It’s my birthday – is it too much to ask for a little peace to enjoy it?

On Friday morning, I decided to give myself four birthday presents.

First, to retire from active politics – again.  More on that in a minute.

Second, to give up being a media commentator.  Third, to give up smoking.  And fourth, to retire the blog.

The last pledge lasted about 20 minutes and half way through David Cameron’s speech on the #indyref result.  When he got to the part about it being time to answer the West Lothian question as well as provide more powers for Scotland, clearly I had made a rash decision.  Politics is going to be far too interesting in the next while to do without my wittering on it all.  So the blog stays.  No cheering at the back there.

The giving up smoking starts tomorrow.  If Alex Massie can manage it on those electronic cigarette things, so can I.  Whether I can manage it without putting on all the weight that three months of campaigning has just removed, we’ll see.  Still, I’ll live until I’m 95 and become one of those irascible, instinctive conservative voters who sets their face against any change.  It will probably take that long for me to make that transition.

On the second, well frankly, my experience at the hands of the media around the #indyref means this one is set in stone.  For the entire duration of the campaign, women have had to shout and demand some representation (we gave up on equal as clearly a concept too far for most) as commentators on political issues.  We were all booked to the hilt to do stuff over the last week of the campaign and especially, around the results programmes.  With only a handful of exceptions, we were all bumped in favour of more luminary commentators.  Mostly politicians, mostly men.  Without any consideration for the efforts any of us had made in order to try and contribute – childcare, lack of sleep, travelling miles at our own expense.  Me?  I’m done with it all.  We don’t get the media we deserve, we get the media they are prepared to provide for us.  And the mainstream media by and large is intrinsically and institutionally sexist.  I will return to this theme in later blogs.

So you can all remove me from your contacts lists.  I will not be available for any media work but I have during this campaign, worked to create and support a greater, wider pool of articulate women commentators who speak from a pro-independence perspective. Just because they are not “names” does not mean their views are not worth hearing.  I hope you continue to approach them and I will do my best to continue to grow the group and support it wider still.  Because enabling women to join the ranks of political commentators is clearly not on any of your agendas.

The first is more complicated.  I may or may not retire. But can I make a plea to everyone tweeting, facebooking, joining and organising in the aftermath of defeat for Yes?  Please calm down.  There is time.  We do not need to do this – all of it – in the first post-defeat weekend.  In fact, decisions and moves made now are likely to be reached in the euphoria of sleeplessness and grief.  And that is never a good basis for strategising.

Some of us have been in this game a very long time.  Some of us have been on this journey for much of our lifetimes.  Some of us are trying to get a semblance of normalcy back in our lives.  We need time to lick our wounds, to slob in our pyjamas, to clear the clutter and detritus from the last campaign before embarking on the next stage.  I am not nearly as bereft as I thought I would be:  I share the sense that this isn’t finished yet, not by a long chalk.

But I am also mindful of listening to what the Scottish people said on Thursday.  More powers is what they want, not full independence.  Not yet anyway. I’m with the First Minister here – we cannot trust Westminster to deliver this on its own and I do think that if we want to arrive at a destination called devo-max then we need to work with the grain not against it. But how to do that without selling out the 45% who voted yes and without having to climb into bed with the establishment – Scottish and UK – who want to put all this democracy and appetite for ideas away in a box in the political loft and get back to business as usual?  That is the thorny issue which we must work out how to address – to keep the 45% on board while reaching out to the soft, reluctant Nos that represent at least 20% of the 55% who voted so.

And thorny issues take time to get our heads around. We do not need to set our course for the next year and beyond this week. Good decisions require space, time and proper consideration.

We do need to be having chats and reflections and sharing commiserations and indeed, celebrations at all that we have achieved.  But bouncing into the next phase – and trying to bounce others into it – won’t work.  As John Swinney himself just said on the Sunday Politics show, there is a need even for the SNP to have a discussion and debate about the “tactics” for where we find ourselves and the way ahead.  And if the party that has been doing this for decades thinks it needs such an approach, then we should all take a lead from that.

But things are moving fast, even in the SNP.  Yet, the party does need to have a fairly honest and frank appraisal about its future direction.  I’ll blog on that in due course.

It would appear that there will be no leadership contest and that Nicola Sturgeon – who has not yet declared her hand but is doing the canny thing of allowing all potential rivals to count themselves out this weekend – will be elected unopposed.  That would be a fine testament to how she has grown and prepared for the role in this last year in particular.  But the party does still need to create space for a venting and to hear how Nicola intends to take the party forward.  Shutting down the opportunity for a greetin’ meeting at conference in November wouldn’t be wise nor even respectful.  A lot of SNP folk put their all into this campaign – they deserve to be heard on what worked and what could have been done differently.  Constructive criticism is nothing to be afraid of.

But it seems that the real contest will be for deputy leader.  Names are being bandied about.  So, here’s my choice.  Shona Robison, MSP for Dundee East and Minister for Commonwealth Games and Sport, who also has the equalities brief.

Tomorrow’s blog will explain why.

That’s not a cop out.  It’s my birthday today and I have a house and a garden like a coup.  I’d like to spend some of the day in the sunshine, righting some of that.  And trying to get back a little normalcy in my life.  Before my nerves are shredded by giving up smoking tomorrow.

And just in case anyone is listening, I’d advise a little normalcy for us all.  Step away from the social media.  Stop promulgating conspiracy theories.  Stop planning the next stage of our nation’s political evoluation/revolution.  Go for a walk.  Watch a movie.  Sleep. Read. Drink and be merry.  But leave the politics alone for a day.  It will do us all good.

 

“We will support our vulnerable people, not vilify them” – John Swinney’s address to SNP conference

Just over six years ago, we were given the greatest privilege in our Party’s history – we were asked by our people to be their Government.

We set out to make this country healthier, wealthier and fairer. We embarked on a journey to make Scotland greener, safer and smarter.

Every day of every week of every year of our Government, we have all worked hard to make Scotland as successful as we possibly could and to tackle the real issues our people face.

That commitment to focus on the priorities of our country was clearly demonstrated again just yesterday.

Amidst the demands of a Party Conference timetable, the First Minister travelled back to Edinburgh last night, to speak face to face to the parties in the Grangemouth dispute, to try to create common ground. The Government cannot solve the dispute; that can, and will only happen, if the company and the workforce can build an agreement.

But what the Government must do is to leave no stone unturned in trying to secure the future of the largest industrial site in Scotland and the livelihoods of thousands of families the length and breadth of our country who depend on the continued operation of the Grangemouth site.

So yesterday the First Minister did what he always does – he acted to promote the interests of Scotland.

Last night the First Minister asked each side to take a step forward. The union to confirm that there will be no industrial action to the end of the year and the company to fire up the plant and return to normal production. I urge both parties to the dispute to respond positively to the First Minister’s initiative and put Grangemouth back to work.

Every day within Government our team is working on the priorities of the public. Within my Ministerial team, Derek MacKay working to create partnership with local government and improve our planning system. Fergus Ewing acting to give clear leadership to our renewable energy drive and to build the tourism sector in Scotland. Angela Constance working every day to get young people into employment and addressing the need to support more women into the labour market. Backed by our parliamentary liaison officers Mike MacKenzie and Stewart Stevenson, Derek, Fergus and Angela work day in day out to secure the future of Scotland and I warmly thank them for all that they do.

In taking forward our work to deliver for Scotland we do so within the confines of devolution and against the constraints of a Westminster government that does not share our vision. And we go the extra mile to pick up the pieces from bad Westminster decisions. Never has that been more the case than on the welfare reform programme.

Without our help, and the help of our local government partners, over 500,000 people in Scotland would have faced a 10% cut in Council Tax benefit imposed by the UK Government. We protected the people and stopped that cut.

Without our help, thousands of Scots would have faced real harm – very real harm – as a consequence of the Bedroom Tax. We are doing everything we have the power to do to mitigate the Bedroom Tax and of course we want to do more. We need the powers of independence to stop dreadful policies like the Bedroom Tax.

Many families across Scotland have faced real hardship since the financial crash in 2008. Victims of a crash that was not of their making, ordinary people have struggled to manage their finances, to protect their livelihoods and to provide for their loved ones. And this Government has helped them through that difficult time.

Against the tides of recession, the austerity of George Osborne and the reactionary policies of our opponents we have taken the side of the people.

A Council tax freeze in each and every year we have been in office and guaranteed to the end of this parliament

A living wage for all our employees – helping families in hard pressed times

Free prescriptions putting an end to the tax on ill health

Concessionary travel for our older people

Free University education for our students

Extra childcare to support families and children

And of course – ensuring our older people are treated with care and with dignity with free personal care for our elderly.

We have used our powers to protect household budgets in Scotland.

And when our Labour opponents say we cannot afford to support people and businesses with these policies, I have one simple message. When you have been away spending the same money twice, when you have been dodging the difficult budget choices, we’ve been putting in the hours balancing the country’s books in every single year we have held office. That’s what you do when you work on Scotland’s behalf.

Those commitments, and our focus on delivering them, are the hallmark of your SNP Government.

And there’s another commitment I want to make today. Yesterday I joined Shirley-Anne Somerville campaigning in Dunfermline. In 2007 – after years of Labour failure – the first legislation we passed was to lift the tolls from the Forth and the Tay Bridges – saving commuters £233 a year.

Lifting those tolls helped business by bringing down their bills, it helped people working in Edinburgh, in Fife and in Dundee or here in Perth to manage their costs and it helped people when fuel prices continued to rise.

Now the Queensferry crossing – the biggest infrastructure project in a generation – is helping the people of Fife with jobs, apprenticeships and contracts for local companies as it rises up from the waters of the Forth. It is being delivered on time – and given the stringent management of this government – it is being delivered not on budget but under budget – under budget – by £145million.

And when it opens in 2016, and for as long as we are in Government, I guarantee, there will be no tolls on the Queensferry crossing.

These are all examples of what Scotland can do when we have the powers and the responsibility to take our own decisions.

The Independence debate is quite simply the question of whether we should exercise that full responsibility across the issues that are today controlled by Westminster. And our appeal to the public is this – if you believe we have used our limited powers wisely, join us in winning the wider powers to transform our country.

When people come to consider the Independence question, they will understandably want to know about the prospects for the economy. And we need to spell out the full facts for our people.

For the last five years Scotland has had to face the challenges brought about by the economic mismanagement of successive Westminster governments.

Even before the financial crash, the UK had the third largest structural budget deficit in the developed world. Now after five years of austerity, and with another five to go, the UK hasn’t paid down the deficit and household incomes have fallen. The UK deficit is now £121bn.

As part of the UK, every person in Scotland is paying the bill for Westminster’s mismanagement.

So when our opposition say Scotland can’t afford to be independent because we might have to pay off some debts – let’s remember who built up the debt, let’s remember how much of our oil wealth they squandered running up that debt, let’s remember how much they are borrowing to pay off their debt and let’s remember that if Scotland votes No we will be saddled with UK debt for many, many years to come.

But aside from the reckless deficits Westminster has built up or the poor economic management they showed before the crash, the greatest failure of the Westminster system is the absolute failure to understand that to deliver real economic growth you have to invest in the economy.

But our approach as a Government, acting in the Scottish interest, demonstrates what can be done and what is within in our reach with a vote for Independence.

Where the UK cut during the crunch years, we invested what we could.

We invested all that we could in the economy, make savings to put more into employment schemes, into training and apprenticeships and boosting capital budgets to build homes, schools and hospitals. We protected public sector jobs by keeping the focus on delivering frontline services throughout Scotland. And we have done that within the constraints of UK budget cuts that show no sign of going away.

And despite all of those challenges, our economic results show the difference our efforts have made.

This week we have seen what can be achieved in Scotland when we act with Scotland’s interests at heart.

This week the official figures showed Scotland’s economy has grown further and faster than the UK’s as a whole with UK growth of 1.3% out-stripped by Scottish economic growth of 1.8%.

This week the labour market figures showed that in Scotland, unemployment is down, youth unemployment is down, employment is at a five year high, Scotland has the lowest unemployment, highest employment and highest youth employment of any part of the United Kingdom. That’s what happens when you invest with Scotland’s interests at heart.

Our £8bn investment programme – is supporting 50,000 jobs

Our Modern Apprenticeship programme means over 25,000 young people are completing training on the job and 77% go into jobs or more training at the end of it.

Community Jobs Scotland – working with the voluntary sector – has helped nearly 2000 young people.

Youth Employment Scotland is investing in all 32 local authorities to help small and medium sized businesses play their part by taking on and training our young people

And Opportunities for All – giving a guarantee to all 16-19 year olds of work or training is unique across the UK.

Our businesses, our public sector, schools, trade unions, colleges, universities and voluntary sector have all responded to the challenge, risen to the task in hand, worked co-operatively as a country and as a result the economic performance of Scotland is better than the UK.

Conference that is what we can achieve with devolution. We could do so much more with Independence.

Just as we have taken decisions on the economy with Scotland’s interests at heart, I would like us to take more decisions on welfare and employment with Scotland’s interests at heart. We need the powers of independence because Westminster’s welfare reforms and the failing Work Programme are only serving to increase the pressure on our services and present more difficulties to those we are seeking to support.

Where our apprenticeship programme has a success rate of over two thirds, the Work Programme sends two-thirds of people back to the job centre.

Where we are providing funding to support those being harmed by welfare reform, Westminster is using welfare cuts as a punishment for the vulnerable.

Let me be clear conference, those who can work should work and it is our ambition to ensure that there are opportunities for all in Scotland – of any age and any ability to work. But let me also be clear that in an independent Scotland we will help our young people into work not humiliate them and we will support our vulnerable people not vilify them.

I have been around the debate on Scotland’s economy for nearly 20 years now. We have always said that Scotland is a wealthy country. We have always been proud of Scotland’s potential. But how the arguments of our opponents have changed.

In the course of the referendum debate even the arch opponents of Scotland’s independence have had to admit the truth.

David Cameron and Alasdair Darling – now say Scotland can be a successful independent nation.

Even the Treasury has had to publish a paper showing Scotland’s revenues are on a par with the rest of the UK’s. And that’s before you add in North Sea Oil.

The debate over Scotland’s wealth has been won. Scotland can afford to be independent.

The facts and figures are clear and indisputable.

Scotland is in a stronger financial position than the UK.

Every year for 30 years Scotland has paid more in tax per person than the UK.

Scotland pays a higher share of taxes than we get back in spending.

And our economic strength goes beyond the figures in our balance sheet.

We have immense natural resources with 25% of Europe’s offshore wind and tidal energy.

We have more top universities for our size than any other country in the world.

Our life sciences sector, our tourism industry, our creative industries, food and drink, financial services, manufacturing all contribute to our economy now and have huge potential for our future.

Conference our opponents like to claim that the basis of an independent Scotland’s economy would be oil.

But our strength is not an accident of geology or geography.

It is not some twist of fate or turn of chance.

The basis of our economy is our skills.

The basis of our economy is our ingenuity and our spirit of relentless invention.

The basis of our economy is, and ever will be, founded on the creativity, the intelligence and the boundless talents of the people of Scotland.

That is the basis of our economy. Scotland has all that it takes to be a successful independent country.

The question is no longer whether Scotland could be an independent country. It is whether Scotland should be an independent country.

And it is our job, from here to referendum day, to speak to everyone we can, to give people the information they want and to persuade those around us that the answer must be Yes.

With a yes vote, we can be a successful independent country. We can take new steps to grow our economy and to tackle inequality.

With a Yes vote, we can invest in an oil fund, and take steps to protect our resources for future generations. We can invest in research and innovation, incentivise our key industries, make business more competitive and create more quality jobs.

With a Yes vote, we can cap payday loans, deal with abuses of zero hours contracts and make work fair.

And with a Yes vote, we can end the reckless economic mismanagement of the UK and manage our finances properly – properly and always – in the interests of the people of Scotland.

And with a Yes vote we can protect our public assets and bring the Royal Mail back into public hands.

Conference, as this Party has grown from its early roots to our position as the Government of Scotland, we are now closer than we have ever been to winning our aim.

We have in front of us, the exciting opportunity to work with everyone in Scotland to build a better country. To use the wealth and the talent and the capability of our people to the full.

Let us now give the next 11 months everything we have got to persuade our people of the merits of our case. And let us put down the foundations of a bright new future, a future for all of our people, a future of which all of us can be proud. Let us build our country’s Independence.

 

 

Show us the money!

At least, now we know.

If Scotland votes no in 2014, we face years, if not decades of austerity, of scrimping and scraping, of unemployment and under-employment and of cuts to public services.  No matter who wins the UK election in 2015, Conservative or Labour, we’re going to keep the current spending limits and aim to pay down the debt.  Westminster fiddles while we all burn.

For months, people have been clamouring for information in our constitutional debate and for certainty about what the future holds.  And if this kind of certainty isn’t a potential game-changer in the independence referendum campaign, I’m not sure what is.

For this isn’t exactly what folk had in mind.  The question being put by the undecideds and doubters has invariably been directed at the yes campaign; tell us what independence feels, smells and tastes like to help us make up our minds.  The challenge for Yes Scotland and the Scottish Government is to turn this around, to mess with everyone’s minds if you like and to make the certainty of our economic future a reason to embrace change.  It’s not the uncertainty of a future going it alone that should be vexing you, but the certain path being laid out which offers nothing but sackcloth and ashes.

And it’s time to make a mockery of the premise at the heart of the no campaign – that we are Better Together, because patently we are not going to be.

The Chancellor, ahead of the Spending Round statement for 2015-16 he will deliver this coming Wednesday, launched a natty wee video, to explain in simple terms what our current financial predicament means.  At least £13 billion of cuts, on top of the £11 billion or so already announced for next year.

It’s not clear what this means for Scotland until the actual budget allocations are announced, but given that we are not one of the Treasury’s ring-fenced budgets, we can hazard a guess that it means less money being handed to us to spend.  John Swinney has an article today in Scotland on Sunday which outlines how Westminster is eroding our economic powers:

Since 1999 Scotland’s freedom to allocate spending on Scotland’s priorities has been curbed, constrained and curtailed by creeping Treasury controls. Scotland’s money has been progressively divided into different pots with restricted uses, without any consultation.”

The argument has validity and should – rightly – spark indignation, particularly when UK budget statements start to interfere with democratic spending decisions already made here in Scotland.  As they did, this year.

Moreover, the grievance card has its place in the suit of options available to the Scottish Government in this debate:  it’s not been deployed nearly as much as it was in the first SNP Holyrood administration and we can expect it to appear more frequently as we grind towards the vote in September 2014.  Good.

But we need to start conducting this debate in a language that people can understand, which makes sense to their sense of everyday and which makes it patently clear what certainty means.  The Scottish Government needs to start showing us the money.

Thus, the response needs to be both political and micro-economic. The Scottish Government needs to spell out what this democratic deficit means, that every year that the Tories ring fence spending for schools south of the border makes it harder for us to do the same up here.  And to start setting out starkly what it means when the Chancellor puts austerity before growth in his economic strategy.  We might all nod blithely along when our Cabinet Secretary for Finance rails against this, but in truth we haven’t a clue what it means.

So tell us.  Get us a natty wee cartoon which shows what the cuts to the Scottish budget actually look like.  In terms of leaky roofs in schools, closed libraries, disappearing jobs, broken swings, potholes in pavements and roads.  And spell it out in terms of household finances.  Because cuts in spending mean increased bus fares to get to work or to go to the shops.

It means parents being expected to dig deeper for fundraising activity by schools.  It means your granny having to dig into her meagre pension to pay more for her emergency call service and meals on wheels.  It means your child losing their free swimming session on a Saturday.  And it means your wee cousin leaving university with a decent degree and having no job to go to.

Sure, Scotland already controls most of these policy areas but it really doesn’t matter what we want to provide for our people if we don’t have any money to pay for it.  And that’s what voting no in 2014 will deliver.  You might want to live in a country that does all of this and more, but you can only have a chance of doing so in your lifetime by voting yes.

Vote no in 2014 and you get Tory or Labour cuts in 2015.  Vote no in 2014 and you and your family can look forward to years of doing without.  Vote no in 2014 for a dismal future and for our children – your children – to have little to look forward to.

And while we can’t say definitely what voting yes will result in – that will be for us to decide in the first elections after independence – we can assure you of one thing, with absolute certainty and clarity.

That Scotland’s future can be different.  And if you want even the possibility of a different future, that doesn’t involve your family being force fed a diet of austerity by either the Tories or Labour, then vote yes.