Scotland's place in the world: First Minister's Stanford University speech

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon addresses California's Stanford University on immigration, climate change, Brexit and Scottish independence.

Thank you very much indeed, Michael (McFaul, Director and Senior Fellow at Freeman Sprogli Centre).

One of the many interesting things I found out about Michael this morning is that he was born in Glasgow. But Glasgow, Montana, rather than Glasgow, Scotland. But nevertheless I'm going to claim that as a Scottish connection.

It's a fantastic pleasure and privilege to be here at this beautiful university. Undoubtedly one of, if not the most, beautiful university campuses anywhere in the world. I'm here in the USA this week as part of what we call Scotland Week. It was President Bush back in I think 2008 who proclaimed 6 April every year as Tartan Day – the key event in Scotland Week, so Thursday of this week is Tartan Day.

Scotland Week and Tartan Day are really intended to celebrate firstly the contribution of Scottish people to the US down the generations but also the very many links and relationships between Scotland and the US. And, most importantly, to look at how we strengthen those links in the future. And one thing that always strikes me as I think about Scotland Week every year is this quite incredible fact: from time to time various surveys suggest that almost 30 million people in the United States claim Scots or Scots-Irish ancestry. However, the official census figures show there are only around 10 million who actually have Scots or Scots-Irish ancestry. What that means is this: there are 20 million people in the USA who aren't actually Scottish, but who want to be Scottish! I think that's absolutely fantastic. It's a great compliment but it's also an opportunity, and let me tell you it is an opportunity we are determined to take full advantage of. As far as I'm concerned, if you want to be Scottish, nobody, least of all me, is going to stop you.

There's a more serious point here. Scotland's modern identity, much like that of the US, is an inclusive one. We basically take the approach that if you do want to be Scottish, you can be – and that's very relevant to some of the points I will make later on in this speech.

Many of the ties between Scotland and the US are evident here in Palo Alto and the surrounding area. There's a hill called Ben Lomond 20 miles south of here – close to a town called Bonny Doon, which was named by a Scottish settler. John Maclaren, who was a Scottish emigrant from Bannockburn – everyone here will have heard of the famous Battle of Bannockburn – he worked on Leland Stanford's estate here in Palo Alto, and was instrumental in establishing San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

So the ties between our two countries are longstanding. But it's been very clear to me during the two days I've spent here that the connections between Scotland and California – ties based on culture and history, trade and commerce, family and friendship – continue to flourish. That's something that means a lot to Scotland and it means a lot to Californians as well.

Those international ties are part of what I want to talk about today. I'm going to talk about the desire we have in Scotland not just to create a fairer and a more prosperous country, but also, as a relatively small country, to play a big part and make a positive contribution to the world we live in.

But I should maybe start by looking back at some of the events of the last year and indeed the last week. I think it's fair to say – and I'm reasonably confident that I cannot be accused of overstatement or of exaggeration – that 2016 was a tumultuous year in politics, certainly at home in Scotland, across the UK and of course here in the US. The decisions taken last year will have ramifications for many years to come.

We've seen evidence of that in the couple of weeks. Ten days ago for example, 27 of the 28 governments across the European Union came together to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome – the Treaty of Rome of course is the foundation treaty of the European Economic Community (EEC).

Scotland has been a member of the EEC, which is now of course the European Union, for more than 40 years. That membership has brought us significant economic, environmental and social benefits. However, in addition to that, the fundamental principle underpinning the EU – that independent nations work together on equal terms for a common good, to tackle some of the problems and seize some of the opportunities that few countries can do alone – that principle appeals to me and to many people across Scotland. As a result, EU membership has become a very important part of Scotland's identity. It speaks to our sense of who we are.

That's why in 2014, when Scotland had a referendum on whether or not to become an independent country, our membership of the European Union was an important issue. Nobody really argued or debated about whether Scotland should be part of the EU – the only debate then was about whether we would be if we were independent.

In particular, many of those who opposed Scotland becoming independent – including the UK Government – argued that leaving the United Kingdom was a risk, that it would threaten Scotland's place in the European Union. So it's somewhat ironic that the opposite has turned out to be true.

When the UK held the referendum on EU membership last year, a large majority of people in Scotland who voted – 62% in fact – chose to stay part of the EU. However we were outvoted by the rest of the UK. As a result of that referendum the UK was the only member state that was not represented at the 60th anniversary celebrations for the Treaty of Rome. Instead, the UK Government last week notified the European Commission of its intention to leave the EU.

And Scotland, despite the arguments that were made in 2014 and how we voted in 2016, faces being forced to leave the EU against our will.

What's even worse perhaps is that the UK is not just leaving the EU; there is a real danger developing that it will leave the EU in the most damaging way possible.

Scotland and the Scottish Government has proposed, over the past few months, different ways in which the UK could opt to retain membership of what is called the single market, without being part of the EU. Several other countries, such as Norway, have an arrangement like that. But those proposals have been disregarded by the UK Government.

That could potentially have a wide range of impacts: it could mean tariffs for farmers who export, or higher regulatory barriers for trade with Europe. It is already causing deep uncertainty and anxiety for people who have chosen to live and work in Scotland from other parts of the EU. I take a very simple view of anybody who comes to live and work and study in Scotland: you do us a great honour, a great privilege and a great compliment, and we want you to consider Scotland as your home. So the vote to leave the EU and the implications for those who have chosen to live in Scotland or other parts of the UK is a serious one.

But it's perhaps worth looking in detail about what that might mean for Scotland's universities. For Scotland, as for California, our universities are incredible cultural, social and economic assets.

In fact when the 'Times Higher Education Supplement' published its rankings of the best universities in the world last year, it showed Scotland had more world class universities in the rankings, per head of population, than any other country in the world, with the sole exception Luxembourg. We are determined to beat Luxembourg to the top spot sometime soon.

Indeed, I've just attended an event highlighting the research partnership which Stanford has established with five of Scotland's universities – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot Watt, St Andrews and Strathclyde.

And I've just welcomed Heriot Watt's decision to launch a new economics scholarship for US students, to be based at Panmure House in Edinburgh. Panmure House is significant and important because it's where Adam Smith lived and worked in the final years of his life.

Those examples demonstrate that our universities have a reach which extends far beyond the European Union. But that said, there is no doubt that in recent years, membership of the European Union has been fundamental to Scotland's academic success. One sixth of our academic staff are EU citizens from outside the UK. So are one sixth of our postgraduate students. These EU students are disproportionately likely to be studying in subjects such as science and technology – hugely important areas for any country in the modern world.

If you look at research, Scotland benefits hugely from the opportunities for collaboration which are provided by European programmes. Those programmes are currently available only to countries which are inside the single market, or which are applying to join the European Union.

That's perhaps why, at the end of last year, the Principal of Edinburgh University – not someone who is terribly known for exaggeration – told a House of Commons Select Committee that the impact of Brexit on higher education – and I quote – 'ranges from bad, to awful, to catastrophic'. It is a very significant and a very serious risk to a sector that is fundamental to Scotland's future.

The reason for running these risks – for leaving the single market as well as the European Union – is that the UK Government has prioritised control of immigration over everything else. But that policy in itself is likely to be damaging to Scotland.

Scotland benefits hugely from the contribution made by people who choose to work or study in our country – from the rest of the UK, from the European Union and, of course, from the USA.

And historically, our level of population growth has been lower than other parts of the UK, lower than many other parts of Europe. So for the sake of our economic prosperity we need to see more people choosing to come and live and work in Scotland.

And so there are two points which perhaps follow from that. The first is that, if any of you are uncertain what to do after you leave Stanford, you are very welcome to come to Scotland! We offer a very warm welcome and a fantastic quality of life. The whisky is rather good – in moderation. And our weather is much more interesting than the boring sunshine you get here in California every single day.

However the second point is more fundamental and more serious. In my view, it is totally counterproductive for the UK as a whole to prioritise control of immigration over any other outcome for Brexit.

But it's especially damaging for a country like Scotland. In fact, it is interesting that, at a time when debates about immigration rage in many different parts of the world, there is no major political party in Scotland today that would argue for constraints on immigration in the way we hear in other parts of the world, because we know that would be damaging to our interests. This is a good example of how Brexit is forcing upon Scotland a policy agenda which is not of our choosing and not in our national interests.

So Brexit – and the way in which the UK Government is choosing to impose Brexit upon Scotland – presents Scotland with something of a dilemma. We had, as I have already mentioned, a referendum on independence less than three years ago. That's why some people in Scotland – entirely understandably – are reluctant to have another one in the next two years.

However if we do not give people in Scotland a choice, we will have to accept a course of action determined by a UK Government that most people in Scotland didn't vote for – a course which may be deeply damaging to our economy and our society perhaps for decades and possibly for generations to come.

In my view, that is democratically unacceptable. That is why the Scottish Parliament, last week, agreed to seek consent from the UK Government for a further referendum on independence, once the final terms of Brexit deal are known. It will mean that – rather than having Brexit and a future direction imposed upon us – the people of Scotland will have the opportunity to choose our own future, to choose the direction that we want to take. And in doing so we will be considering issues that go far beyond the issue of membership in or out of the EU.

We will be consider what kind of country we want to be, and how we can best achieve that – how we can build a better society at home, and make a positive contribution to the wider world.

One of the things that I encountered time and time again during the independence referendum campaign in 2014 was an overwhelming desire to create a fairer society, as well as a more prosperous one. That desire came from many people who voted against independence as well as those who voted for it.

It's a desire we are seeking to respond to under Scotland's current devolved powers. Shortly after I became First Minister, the Scottish Government revised our economic strategy. One of the biggest changes that we made was deciding to promote equality alongside economic competitiveness.

That focus is – first and foremost – a matter of basic morality. Everyone in any society should have a fair chance to fulfil their potential.

It's also an issue of basic economic efficiency. There is strong and growing evidence that inequality in western economies has harmed growth. The UK is a very good example of that. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has estimated that, between 1990 and 2010, rising inequality here reduced growth by nine percentage points.

Professor Joseph Stiglitz, who taught here at Stanford for more than a decade, is one of the Nobel Laureates who serves on my Council of Economic Advisers. He said at the time that "tackling inequality is the foremost challenge that many governments face. Scotland's Economic Strategy leads the way in identifying the challenges and provides a strong vision for change."

He recognised that a more equal society, where everyone can participate to their full potential, will lead to a stronger and a more sustainable economy in the longer term. And workers who are well educated and trained, well paid and highly valued and supported, will be more productive than those who aren't.

Two weeks ago, in fact, research was published on the happiest countries in the world. As you might expect, countries in developed nations ranked highest. The USA, I can tell you, was 13th, and the UK was 19th. However it was striking that the five highest spots were all taken by small European countries – Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Finland and Switzerland. Two of those countries are EU members, and others members of the European single market. All of those countries score highly on measures of income equality – they do considerably better than the UK, for example.

So there is really strong evidence for the Scottish Government's prioritisation of inclusion.

But there's an important political point to be made here as well – one which I think is relevant here in the US as well as in the UK. Policies such as free trade and free movement of people will very often bring benefits to the economy as a whole, but they also have the potential to disadvantage – or be seen as disadvantaging – particular areas and particular groups in society. So the sustainability of those policies is increasingly dependent on our ability to ensure they benefit not just the few, but the many in our society.

We saw that in Scotland and the UK last year. The vote to leave the European Union had many causes. But we know that people on low incomes were more likely to want to leave. When you allow for student numbers, so too were areas with relatively low rates of employment.

So the EU referendum also posed a challenge for those of us who support free trade, who welcome immigration and who believe that the benefits of globalisation, if they are properly managed – and that's an important caveat to stress – these benefits should outweigh the costs. It demonstrated that we can only sustain support for a dynamic and open economy if we do more to build a fairer and inclusive society.

That, in Scotland, is what we are determined to seek to do. It is one of the most pressing challenges that most developed societies face today. It requires leadership, and while Scotland does not have all of the answers – no country does – I believe that we are at least asking some of the right questions.

I am well aware that even in Scotland, that voted by such a big margin to remain in the EU, more than a third of voters chose to leave. But it is at least possible that one reason why the referendum result was so different in Scotland, compared to the rest of the UK, is that the Scottish Parliament has often adopted policies with fairness and inclusion at their very heart. We have taken action, for example, to mitigate some of the very brutal cuts to social security provision that the UK Government has implemented in recent times. There was maybe less of a sense of people being left behind and disenfranchised.

But that emphasis on inclusion, important for economic reasons, is also important politically as we try to navigate through some of the circumstances that lie ahead.

And that commitment to inclusion is also applicable to another issue that is very close to my heart, and that is the issue of gender equality.

I was quite struck, when I read about Stanford University, to see that women were admitted on equal terms as men from the very beginning, at the insistence of the founders of this university. Leland Stanford actually pointed out in a letter in 1893 that, 'if vocations were thrown open to women, there would be 25% increase in the nation's production'.

It's a simple and overwhelmingly obvious point – nations impoverish themselves if they underuse the talents of half of the population – and yet that challenge is one which no nation has yet fully risen to. Scotland is trying to take the lead.

We have launched major initiatives in early years care, primarily because we believe it's an essential part of ensuring that all children – regardless of their backgrounds – get a fair chance to realise their potential. But it also recognises the importance of childcare in encouraging parents to return to work and in supporting parents, women in particular, to pursue careers.

We also work closely with trade unions and employers together, to try to boost productivity and encourage fair work practices. That partnership approach is very different to that taken by many other governments.

In some respects it's closer – although this is not an exact comparison – to the German economic model developed after the war. That model became known as Rhine capitalism. It was based on a strong sense of partnership between workers, trade unions, businesses and the public sector. It encouraged competitive markets, but combined them with strong social protections. And of course it has resulted in high levels of innovation, high productivity and strong exports.

That approach to the economy was based on a very distinct vision of society. Article 1 of postwar Germany's constitution states that human dignity is the underpinning principle of the entire state. That helps to establish the constitutional principle of the 'social state' – a state which strives for social justice.

Now, what we're trying to create in Scotland isn't identical, of course – this is a different time and very different context. But there are similarities. And, as with most countries, our concern for human dignity and social justice isn't confined to our own boundaries – we also want to make a positive contribution to the wider world.

Later today I will fly from California to New York and tomorrow I will be attending meetings at the United Nations. Scotland was one of the first countries back in 2015 to sign up to the UN's sustainable Development Goals. That means that we seek to build a fair, prosperous and sustainable society at home in Scotland, and also around the world.

Scotland, as a relatively small country, has to focus our specific contributions on the world stage. So it's maybe worth talking about two specific areas where we are trying to make a difference.

One of my meetings tomorrow is with the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria at the United Nations. Of course we have seen just today another very stark reminder of the horrific impact of the Syrian conflict and the pressing need to find a route to peace.

We will discuss Scotland's Women in Conflict programme. It prepares 50 women every year to play a part in mediation and conflict resolution. Last year, it trained women from seven countries in North Africa and the Middle East. The programme is Scotland's way of trying to act on the UN Security Council resolution 1325, which recognises that women bear many of the worst consequences of civil war and conflict, but are too often excluded from efforts at finding peace and reconciliation.

Another area Scotland prioritises in spreading a positive message across the world is tackling climate change.

In 2012 Scotland became the first country to establish a climate justice fund for developing countries. It recognises that the people affected most by climate change are often those who have done the least to cause it.

And in addition to helping other countries to mitigate climate change, we are also determined to be at the forefront of tackling it.

I mentioned earlier the fact that Scotland and Stanford are working together on new technologies in photonics and healthcare. Scotland of course has a long and very proud history of innovation. In fact, we led the world into the industrial age – James Watt's steam engine is arguably the single most important invention of the first industrial revolution.

So we want to apply our innovation and engineering expertise to help to lead the world into the low carbon age. In 2009 the Scottish Parliament passed what at that time were the most ambitious statutory climate change targets in the world. We have already met the first of those targets five years early, and are now looking to go further.

We already produce more than 50% of our net electricity demand through renewable energy sources. And we are an important development site for some of the renewable technologies of the future. The world's largest tidal power array is being developed in our Pentland Firth. The world's largest floating offshore windfarm is due to be built off our north-eastern coast.

I had the opportunity to discuss all of this with Governor Brown yesterday. When Governor Brown gave his inaugural address two years ago, or should I say his latest inaugural address, he pointed out that 'taking significant amounts of carbon out of our economy without harming its vibrancy is exactly the sort of challenge at which California excels'.

He was referring of course to California's astonishing track record of innovation – much of it linked to the work done here at Stanford. For both California and Scotland, innovation is part of our history, and also part of our modern identity. So the Governor and I were discussing ways in which Scotland and California could work together. Both of us want to apply our capacity for innovation to tackling what is arguably the biggest environmental, economic and moral issue facing the world.

There's one final point about the different issues I've talked about in my speech – climate change, peace-keeping, inequality and immigration, the flows of people and talent. And that point is this: all of them are interrelated. Drought, exacerbated by climate change, may well have been an initial cause of the Syrian civil war. The refugee crisis caused by that war arguably had a direct impact on the debate on UK's membership of the European Union.

Immigration of course is a major topic of debate in the USA as well as in Europe. And as we look into the future, we know that the displacement of populations which will be caused by climate change – especially if global warming exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius – is likely to dwarf the scale of migration that Europe has seen as a result of the Syria crisis.

So all of this is a good demonstration of the fact that no nation is or can be insulated from our reliance on, and our obligations to, the wider world. All independent nations have to accept our interdependence. We have to accept that it's not only our own national interest that matter but the interest of the wider world in which we live.

The best balance between independence and interdependence is of course the question that Scotland once again faces.

Over the past 60 years, the European Union has built a single market and encouraged economic co-operation, while developing common social standards for workers and shared environmental standards. It has enabled independent neighbours to trade and travel freely while respecting the environment and protecting living standards. It has enabled us to work together on some of the world's biggest challenges like climate change.

Brexit puts all of that at risk and forces Scotland to ask itself a fundamental question. Do we remain as we are, facing exit from the EU where we are able to take part in all of that collaboration – exit against our will at the hands of a UK Government that is determined to curb immigration at the expense of many other things – or do we choose instead to become an independent country, with the opportunities and the challenges that that will undoubtedly entail, but with the freedom it will give us to be an equal partner with other countries across our British Isles, Europe and the wider world?

My own view, as a supporter of independence, is that we will choose the second course. Independence, combined with interdependence and equal partnership, is the best way for us to build a fairer society at home and to make that positive contribution to the world.

That is something which will be debated and discussed across Scotland as we move forward. And I'm sure that, as we do so, there will again be debate and disagreement about how Scotland can best contribute to the world. But I am also sure that yet again there will be very little disagreement about whether we want to make that positive contribution.

Our modern identity will remain open, outward-looking and inclusive. People from around the world will always be welcome to call themselves Scottish if they wish to do so, whether they are or are not.

And Scotland will of course continue to build partnerships around the world – including with governments, businesses and universities here in California and across the United States.

So in that spirit, it is a real pleasure to be with you today to share some of my thoughts about current events, about the challenges we face and about Scotland's contribution to addressing some of those challenges. I wish you all a happy Tartan Day on Thursday. I hope some of you at least will sport tartan. And I hope that many of you choose to live, work or study in Scotland in the years to come.

I can assure you that you will have the warmest welcome, just as I have had here in Stanford and in California.


Email: - Central Enquiry Unit

Phone: 0300 244 4000 - Central Enquiry Unit

The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House
Regent Road

Back to top