Devolution at 20 – First Minister’s speech

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Two decades into devolution, with Holyrood firmly established, Reform Scotland asked prominent Scottish politicians what they would change to make the Parliament work better. Our Devolution at 20 series concluded with the following speech by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at a Reform Scotland event on 18 June 2019.

Thank you, Chris.

And thanks to Reform Scotland for organising this event.

The contributions you have encouraging in recent weeks from a range of individuals and parties have been genuinely interesting and thought provoking and I hope tonight’s event can add something to that. What I want to do tonight before we get into some discussion is really three things.

Firstly, reflect on some of the successes of devolution – as I see them of the last two decades of devolution then look at some of the key challenges Scotland will face over the next 20 years and beyond.

And finally, look at the current predicament of the UK, and what that might mean for devolution and Scotland in the future as well.

But firstly a look back. I was early in the first days which makes me feel old as I’m sure as it does for everybody that was there with me. But inevitably, like many of my colleagues, I’ve spent quite a bit of time recently thinking about the early days of devolution.

There’s no doubt that taking my place in a new institution, as a new MSP, alongside 128 others, is one of the highlights of my life. And I remember too the mood of optimism that was around not just within the parliament, but the mood of optimism that prevailed in the country.

That mood was captured on the very first day the parliament sat, very well in my view by Winnie Ewing who was the oldest elected member then and as such, she convened proceedings and gave a speech which ended with these words.

 “It was said that 1707 was the end of an auld sang. All of us here can begin to write together a new Scottish song, and I urge all of you to sing it in harmony- fortissimo.”

And in my view – for all the inevitable ups and downs – that note of optimism Winnie Ewing struck that day has largely been vindicated.

Of course, that wasn’t universally predicted at the time. Before the 1997 referendum, one William Hague argued that “The tartan tax would lead to foreign investors saying no to Scotland.”

And a young little-known journalist called Michael Gove (whatever happened to him?) said that devolution would lead to “a brain drain, a flight of finance as well as skilled labour,” and “add to the burden of business taxation”.

Now those warnings were of course comprehensively wrong. Devolution didn’t deter foreign investors – Scotland for the last few years has actually been the top location in the UK for attracting inward investment outside of London.

Devolution didn’t create a brain drain –we have benefited hugely from being able to attract workers and students from across the UK and overseas.

And it didn’t add to the burden of business taxation – it enabled this Scottish Government to create a small business bonus, which of course the UK Government later emulated. 

And none of that really should be surprising. There was always something bizarre about the assumption that a Scottish Parliament would consistently act in ways that were harmful to Scotland.

Of course, we now hear many of the same arguments used against independence.

And in both cases they are, in my view, ill-founded.

Throughout the last 20 years – and this is to the credit of all the parties in the parliament – that institution has worked to make a difference to the lives of people across Scotland.

In doing so, yes it has made mistakes. All parliaments do. And some areas some people will think with justification that it hasn’t made as much progress as they would have wanted it to do. And certainly in the early years – particularly before the parliament building was completed and I remember this very well  – those were rocky ones. But overall in the round I strongly believe the record of achievement is a significant one.

The parliament might not always have sung in harmony, as Winnie Ewing hoped and perhaps in a democracy we should never want a democracy to sing in harmony. But in our debates we have sought – and often sometimes even managed to reach – consensus. We have shown that a proportionally elected chamber can do things differently from Westminster – and actually do them well.

Land reform; the ban on smoking in public places; PR in council elections; the most ambitious climate change legislation anywhere in the world; equal marriage; minimum unit pricing for alcohol – all of these and many more initiatives have helped, or are helping, to make this country a better and fairer one.

Along the way we have gained new powers, and we have built, or we are building, new institutions – for example a new tax agency and a social security agency – that were never envisaged or not envisaged by all of us in 1999. And that process is continuing. Two weeks ago, the parliament voted unanimously to create an enterprise agency to help with economic growth in the South of Scotland. Work to establish the new Scottish National Investment Bank is underway –  and in my view has the potential to be one of the most transformative steps that the Parliament has taken.

And, while this sometimes and legitimately provokes different views, the Scottish Parliament has also, where appropriate, maintained, enhanced or created universal services – tuition fees and personal care for older people as examples. The baby box is a more recent example – and of course we have a substantial expansion of childcare underway right now.

And by doing all of that, and this is important, we have supported the idea of a social contract at a time when it has been threatened elsewhere.

We recognise that everyone contributes to our society – at different times and in different ways – and so everyone should receive a level of support in return. And these universal services don’t just make people’s lives better – although I think they do. But they also help to build the solidarity and cohesion which are essential to a good society.

And I think the Parliament can be genuinely proud of these achievements, and many more besides. And it is perhaps telling that the most recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found that more than 60% of people trust the Scottish Parliament to act in the country’s best interests. For the UK the corresponding score is 21%.

Let me say this very clearly here,  that contrast with the UK Parliament can’t and shouldn’t be a source of complacency – not least because doing better than Westminster is not a particularly high bar to pass these days.

But it is also the case that attitudes can and do change – to retain and grow trust, Holyrood must continue to make a tangibly positive difference to people’s lives.

We’ve got to continue to improve our schools – a key focus of my government. We’ve got a big job to do to ensure our health service can adapt to an ageing population. We must focus on our productivity as a country our growth rates, and do so in a way that is sustainable. We need also to live up to the focus on wellbeing which we set out very explicitly in the latest iteration of the national performance framework. Growth cannot be an end in itself, it has to be the means by which we enable people to live happy and healthy and fulfilling lives.

And of course we need to do all of this while we adapt to the big challenges, the profound challenges, that we, in common with other countries, face in the years ahead.

Now I can’t go into all of those today – a speech of this nature is never going to do justice to issues like artificial intelligence, the impact of automation, and adapting to an ageing population, but it is clear they will require detailed and focused attention by the parliament in the years ahead. But I do want to touch briefly on a couple of interlinked issues.

The first and most important is the climate crisis. It will be the defining challenge of the next 20 years – not simply for Scotland, but for the world.

As a country we’ve made significant progress over the past two decades. We are – and are seen to be – a world leader in cutting emissions. But we need to do far, far more. In fact by the time our Parliament marks its 40th anniversary, Scotland will need to be on the very verge of becoming a carbon-neutral economy. And in just a few years after that, we will require to be a net-zero emitter of all greenhouse gases if we are live up to our international obligations.

Now the change required to achieve that will be profound.

The change will affect the design of our cities, the way we travel, and the heating of our homes. It requires an end to the throwaway culture, a more circular economy. It will involve tree planting, peat restoration, alongside the development of entirely new technologies.

Our challenge here is not just to do all of that, but to aim to lead the world as we do it.

There is of course a moral imperative here – Scotland after all led the world into the carbon age. But there’s also a massive opportunity if we get this right. Many of the changes we need to make will help our environment and, we if we do get it right, it will create jobs and grow our economy as well.

However we’ve seen in previous economic transformations that it is too easy for people and communities to be left behind.

I grew up in Ayrshire in the 70s and 80s and I remember vividly the impact of deindustrialization as I was growing up. The fear of unemployment was pervasive. Lasting scars were left on many communities. And elements of that legacy are still with us today.

We can’t let that happen again and that’s a big challenge. Instead we must now must position ourselves to maximise the domestic economic potential of the renewables and low carbon revolution.

That’s of course why we appointed a Just Transition Commission last year, to help ensure that economic and technological change that lies ahead of us will create a fairer and happier society as well as a wealthier one.

Promoting equality and tackling poverty is very linked to what I’ve been talking about, has been a consistent priority for the Scottish Parliament.

We are the only part of the UK to have statutory targets for reducing and ultimately eradicating child poverty.

That said setting targets in itself doesn’t deliver the change we need to see.

And while poverty and child poverty rates in Scotland are lower than in other parts of the UK they are still far too high. And we’ve got to recognise, perhaps more than we have done previously as a society, poverty and inequality damages all of us – all of lose out when economic disadvantage stops people from contributing fully to society.

That’s why as a Government now we’re continuing to promote policies like the living wage. It’s why we will shortly set out plans for a targeted income supplement to help us deliver those targets on child poverty. And it’s why we put so much focus on closing the education attainment gap and ensure equal access to higher and further education.

It is a hard fact, of course, that right now we do tackle poverty with one hand tied behind our back. UK measures like the bedroom tax or the benefits freeze run counter to what we seek to achieve.

And of course every penny we spend trying to mitigate these policies is money that we are not able to invest more strategically and proactively – something that the UN Special Rapporteur on poverty recently described as outrageous and unsustainable.

And it begs the question – the question for the future – why should we spend hundreds of millions of pounds mitigating the impact of policies from elsewhere, rather than taking the powers we need to take different decisions in the first place.

And there are  I think some echoes here of the years before devolution. Social justice was so central to the campaigns of the 80s and 90s which helped to create the Scottish Parliament.

That was linked to concern about a democratic deficit.

People disliked policies being imposed on Scotland against the will of the majority who lived here. And of course the poll tax became the totemic example of that.

But it was just one example.

Immense damage to Scottish communities, like the one I grew up in, was caused by an out of touch Conservative Party that was unelected in Scotland over a period of 18 years.

But now I fear a similarly out of touch Tory Government, led by perhaps an even more reckless leader, could cause as much damage as Mrs Thatcher and John Major did.

And while they took 18 year to do it, the new leader, whoever he may be, could do as much – or more – damage in just 18 weeks.

Because by the end of October this year, Scotland could be heading, not just for a damaging Brexit  that we didn’t vote for, but for a catastrophic No Deal Brexit.

Indeed the person who seems almost certain, although you never know, but the person right now who appears almost certain to be the next Conservative leader and Prime Minister seems to relish that prospect.

I have to say at this stage as an aside, it is surely deeply concerning that the Conservative Party is even contemplating putting into the office of Prime Minister someone whose tenure as Foreign Secretary was risible, lacking in any seriousness of purpose or basic competence and who, over the years, has gratuitously offended so many, from gay people, to Africans, Muslim women and many others.

But while that, for now, is a matter for the Tories it does further illustrate the different political trajectories of Scotland and other parts of the UK.

And it raises the more fundamental question of whether the UK in its current form, and therefore devolution in its current form, is capable of properly accommodating those differences.

Now I have to be candid at this stage and admit that I am not a neutral observer of these matters but it does seem to me that these days, the unionist offer to Scotland amounts to not much more than ‘your views don’t matter, do as you’re told and, if you don’t like it, tough, we will do it anyway”.

And Brexit starkly illustrates that point.

The votes of people here have been ignored. The Scottish Government’s attempts at compromise were rejected. And votes in the Scottish Parliament opposing Brexit and a subsequent power grab were disregarded.

And no-one on the unionist side of this debate seems willing, or able, to articulate a vision for the union that comes anywhere close to the 2014 promise of an ‘equal partnership’.

Of course, for those of us who support independence, as the next stage of Parliament’s journey, there is still an onus, a responsibility on us, to make the positive case and not simply rely on the disintegration of the case for the union.