- 24 Apr 2019
Before I make my statement - and with your permission - I would like to extend my condolences to the family and friends of journalist Lyra McKee, who was killed in Northern Ireland last week and whose funeral is taking place just now.
I didn’t know Lyra but everything I have read by her and about her makes me wish I had. Talented, passionate, courageous - she was a symbol of hope for Northern Ireland’s future.
Her death is a harsh reminder of the fragility of peace in Northern Ireland and how important it is that it is nurtured and protected.
I would also like to express my shock and sadness at the horrific attacks in Sri Lanka on Sunday.
Senseless loss of life on such a scale is difficult for any of us to comprehend, and my heartfelt condolences go to the bereaved and injured - including, of course, the British citizens so tragically affected.
To launch indiscriminate attacks on innocent people as they attended Easter services or enjoyed a holiday is barbaric beyond words.
Christian churches, like mosques, synagogues and all places of worship should be sanctuaries of peace and safety.
As we condemn, unreservedly, these acts of terrorism, we must again express our determination that hatred and violence will be defeated by love, compassion and by our common humanity.
My statement today will consider the implications for Scotland of recent Brexit developments.
As members know, two weeks ago the European Council extended the UK’s membership of the EU until 31 October, with a right for the UK to leave earlier if the House of Commons agrees terms of withdrawal.
The extension granted by the EU rescued us from the nightmare scenario of a no deal Brexit on 12 April.
As a result, I can advise Parliament that the Scottish Government has, for the time being, scaled down our no deal planning.
My thanks go to all those across government and the public sector who have worked hard to make sure Scotland is as ready as we can be for what would be a catastrophic outcome.
However, I also want to express my regret and anger at the money and effort that has been spent preparing for an outcome that the UK government should have ruled out.
As things stand, if an agreed way forward is not found quickly, the risk of no deal will rise again as we approach the October deadline - with the potential for yet more money, time and effort to be wasted.
The UK government could remove this risk now by making clear that if the only alternative is a no deal exit, it will choose to revoke Article 50 instead.
And I hope members will join me today in calling on the UK government to do exactly that.
However, the extension afforded by the EU presents the UK with an opportunity to find a positive way forward - and an opportunity for me to update Parliament about the implications for Scotland.
The view of the Scottish Government is that the best way to break the deadlock for the UK is to put the issue back to the people, with an option to remain in the EU.
The Euro elections will also give voters a chance to back a party, that wants to keep Scotland in the European Union.
Of course, almost three years on from the referendum in 2016, it is impossible to predict with certainty what will happen next.
The UK might still leave the EU before October, it might leave in October, it might seek another extension or it might not leave at all.
This chaos was not an inevitable consequence of the vote to leave the EU.
It is down to a toxic combination of dishonesty and incompetence.
Those who campaigned for leave in 2016 failed to set out what Brexit would mean in reality. To the extent that they made any attempt at all, they misled people.
The UK government triggered Article 50 before it had answered that question.
The Prime Minister then boxed herself in with a series of self defeating and contradictory red lines.
Instead of trying to build consensus across parliament or country, she claimed the right to interpret the result in the most hardline way possible.
As a consequence, those who voted to remain question the legitimacy of the whole process,
Those who voted leave feel - with justification - that promises made to them have been broken.
And faith in democracy has been damaged.
Throughout all of this, the Scottish Government - and our party colleagues at Westminster - have worked tirelessly to help find the best way forward for all of the UK.
Whatever Scotland’s constitutional status in future, it will always be in our interests for all of us on these islands to have the closest possible relationship with the EU
So we proposed the compromise option of single market and customs union membership.
We back a public vote to break the deadlock, even though that offers no guarantee that Scotland won’t be outvoted all over again.
And we are working with others in an effort to remove the risk of a no deal Brexit.
In fact, we have done everything possible to help avert the Brexit crisis for the whole UK.
And, Presiding Officer, we will continue to do so.
But we must also consider the best way forward for Scotland in the event that the UK does leave the European Union.
And to ensure that all options remain open to us, the time to do that is now.
Of course, as we do so, we must learn the lessons of the Brexit mess.
Whether we like it or not, the continued lack of clarity around Brexit has implications for Scotland’s decision making - a point I will return to later.
But there is, surely, one point of clarity that has emerged over the past three years - even for the most ardent opponent of Scottish independence.
The Westminster system of government simply does not serve Scotland’s interests.
And the devolution settlement - in its current form - is now seen to be utterly inadequate to the task of protecting those interests.
In other words, the status quo is broken.
Scotland’s 62% vote to remain in the EU counted for nothing.
Far from being an equal partner at Westminster, Scotland’s voice is listened to only if it chimes with the UK majority - if it doesn’t, we are outvoted and ignored.
The Scottish Government’s efforts to find a compromise that might mitigate the damage to our economy fell on deaf ears.
Cross party votes of this Parliament have been disregarded time and time again.
The agreed constitutional principles which have underpinned devolution since its establishment 20 years ago have been cast aside by the UK Government.
And vital powers were effectively taken from this Parliament without our consent.
Even our financial settlement - which already leaves us vulnerable to austerity, with too few levers of our own - was openly breached with the UK government’s bribe to the DUP.
There is, Presiding Officer, no denying that Brexit has exposed a deep democratic deficit at the heart of how Scotland is governed.
And - whatever our different views on independence - it should persuade all of us in this Chamber that we need a more solid foundation on which to build our future as a country.
The consequences of inaction would be severe.
If we are unable to stop or even mitigate Brexit, we will find it harder to export our goods and services across the single market.
Scotland will become less attractive to inward investors - a risk that will be compounded if the Northern Ireland backstop takes effect.
The result will be fewer jobs and an economy that is smaller than it should be.
The Tory and, I’m sorry to say, UK Labour obsession that drives the desire to leave the EU - ending free movement - will restrict the opportunities of our own young people to live, work and study across Europe.
And it will send our working age population into decline.
Now I know that the issue of migration is not an easy one for politicians to address, but I am proud that parties across this chamber are willing to take on the many myths that surround it.
In Scotland, we know, we understand that the Westminster approach to migration - as well as being deeply inhumane - poses an existential threat to our future prosperity.
So the Brexit outlook for Scotland is this:
A smaller economy, restricted job growth, fewer people, narrowed horizons and greater pressure on our ability to fund the public services and social contract that we value so highly.
Let me put it in simpler language. Brexit, and all that flows from Brexit, will affect the ability of Scottish Governments now and well into the future to do the day job - to support businesses, combat poverty, fund the NHS and public services, and work with other countries to tackle the defining challenges of our time.
And at a time when I think most people in Scotland would want to see this Parliament having more influence on the decisions that shape our future, there is a risk of the reverse.
As the UK scrambles to do trade deals with Donald Trump or whoever, the inclination to impose uniformity - even in devolved areas - will lead to more Westminster centralisation.
It is my judgment now that, for the first time in 20 years, there is a risk of devolution going backwards.
Not through blatant, wholesale removal of powers - although on recent experience, more of that can’t be ruled out - but by an increasing use of Westminster’s powers to override the decisions of this Parliament and constrain devolved decision-making.
So the question, Presiding Officer, that confronts us, confronts all of us, now is this: if the status quo is not fit for purpose - and I know even some of the most committed believers in the union find it hard to argue that it is - how do we fix that?
And can we do so in a way that maximises consensus rather than amplifying our differences?
These are not easy challenges - but those of us who sit in this chamber are elected to represent the national interest.
We have a duty to rise to that challenge.
To stand in each other’s shoes and find a way forward.
No one expects any of us to abandon deeply held beliefs.
Just as Labour and Tory MSPs will continue to believe that remaining in the union is the right option for Scotland, I will argue that independence offers the best future.
That case for independence is even stronger now, given the profound changes that have taken place in the UK since 2014.
In that time, we have seen the limits of Scotland’s influence within the UK and, in sharp contrast to that the power independent nations have as members of the EU.
While Scotland’s interests have been ignored by Westminster, independent Ireland’s have been protected by the EU.
And of the 27 independent countries that decided the UK’s future at the EU Council two weeks ago, around a dozen are smaller than or similar in size to Scotland.
Many of these countries are also more prosperous than Scotland.
With all of our assets and talents, Scotland should be a thriving and driving force within Europe.
Instead we face being forced to the margins - sidelined within a UK that is, itself, increasingly sidelined on the international stage.
Independence, by contrast, would allow us to protect our place in Europe.
It would enable us to nurture our most important relationships - those with the other countries of the British Isles - on the basis of equality.
And it would mean that decisions against our will and contrary to our interests cannot be imposed on us by Westminster.
It would put our future into our own hands - with the decisions that shape our future and determine our relationship with other countries taken here in our own parliament.
That is the essence of independence.
So let me turn, then, to the issue of when I think people in Scotland should be offered a new choice of independence.
My party was elected with a mandate to offer that choice within this parliamentary term should Scotland be taken out of the EU against our will.
There is also a majority in this chamber for that position.
And polling evidence suggests that a majority in Scotland want a choice on independence, though opinions vary on timing.
There are some who would like to see a very early referendum.
Others want that choice to be much later.
My job as First Minister is to reach a judgment, not simply in my party’s interest, but in the national interest.
In doing so, a key priority is ensuring that we learn the lessons of Brexit.
To rush into an immediate decision before a Brexit path has been determined would not allow for an informed choice to be made.
However, if we are to safeguard Scotland’s interests, we cannot wait indefinitely.
That is why I consider that a choice between Brexit and a future for Scotland as an independent, European nation should be offered in the lifetime of this Parliament.
If Scotland is taken out of the EU, the option of a referendum on independence within that timescale must be open to us.
That would be our route to avoiding the worst of the damage Brexit will do.
Of course that intention does not mean that we should cease trying to build as much agreement on the best way forward as we can. Nor should we cease our efforts to avoid any Brexit at all.
We must also try - in all of our actions - to avoid the mistakes that have caused so much division over Brexit and instead bring people together to focus on finding the common ground that does, I believe, exist between us.
Our aim must be to act in a completely different manner to the UK government and parliament.
The fact is Presiding Officer, based on the evidence of the last three years, Westminster has failed.
It has failed to protect Scotland’s interests. It has failed to reach consensus. And it has degenerated into utter chaos.
It is now time for this Parliament, for all the parties represented in this Parliament to take charge.
There are therefore three specific steps that the Scottish Government intends to take now.
Firstly, I can confirm that the Scottish Government will act to ensure that the option of giving people a choice on independence later in this term of Parliament is progressed.
We will shortly introduce legislation to set the rules for any referendum that is now, or in the future, within the competence of the Scottish Parliament.
We will aim for this legislation to be on the statute book by the end of this year. Mike Russell will set out the details next month.
We do not need a transfer of power – such as a section 30 order - to pass such a framework Bill, though we would need it to put beyond doubt or challenge our ability to apply the Bill to an independence referendum.
Of course, as members are aware, the UK government’s current position is that it will not agree to transfer power.
I believe that position will prove to be unsustainable.
However, by making progress with primary legislation first, we won’t squander valuable time now in a stand off with a UK government that may soon be out of office.
We will seek agreement to a transfer of power at an appropriate point during or shortly after the Bill’s passage, on the basis that it will be exercised when this Parliament - and no other - considers it right to offer the people of Scotland a choice.
In 2014, the Scottish and UK governments and parliaments - to our collective credit - set the gold standard.
Two governments with very different views on the outcome came together to agree a process that allowed the people to decide.
That is what should happen in future too.
It is how we will secure unquestioned legitimacy, not just here at home, but crucially within the EU and the wider international community too.
And it respects the principle enshrined in the Claim of Right - that the Scottish people are sovereign.
Those who oppose independence are, of course, entitled to argue that case.
But it must be for the people to decide.
Lastly, on this point, let me offer these words -
“With public sentiment nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”
These are the wise words of Abraham Lincoln, an ardent defender of a union, albeit in a great moral cause.
For those of us who support independence, his lesson is obvious.
If we are successful in further growing the support and the demand for independence - and I will say more later this week about how we build that case - then no UK government will be able to deny the will of the people or stop that will being expressed.
Let me now turn to two parallel processes I want to outline today.
The first is directed to the parties in this chamber who do not support independence.
I may not, as you have noticed, agree with that view, but I do respect that view.
However, what I hope we might all agree on after these last three years is that serious change is needed.
So to those who believe that independence is not the right change for Scotland, I say this:
Bring forward your own proposals to equip our parliament with the powers we need to better protect and advance our interests.
For example, more powers to boost trade and strengthen our economy.
More powers to tackle poverty and inequality.
Powers to protect the public finances that our NHS and public services rely on.
Powers that will allow us to grow our population.
Powers that will give us a stronger voice in the UK, enable us to determine our own future, and better protect our interests here at home and internationally.
I welcome, for example, the recent signals from the Scottish Labour party that they now support the devolution of employment law.
This Parliament was almost unanimous in opposing the Brexit power grab.
And I know that many share our deep concerns on migration and recognise that we do not currently have the tools to solve this problem.
So perhaps, Presiding Officer, there is already more common ground than we like to admit there is; a starting point that we can build and expand upon.
The fact that we do not agree on Scotland’s ultimate destination should not stop us travelling together as far as we can.
I have therefore asked Mike Russell to explore with other parties - perhaps with the help of a respected and independent individual who could broker such discussions – areas of agreement on constitutional and procedural change, and also take the views of stakeholders about such issues.
I will write to party leaders today and Mike Russell will be in touch with their nominated representatives thereafter to consider how these discussions might be progressed.
And this should be an exercise - if parties can find it within themselves to do so - this should be an exercise that doesn’t start with the fixed positions of any of us - but one that considers the challenges Scotland faces and what solutions might help us to address them.
If serious and substantial proposals emerge, this Parliament could then present them to the UK government in a unified and united way.
If other parties are willing, I give an assurance today that the Scottish Government will engage fully and in good faith.
The last aspect of my statement today is also about how we confront the change our country needs but in a way that does try to build agreement.
None of us can fail to be concerned about the polarisation of political debate caused by the Brexit experience.
The answer though cannot be to ignore or to suppress the differing views about the best future for our country.
However we should try to find ways of debating our choices respectfully and in a way that seeks maximum areas of agreement.
We should lay a foundation that allows us to move forward together, whatever decisions we ultimately arrive at.
I have been struck recently by the Irish example of a Citizens’ Assembly to help find consensus on issues where people have sharply divided opinions.
Of course, the circumstances here are different, as are the issues under consideration. But the principle is a sound one and I believe we should make use of it.
So I can confirm that the Scottish Government will establish a Citizens’ Assembly.
It will bring together a representative cross section of Scotland, with an independent chair and be tasked with considering, in broad terms, the following issues -
What kind of country are we seeking to build?
How can we best overcome the challenges we face, including those arising from Brexit?
And what further work should be carried out to give people the detail they need to make informed choices about the future of the country?
Again, Mike Russell will set out more details shortly, and seek views from other parties on the operation and remit.
Brexit was not the choice of this Parliament - nor was it the choice of our country.
As I said at the outset, the immediate opportunity we now have is to help stop Brexit for the whole UK. And we should seize that opportunity and my party will certainly seek to do so.
But if that cannot be achieved, dealing with the consequences of Brexit and facing up to its challenges will be unavoidable.
I am aware that the debates that flow from that will provoke differences of opinion.
I believe that the case for independence is now stronger than ever.
And I will make that case.
And as I have set out today I will also do all in my power to protect Scotland’s right to choose - to do anything less would risk consigning the next generation to the damage of Westminster decisions that are not in our interests.
But I know that others take a different view.
So as the necessary legislative steps over the next few months are taken, I will also seek to open up space for us to come together and find areas of agreement as mature politicians should do.
And in so doing try to set an example of constructive, outward looking and respectful debate.
In recent times we have seen in Westminster what happens when parties fail to work together.
When leaders take a ‘my way or the high way’ approach; and when so many red lines and inflexible preconditions are set that progress becomes impossible.
Tensions rise and tempers fray.
Twenty years on from the establishment of this Parliament I believe we can do better than that.
Brexit makes change for Scotland inevitable.
But our fellow citizens will judge us on how we lead debate on the best way forward and the efforts we make to come to a common mind about it.
This place was established with the hope that it would be a new type of Parliament.
I think we are, but we can prove it anew by the way in which we respond today to the challenges that lie before us.
We can show that we have already begun to learn not just the lessons from Westminster’s failure but also those that Scotland has taught us as devolution has grown and strengthened.
We can show that we are able to put the interests of the people first.
So if others across this chamber are willing to move forward in that spirit, they will find in me an equally willing partner.
But if all they have to offer the people of Scotland is a failed and a damaging status quo, then the process of change will pass them by and support for independence will continue to grow.
It is time, in my view, to look to Scotland’s future. Let us do so, together, with confidence in the potential of our country and with confidence in the potential of all those who live here.
I commend this statement to Parliament.