First Minister speech on Scotland, Brexit and the Future
Georgetown University speech.
It is an absolute honour to be delivering this address and to be taking part in this discussion in these wonderful surroundings, in this beautiful and historic library. I could quite easily spend the rest of my trip to the United States here in this library alone, so for my team that are listening if you could rearrange the schedule to allow that to happen I would be immensely grateful. But it’s also an honour to be the first speaker in what I know you are describing as “Women World Leaders” week. And it’s a big privilege to be on the same billing thing week as Hillary Clinton, Margot Wallstrom and Amat Alsoswa.
For that reason and for many, many other reasons, I’m thrilled to be here at Georgetown. And of course it is always a pleasure to be here in the United States.
Washington and Georgetown - like so many places across the United States I guess – hold reminders of the strong and very long-standing ties between Scotland and the USA.
From across the city, of course you can see the Capitol dome, which was designed by William Thornton who was a graduate of both Edinburgh and Aberdeen Universities in Scotland. This university itself, during the Civil War, briefly served as a base for the Union Army’s New York Highlanders which was a regiment mainly raised from Americans of Scots descent.
And that of course reflects the fact, that in my view we should celebrate and never take for granted, that hundreds of thousands of Scots travelled to the USA in the 19th and then into 20th centuries, in search of opportunities and a better life. And indeed that’s why the Presidential proclamation on Tartan Day, which was issued in 2008, notes that “Scotland and the United States have long shared ties of family and friendship”.
Perhaps more importantly though, those ties of family and friendship – and also of trade, of commerce and of culture – endure to this day.
And the universities sector plays a really important role in that. For several years, St Andrews University in Scotland and Georgetown have worked together on a student transfer programme. In total, almost 5,000 students from the US study in Scottish universities – who knows some of you here might be tempted to do the same in future.
And those international connections, those important, valuable and treasured international connections - are directly relevant to the theme of what I want to talk about today.
As Joe said in his introduction, later this year, Scotland will mark the 20th anniversary of the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament, after almost 300 years of not having a Parliament of our own. And regaining that parliament, that seat of democracy and governance that now sits in Edinburgh, has allowed Scotland – on some issues – to chart a different course from the rest of the United Kingdom on domestic policies. So for example, in recent years we’ve decided to pursue a more progressive taxation policy than the UK as a whole. And unlike in England, students studying at Scottish universities don’t have to pay tuition fees. We believe that education is something that is precious and should be based on an individual’s ability to learn, not on their ability to pay.
However, having our own parliament has also allowed Scotland to raise our international profile, in the interests of expanding trade, boosting cultural links and also making a contribution to tackling some of the big issues that the world confronts. For example the moral imperative of tackling climate change. We established a Scottish Government presence here in Washington back in 2001, not long after the parliament was re-established and later this week, when I am in Canada, I will meet staff at the Scottish Government’s new base in Ottawa.
In the last couple of years we’ve also significantly expanded Scotland’s presence in major European cities like Paris and Berlin and when I go to the United Nations in New York on Wednesday, I will be reflecting, amongst other things, on Scotland’s programme to help women who are acting as peacemakers in conflict zones.
I know that Margot Wallstrom, the Swedish Foreign Minister, is speaking here on Thursday on the topic “More Women, More Peace” – something I feel very passionately about as well. Scotland too – like Sweden – recognises that women have an important role in peacemaking. We’re trying to play our part in promoting that.
And all of this, I hope, speaks to a country that’s relatively small in size, but nonetheless a country that has big ambitions to play our full part and have our voice heard in shaping the world that all of us live in. And of course throughout all of that time, Scotland’s membership of the European Union has been one of the most important ways in which we have been able to expand our economy and expand our economic opportunities and maximise our influence. Just last week trade figures showed that Scotland’s exports to the EU, in the most recent year we’ve got figures for, increased by 13%, now stripping the growth in our exports to the rest of the UK, and indeed to the wider world. Though I’m delighted to say the United States remains our biggest international export market. We also work very closely with European partners on issues that range from energy security to health research.
And it’s important to say in the times that we live in right now, that these European connections have never really been particularly controversial in Scotland. Scotland has a very proud European tradition. We see ourselves as a European country and people in Scotland by and large, of course there are exceptions, but by and large, people in Scotland and this is perhaps in contrast with people elsewhere in the UK, don’t really see membership of the European Union as a threat to our own national sovereignty. On the contrary we see that membership is a way of independent countries, coming together to work together, to tackle collectively, big challenges. So membership of the EU is one way in which Scotland, as a small nation, has been able to co-operate with friends and neighbours across the continent and amplify our voice in the process. Indeed, many of us, and this is an issue that I’ll return to later, believe that our voice and influence would be strengthened if we were an independent member state of the European Union.
We value the practical benefits that the EU brings us – research collaborations, free trade and free movement. But we also, and perhaps this is the more important point, we also value the principles that the EU exemplifies – that nations can and should co-operate as equals for the common good.
Now as most of you know, in 2016 the UK, regrettably in my opinion, voted to leave the European Union. It did so by a narrow margin of 52% to 48%. But of course the vote in Scotland was very different. Scotland voted to remain in the European Union, by a larger margin than that, by 62% to 38%. So as things stand right now, on 29 March - in just 53 days’ time - Scotland faces the prospect of leaving the European Union against our democratically expressed will.
And that throws up many issues and many questions for us, but it throws up the fundamental question about the way in which political decision making is exercised in the United Kingdom and indeed about the nature of the United Kingdom itself. It’s important to remember, and this is something is not always remembered, even within the UK, let alone internationally, the United Kingdom is not a unitary state. The United Kingdom is made up of four nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and indeed often told in Scotland that that is a partnership of equals.
Yet two parts of the UK – Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted to remain in the EU. The other two - Wales and England - voted to leave.
And in response to that, the UK Government could have led discussions with the devolved nations and others about how to leave the EU. It could have considered and made compromises that took account of the differing views across different parts of the United Kingdom. The Scottish Government was willing and very keen to play our part in any such discussions.
But instead of that, the vote in Scotland has been ignored. And over the two and a half years since it took place, our interests have been sidelined. And it is increasingly difficult, indeed it is now really impossible to reconcile that experience with the idea of the UK as an equal partnership of nations.
The negotiations and discussions that have taken place since the referendum, and let me be diplomatic about this, have been tortuous in the extreme – largely as a result of red lines put forward by the UK Prime Minister.
I mean let me be clear, I oppose Brexit I don’t want the UK to leave the EU but there was nothing inevitable about the chaos and the difficulties that that process has ended up being mired in. That has largely come about because of the way in which the UK is choosing to leave the EU – the red lines that the Government put in place quickly ruled out the closest forms of partnership with the EU – for example continued membership of the single market and the customs union.
However ruling out those close partnerships has proved deeply problematic. First, it, as I’m sure you’ve read, has made it far, far more difficult for the UK Government to meet its obligation to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland which of course is a member of the EU in its own right.
And secondly, it has increased the economic harm that Brexit is likely to cause.
After all, the European Single Market is a great modern success story.
It allows independent nations to take advantage of a market of 500 million people – that’s eight times the size of the UK market alone.
It has brought many economic benefits and it’s still not yet complete. There are still huge future opportunities in services, where Scotland has particular strengths, and of course in the digital economy.
So to leave this successful, developing market-place makes no economic sense whatsoever and it will damage the prospects of future generations.
And that’s particularly the case, because the claims made about the supposed benefits of Brexit are already proving completely illusory.
There is no evidence that the UK on its own will be better at striking trade deals than the EU – in fact, what we have seen so far suggests the opposite would probably be the case.
And for the UK Government, the greatest prize of leaving the EU appears to be ending free movement of people and curbing migration to the UK. Yet for Scotland, that is one of the biggest downsides of Brexit.
People in Scotland and across the UK currently have the automatic right to work and study in Europe. In future, we will be denied that; and people from elsewhere in Europe will be denied similar opportunities in Scotland.
Now I think that’s wrong in principle, I think we should be looking to make it easier for people to share different cultures and getting to know different countries across the world, but there’s a real practical danger in that for Scotland as well, because Scotland’s demographics are different to the rest of the UK’s. We’ve got a population that’s ageing faster and we’ve got challenges about growing our working age population. So if free movement ends then it is distinctly possible that Scotland’s working age population will start to fall with severe economic and social consequences.
Now back in November, the UK Government, notwithstanding all of these difficulties, finally agreed a deal with the EU which tried to reconcile all of this, tried to reconcile its commitment to Ireland with its stance on the single market and the customs union.
However that deal pleased absolutely nobody in the UK and it didn’t pass through the House of Commons.
The UK Government is now trying to renegotiate that agreement, particularly the aspect of it that relates to Ireland. But it’s trying to do so with the clock ticking and despite the fact that the European Union has repeatedly said that such a renegotiation is not something it’s willing to accept. As a result of that, there is a real and growing risk that the UK will leave the EU in 53 days’ time without any deal in place.
And that would be hugely damaging – far more so, dare I say it, than the government shut down you’ve just had here in the United States. In fact, some of the contingencies being considered – if we leave the EU without a deal – are genuinely astonishing.
Retailers and farmers have warned of price rises and shortages of key foods; motorways and airfields in the south of England are being considered for use as lorry parks; UK Government ministers – quite seriously – are claiming to be buying fridges in order to stockpile essential medicines.
And some of that sounds amusing but the idea that a prosperous country, one of the most prosperous countries in the world, in peacetime is even considering steps such as that, demonstrates how absurd this whole situation has become.
But of course, diagnosing problems with the status quo is relatively easy. The harder issue is trying to work out where we should go from here, particularly with the pressure of time that is now baring down on the UK.
In my view, in the short term, several steps need to be taken. First, the UK Government should confirm that it will do absolutely everything to avoid the UK leaving with no deal. It should make clear it’s not prepared for the UK to leave the EU with no deal.
And as part of that, it should acknowledge that the UK simply is not remotely prepared to leave the EU in 53 days’ time. That’s been obvious for a while now. So the UK Government should ask the EU to agree to put back the planned date for Brexit.
The request for an extension of course must be accompanied by an achievable plan. And that plan cannot be a continued insistence from the Prime Minister that her deal is the only alternative to no deal.
And I think there are two broad options here. We could reconsider the closest possible forms of partnership with the EU – the ones that were ruled out back in 2016 – such as membership of the customs union and single market. That would at least minimise the harm to the economy caused by leaving the EU.
The second and, in my view, better option is to hold a further referendum on EU membership.
At present there may not be a consensus in the UK Parliament for the option of Single Market and Customs Union membership - or indeed any other option. And so the Scottish Government’s view, my view, is that this issue, given the deadlock in Parliament, should be put back to the electorate in another referendum.
Now there are three other points I want to briefly make which relate to Brexit, but which also relate to wider issues. And the first is one I’ve touched on already, and that is immigration – which was a significant issue during the EU referendum campaign. Firstly let me recognise that the issue of immigration is a difficult one for politicians and governments in countries across the world including of course in this one right now.
But equally in my view, too few politicians have the courage to make the positive case for immigration and that’s what I want to try to do, not just today, but generally.
I reflected earlier on the generations of Scots who found a home in the USA. They did so at a time when far more people left Scotland, than wanted to come to Scotland. One of the wonderful things that has happened in the last 20 years or so – largely as a result of migration to Scotland from the rest of Europe - is that that position has reversed.
That has benefited our country. Our universities, our workplaces and our communities have gained hugely from the skills and commitment of these new Scots. Immigration has been good for our culture, our economy and for our society as a whole.
In fact, for Scotland, immigration is absolutely essential. As I said a moment ago, without it, our population will start to decline. And everybody knows the consequences of that. A smaller number of working age people will have to support a growing number of older people. So severe restrictions on immigration pose a genuine risk to the long-term health of our economy and our society.
And one of the things that I personally find hardest to accept, in relation to the UK Government’s Brexit policy, is that they see ending freedom of movement as a good thing. I don’t believe that’s true for any part of the UK, and it’s certainly not true for Scotland.
In fact, the central trade-off at the heart of the UK’s approach to Brexit makes absolutely no sense to us at all.
By impeding free trade, in order to end freedom of movement, the UK is in the bizarre, absurd position of doing something that will harm the UK and Scotland, in order to do something else that will harm the UK and Scotland. That is the absurdity of the position we find ourselves in.
The fundamental point that I’m making – that no Scottish parliament, of any political composition, would approach Brexit in the way that the UK Government is currently doing – helps to explain why Brexit is also relevant to the debate on Scottish independence which is the second issue I want to touch on.
In the independence referendum that Scotland had in 2014, and there’s a real irony in this, voters in Scotland were repeatedly told that if we chose to became independent, we would have to leave the European Union. We would be thrown out of the European Union and be in the position of having to reapply for membership in our own right now. I as it happens always think it was a bogus argument, but finding ourselves four years on facing being taken out of the European Union against our will really does grate on many people in Scotland considerably. But back then voting to stay in the UK, was portrayed as the way to protect our European Union membership.
And that in itself raises the question of whether decisions about Scotland should continue to be taken at Westminster- or whether it would be better if those decision were taken in Scotland by our democratically elected parliament.
And of course the ongoing chaos at Westminster and the way in which Scotland’s interests have been consistently ignored, makes that question even more relevant.
I as First Minister have said I will outline my thoughts on the timing of another independence referendum in the next few weeks – once the terms of Brexit have become clearer.
But, amid the confusion and uncertainty of Brexit, one thing I think is clearer than ever. Scotland’s national interests are not being served by a Westminster system which too often treats Scotland as an afterthought, or too often sees our interests as not being material. In my view, they can only properly be served by becoming an independent country. But an independent country that then seeks to play its part in an interconnected world. And that is a vision that I think more and more people in Scotland, in the wake of the Brexit experience, find very attractive.
Now the third and final point I want to talk about in relation to Brexit is the issue of inequality.
Inequality, like immigration, was a major issue in the build up to the EU referendum.
We know that across the UK, people on low incomes were more likely to want to leave the EU. And when you allow for student numbers, so too were areas with low employment rates. The vote for Brexit was partly caused by austerity - deep public spending cuts, stagnant living standards, and a sense of disempowerment on the part of many people across the country.
Now in my view, Brexit is the wrong response to inequality – because it’s likely to make people’s living standards worse rather than better. But at the same time, there was a logic to many people’s decision to vote for major change. After all, if people aren’t benefitting from the status quo, we can’t expect people to vote for the status quo.
So the Brexit vote - and there a maybe parallels here with the US and with other countries around the world - highlights a rea; challenge for those of us who do support free trade and those of who do welcome immigration and support. We must ensure that those policies benefit everyone in our society – not just a few.
Otherwise, an open economy will encourage popular resentment, rather than commanding the widespread support it needs to do.
That’s one of the reasons why Scotland’s economic strategy has for several years emphasised so strongly this notion of inclusive growth – growth which benefits everyone, and growth to which everyone has the opportunity to contribute.
So in Scotland we have promoted fair work. In Scotland a higher proportion of people are paid what we call the living wage, than in any other part of the UK. We are currently using new powers that the Scottish Parliament has over social security to ensure that people who rely on benefits are treated with dignity and with respect. As I said earlier on we have taken a decision to make our tax system more progressive, so that those on lower incomes pay slightly less but we ask those on the highest incomes to pay slightly more to support the public services that so many of us rely on such as our national health service.
We’re also taking steps to promote equality. Last year, we became the first country anywhere in the world to take a decision to embed LGBTI rights into the school curriculum. We are also implementing legislation to better tackle domestic abuse, something which is attracting international recognition.
And, where it makes sense to do so, we’re trying to improve living standards by removing some of the financial burdens on households. So for example we have ensured that medical prescriptions, and personal care provided for elderly or infirm people at home, is not subject to charging, that is something that people get through the contribution they make through their taxes.
I’ve already mentioned that Scotland doesn’t charge tuition fees for going to university. And in the last year, we’ve become the first country anywhere in the world to provide free sanitary products in all secondary schools and universities. Now these are just some examples of the work we’re doing to try to make the country fairer and more equal.
And the financial cost to the government of some of these policies is relatively small. But it makes a big symbolic difference.
We do these things – first and foremost because they are morally right, but also, because we know that societies and economies that are more equal do better, so these kinds of policies deliver social and economic benefits and they help to develop a stronger sense of community cohesion, a sense that everybody has a role to play and everybody benefits from doing the right things.
And Scotland, like all countries, is more likely to prosper if we fully use the talents of all of our people.
And our policies also honour what we describe as the social contract between the people and government. We know that everybody, at different times and in different ways, contributes to the economy and society. However we also know that everyone – at different times and in different ways – can need a helping hand from the public sector. So we make sure that public support is available to everyone because we believe if we do that, we help everyone to contribute more effectively. It is a virtuous circle that we seek to promote.
And that focus on equality, on inclusive growth, is likely to become even more important in the years ahead.
Scotland, like the rest of the developed world – certainly including the United – will have to address several hugely important challenges. We will have to continue to adapt to an aging population; we will need to ensure that artificial intelligence and automation benefit society as a whole; and of course we will need to tackle climate change and the transition to a zero carbon economy.
And I am very firm, in Scotland we are all very firm, I don’t want Scotland to shy away from those challenges – instead I want Scotland to be a world leader in addressing them.
Climate change is a good example. It is the most important economic, environmental and moral issue currently facing ourplanet.
Scotland is trying to take a lead. Back in 2007 our parliament set what at the time were the most ambitious climate change targets anywhere in the world. They used 1990 as a baseline year and required us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 42% by 2020. We achieved that target five years early and are now aiming to go much further.
We already generate 70% of our gross electricity demand from renewable energy. And we have a target to reach 100% by the end of next year.
We have also set a target of removing the need for new diesel and petrol cars by 2032.
I’m actually going to discuss Scotland’s low carbon ambitions tomorrow with Governor Murphy of New Jersey. And I’m sure one of the things that will crop up is that the transition to a low carbon economy isn’t simply an overwhelming moral obligation –although it is – it’s an obligation that we owe to future generations, but it is also a massive economic opportunity for the countries that are ahead of the curve.
I know that President Obama gave a major speech on climate change here at Georgetown back in 2016. And he argued, among other things, that inaction in the face of climate change showed “a lack of faith in American business and American ingenuity”.
And what he was doing then was appealing to an American tradition that really resonates in Scotland. You know Scotland is famous for a range of innovations ranging from the television and the telephone to penicillin and beta blockers. We modestly and humbly claim in Scotland that we literally invented the modern world – we don’t like to boast.
This year we are marking the bicentenary of the death of James Watt – the man whose improvements to the steam engine were fundamental to the industrial revolution. It’s a reminder that Scotland was in so many ways the country that led the world into the industrial age. So it would be fitting if we could now help to lead the world into a carbon-neutral age.
And in some areas, we have the opportunity to do exactly that. Scotland’s waters host the most powerful offshore wind turbines anywhere in the world and the most successful tidal power turbines. We are also home to the world’s first two and largest floating windfarms. And we have really important strengths in areas such as smart grids and battery storage.
All of that activity is bringing economic benefits. Low carbon technologies already employ more than 50,000 people in Scotland and for a country of our size, that’s a significant number that will only grow in the years ahead.
But we have seen, and that takes me back to the inequality point, that in previous waves of economic change too many people have been left behind. Where I grew up, in the west of Scotland, I remember vividly the job losses caused in part by the decline of mining and heavy industries during the 1970s and 1980s. And I know that some US communities have suffered in a similar fashion.
So we all have to be determined that future waves of economic change are handled better. In Scotland I have appointed a just transition commission –a panel of independent advisors to make recommendations about how we ensure that the transition to a carbon neutral economy benefits all of our citizens.
And of course, there is a really important international dimension to all of this. The worst impacts of climate change are not largely felt within developed nations, it is one of the huge injustices of climate change that it is usually developing countries – who have done least to cause the problem – who pay the heaviest price.
Which is why the Scottish Government a few years ago established a climate justice fund, helping countries in Africa adapt to the consequences of climate change, and develop in a sustainable way. That’s a relatively small programme given the overall scale of the issue –but it is a significant gesture from a country that wants to be a good global citizen.
And in many respects, that brings me back to conclude where I began. Brexit is dominating all the hedalines at home – I’m sure it’s dominating a few headlines here in the United States. It is an unwanted challenge for Scotland – if it goes ahead it will be harmful to our economy and our society. But regardless of it, Scotland will always strive to be a good partner to countries around the world.
In the 20 years since our parliament was created, we have helped to take a lead in tackling climate change, we have forged new relationships with international organisations such as the UN and the EU; and we have strengthened old friendships such as those that we enjoy with the USA and Canada.
And where we can, we will try to lead by example, in combining an innovative and open economy, with a fair and inclusive society.
In all of this, we know that – as a nation of just 5 million people, we will never be one of the world’s great powers. But we do believe that we can still make a meaningful contribution to great causes. And we understand, and this in the world that we live in today is an important point never to lose sight of, that we will all achieve more, and learn more, when we engage constructively with partners from around the world.
Few of those partnerships mean more to us, than the one we share with the people of the United. So it is a real pleasure and a real honour for me to be here today. I am looking forward now to some discussions and questions. And I hope that many of you, if you haven’t done so already, will visit, study or live in Scotland in the future, as we continue to strengthen the enduring friendship between our two nations – Scotland and the United States.