20 years of devolution: First Minister's speech

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's speech at Reform Scotland event in Edinburgh.

Thank you, Chris.

And thanks to Reform Scotland for organising this event.

The contributions you have been 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 to do 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 there 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 the UK Government later emulated.

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 1970s and 1980s 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 UK Government decisions, 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 1980s and 1990s 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.

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

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

I remember back in 2014, the writer Neal Ascherson saying that he preferred not to ask people: 'Should Scotland be an independent country' but instead: 'Scotland, yes – but what sort of Scotland?'

And now more than ever I think that is a question we must need to ask ourselves again.

Because instead of the chaos and dysfunction and current political direction of Westminster, I strongly believe most people want a Scotland that is welcoming, tolerant, internationalist, European, with a strong sense of social justice and responsibility.

My view of course is that we can better achieve that if our future is truly in our hands - able to chart our own course here at home but, crucially, able to work constructively with other countries in the EU and across the globe.

But the crucial point, surely, is that at this pivotal moment for the UK - and given the changes of the last few years - it must be for the people of Scotland to decide that.

That’s why we are laying the groundwork for another choice on independence, through the referendum bill introduced to parliament two weeks ago.

But in doing that, and I think this is a lesson for all of us whatever our views - as we look ahead to the next stage of our national journey, we must be determined to learn and apply the lessons of Brexit.

The current political climate – exacerbated undoubtedly by social media – can be polarising and divisive. I feel that as a participant in it and I know that’s how many people, citizens of our country feel.

However those of us who care about the values of our democracy, informed decision making and the quality of public discourse, cannot and must not give in to that momentum for division and polarisation.

In my view, as I’ve just said, the current situation requires us to discuss and decide on Scotland’s future. But we should strive to air honest and strongly-held differences respectfully, while also seeking as much common ground and consensus as we can find.

That is why I have offered talks to other parties who oppose independence to discuss what powers they think Scotland needs to face the challenges of the future. If substantial proposals arise from that, my hope is that the parliament can present them in a unified way.

And it’s also why my Government announced the establishment of a citizens’ assembly on Scotland’s future to bring people together to look for not the divisions for us but the areas for agreement.

If this initiative is successful, and I hope it is, I suspect that we may see that model becoming a more regular feature of our decision making in years to come.

I mentioned earlier that the parliament throughout the last 20 years has often, not always successfully, but has often worked to build consensus and seek common ground and that is the spirit in which we make these moves. The fact that we don’t all agree within this room or within the wider country, on Scotland’s final destination constitutionally should not prevent us from travelling as far as we can together.

I began my remarks by quoting Winnie Ewing during the first day of the Scottish Parliament. I want to end by quoting Donald Dewar’s remarks at the official state opening of the parliament, which took place a few weeks later.

That in my view was one of the finest speeches ever made in modern Scottish times and it was the finest speech from Donald Dewar in a very distinguished career. In it he said that "This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves".

These words are ones that particularly now we would all do very well to remember.

The Scottish Parliament, by and large, and on the whole, has in my view carried itself well over the last 20 years. In its procedures, its openness, its willingness to seek consensus, it has offered at times a contrast to Westminster. It has earned public trust and confidence and it has delivered substantive measures which have improved people’s lives.

The next six months could offer challenges greater than anything we’ve seen in the last 20 years. In my view they will inevitably require greater powers for Scotland - indeed the full powers that come with independence.

But as we discuss the shape of that and how we gain the powers we need – we must ensure that our debates are thorough, thoughtful and constructive – that we carry as many people with us as possible.

If we can achieve that, then to end when I started on a note of optimism – I think we can surpass- rather than simply fulfil – the hopes of 20 years ago. And we can ensure that Scotland’s new song is of a greener, fairer and more prosperous country.


Central enquiry unit: ceu@gov.scot

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