudes
Survey findings. They show that 62% of people trust the Scottish
Government to work in Scotland’s long term interest. For the UK
Government, the figure is 32%.
That helps to explain why the occasional visits by Westminster politicians to Scotland are being received so badly.
In the last three weeks people in Scotland have seen an array of
approaches from the UK Government – what they apparently call their
“Dambusters” strategy. We were lovebombed from a distance by David
Cameron, then divebombed at close range by George Osborne. The UK
Cabinet came to Aberdeen but chose not to meet members of the public.
I believe George Osborne’s speech on sterling three weeks ago – his
“sermon on the pound” – will come to be seen as a monumental error.
It encapsulates the diktats from on high which are not the strength
of the Westminster elite, but rather their fundamental weakness.
In contrast, we will seek to engage with the people of England on the case for progressive reform.
George Osborne referred to Scotland as a “foreign” country seven times.
Yet the Chancellor must know that the Ireland Act of 1949, negotiated
after infinitely more difficult circumstances than we have,
specifically states that Ireland is not to be regarded as a “foreign
Scotland will not be a foreign country after independence, any more
than Ireland, Northern Ireland, England or Wales could ever be “foreign
countries” to Scotland.
We share ties of family and friendship, trade and commerce, history
and culture, which have never depended on a parliament here at
Westminster, and will endure and flourish long after independence.
George Osborne’s speech was also mistaken in its economics – totally
misrepresenting the size of Scotland’s financial sector, and offering
facile and misleading comparisons with the Eurozone.
It was counterproductive in its politics- a day-tripping Conservative
minister saying “no” to Scotland before flying back to Westminster
And it contradicted the best interests of the rest of the UK. His
proposed policy would impose transaction costs on English businesses; it
would remove Scotland’s substantial oil and gas and whisky exports from
the sterling balance of payments; and by laying sole claim as the
continuing state to the public asset of the Bank of England, it would
see the UK Government take full responsibility for the liability of the
£1.6 trillion national debt.
The New Statesman this week carries an online article from David
Scheffer –professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, who served as
a US Ambassador-at-Large during President Clinton’s administration.
Professor Scheffer points out that “nothing in international law
requires Scotland to pay one sterling pound of UK debt if the rest of
the UK is deemed the continuator state in this way”.
Scotland has already indicated that - with agreement - we would
service a proportionate share of the debt. Any reasonable approach to
negotiation would propose a share of assets and liabilities. That is
simply the right thing to do.
For the Chancellor to put the rest of the UK potentially in a
position of being landed with all of the UK’s gargantuan national debt
is at best reckless and at worst totally irresponsible.
Of course once the current campaign bluster is done with, the UK
Government will return to the commonsense reason set out in Clause 30 of
the Edinburgh Agreement – that is that following the referendum, both
sides will accept the result and act in the best interests of the people
of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
But the current dambusters rhetoric has betrayed an attitude as
antiquated as it is unacceptable. From the myopic perspective of the
Westminster Elite, Scotland is last among equals.
And over the next few months each and every time we hear
another of these lofty interventions, telling us all the things we can’t
do, it will elicit a clear response in Scotland – the days of
governance by Westminster dictat are over.
There is a second future available to the people of Scotland. One
where we use the powers of independence to transform our country, rather
than mitigate other people’s mistakes. So don’t let them tell you we
can’t build a better country.
So if we take childcare as an example. Two weeks ago, our Children
and Young People Act was approved by the Scottish Parliament. It will
see a major increase in childcare provision – to 600 hours a week - for
many 2 year olds and all three and four year olds.
It’s an important step, but one which falls well short of our
ambitions for childcare. Those ambitions – for transformational change –
can only be achieved with independence.
That’s partly because independence allows us to choose different
spending priorities. We can decline to finance the madness of a new
Trident programme, and invest in our future instead.
But most importantly, only independence allows us to benefit from the success of our policies.
We’ve led a sustained drive to increase women’s employment over the
last 18 months. The female participation rate is now higher than in any
other country in the UK, having increased by over three percentage
points in the last year – 74,000 women.
Using 2012 figures, getting female participation in the workforce up
to the same levels that they have in Sweden, would require an increase
of six percentage points or so. The scale of that increase translated
into employment would generate around an additional £700m a year of tax
The problem is, under current arrangements, the overwhelming bulk of
these revenues go straight to the UK Treasury in London. And I see no
sign whatsoever in George Osborne’s conduct over the last month – or
over his whole political career, or indeed his whole life – that the
first thing he would do with £700m of new revenues, created by a
Scandinavian-style transformation of childcare policies, is to give
these revenues back to Scotland to fund the policy that made it
Retaining that revenue in Scotland is what will make that
transformation in childcare affordable and sustainable. With devolution,
we bear the financial cost of our social investments; with
independence, we receive the full benefits.
The second example is population. Back in November, the UK Government
welcomed warmly a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which
was about as damning a criticism of its own policies as is possible to
Like last week’s report from Standard and Poor’s, which found
Scotland’s wealth levels to be comparable to Germany’s, the Institute
for Fiscal Studies recognised Scotland’s current economic strength.
Like last week’s report from Standard and Poor’s, which found
Scotland’s wealth levels to be comparable to German’s, the IFS report
recognised Scotland’s current economic strength. The IFS report
recognised that Scotland has had a lower budget deficit than the rest of
the UK over the last five years. It made it clear that our debt to GDP
ratio on independence would be lower than the UK’s.
However the IFS also predicted that Scotland’s population might only
grow by 4% in the next 50 years, while the UK’s might increase by more
than 20%. That’s the main reason it was welcomed by the UK Government.
This is part of a problem that goes back generations. Scotland’s
population has increased by just over 10% in 100 years – from 4.8
million to 5.3 million - while the population of England has increased
by almost 60%
In recent years, successive Scottish Governments - not just this SNP
one - have worked to address that by attracting people to study and then
work. Until UK Government policy changed, we had some success. The ten
years from 2001 to 2011 saw Scotland’s highest population growth in a
century. In fact, we saw higher growth in ten years than the IFS is
predicting in the next 50, which is perhaps a lesson in why you should
take population forecasts with an even larger pinch of salt than
However, any reasonable person, reading that report, would draw the
conclusion that Scotland starts from a position of economic strength;
and that our long-term demographic challenge can be tackled.
The UK Government’s approach is quite different. It seems to be
suggesting that it will do nothing at all about Scotland’s low
population growth – in fact, it will pursue immigration policies which
make the problem worse.
In other words, the UK Government’s vision for Scotland, if we stay
tied to Westminster rule, seems to be one where Scotland – energy-rich,
resource-rich, talent-rich Scotland - eventually becomes dependent on
the rest of the UK, at some unspecified point in the future, because we
haven’t been able to address a problem that was a century in the making,
and which we have decades to sort out.
How can that possibly be a positive vision of Scotland’s future?
And it raises the obvious question: why would anyone accept that future, when instead, we could choose to change it?
Ladies and gentlemen, choosing to change – to seize opportunities and to meet challenges. That’s at the heart of this debate.
What we want to do is to build a better future; to use our natural
and human resources, to create a fairer more prosperous country. And the
fundamental truth at the heart of the case for independence is that the
best people to do that- the best people to make decisions about
Scotland’s future – are the people who live and work in Scotland.
At the start of this speech I referred to the letter sent by
Scotland’s churches 25 years ago. I want to end with another voice from
Scotland’s postwar history.
One of the finest Scottish political speeches of my lifetime was the
Glasgow rectorial address given by Jimmy Reid in 1972. He spoke about
the alienation felt by many people in society. He described it as “the
frustration of ordinary people excluded from the forces of decision
making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who
feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or
determining their destinies.”
It’s a speech which still resonates today. If anything, its relevance has increased over the decades.
Independence on its own won’t address alienation – although it will give us the powers to do so.
But one truly wonderful thing about the debate happening in Scotland
now, and the vote on 18 September, is that it is fundamentally a time –
not for alienation – but for engagement, for hope.
Because this referendum isn’t about politicians. It’s not about me,
or David Cameron - and it’s not even about David Bowie. It’s not about
Standard Life, and it’s not about Standard and Poor’s. It’s not about
the press and it’s not about the broadcasters, or the elites in London
or Edinburgh. It’s about the people, the people of Scotland.
Adlai Stevenson once referred to a moment before presidential
elections when people became reconciled to the requirements of the
modern age. That moment of supreme clarity and often of fundamental
reassessment he called “the liberal hour”.
On referendum day, all of the people of Scotland, not just for the
first time in 300 years but the first time ever, will be truly
democratically sovereign. Everyone will have an equal say in making the
And there will be a moment for everyone in Scotland, on referendum
day, when they stand in the polling booth and take the future of their
country into their own hands.
This moment of opportunity, this moment of engaged sovereignty; this
moment of clarity, and for many of reassessment, will come on 18
September. Let’s call it Scotland’s Hour. Because on that moment - and
I believe from then on - Scotland’s future will be in Scotland’s