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by John Swinney
18 June 2024
John Swinney: 'So much has been achieved to make Scotland a better place'

John Swinney photographed for Holyrood by Anna Moffat

John Swinney: 'So much has been achieved to make Scotland a better place'

Tracing my own journey on Scotland’s self-government takes me back three-quarters of my lifetime – to 1979. I always believed this country could do more if it had the powers of a normal independent nation. So it was during the excitement that surrounded the 1979 referendum on devolution – when a majority of those who voted were in favour of a devolved Scottish Assembly – that I joined the SNP.

I am certain the years following the 1979 vote helped increase the strength of feeling in favour of devolution. A clear consensus was established by a second referendum in 1997, leading to the re-establishment of a Scottish Parliament two years later. 

At that time, I had only recently been elected the MP for Tayside North in the general election of May 1997. Shortly after election to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, as the representative of the North Tayside constituency, I decided along with colleagues that I could not work to the best of my abilities by splitting my time between the two parliaments so I took the decision to step down as a Westminster MP and devote all of my energy to the Scottish Parliament.

I am deeply indebted to the people of Angus and Perthshire who have given me the privilege to serve them for the past 27 years. Every day I am grateful for their kindness and support.

One of the benefits of my long service as an elected member is that I have seen the Scottish Parliament operating at its very best and living up to the hopes of those who campaigned successfully for its return. 

It has been a place where representatives with different views have come together to work constructively with the shared aim of improving the lives of people in Scotland. 

Devolution has enabled Scotland to forge a distinct path

As one of the small group of MSPs to have been in parliament since 1999, I sometimes struggle to believe a quarter of a century has passed since that historic May morning when Winnie Ewing, with grace and inspiration, declared that “the Scottish Parliament, which adjourned on March 25 1707, is hereby reconvened”. At that moment, we were counselled to carry with us a sense of history even as we looked ahead to the opportunities of the future. 

On that day, Winnie Ewing set us off on a great path and so much has been achieved since to make Scotland a better place.

Scotland has frequently led the way, being the first nation to implement a ban on smoking in public places, abolishing tuition fees, and, more recently, legislating for a world-leading minimum unit price on alcohol that research estimates has saved hundreds of lives, has likely averted hundreds of alcohol-attributable hospital admissions, and has contributed to reducing health inequalities.

The 2018 Social Security Act was another landmark moment for the parliament, one that set up a new public service for Scotland. It was a milestone piece of legislation that was passed unanimously and has provided the foundation for our radically different social security system, which is built on the principles of dignity, fairness and respect.

Devolution has provided us with the opportunity to do things differently from other parts of the UK, including on the number-one priority for the government I lead – action and policies to eradicate child poverty.

Though their full impact is not yet captured in the latest poverty statistics, modelling estimates that this government’s policies will keep 100,000 children out of relative poverty this year, with the game-changing Scottish Child Payment alone estimated to keep 60,000 children out of relative poverty.

I am the first to accept there are challenges to be overcome

And the Child Poverty Action Group estimates that low-income families in Scotland will be around £28,000 better off by the time their child turns 18 as a result of Scotland’s more generous support and lower costs for childcare.

The essence of democracy is that people are free to hold and express and pursue different opinions. The Scottish Parliament has facilitated this – the long-running discussions, including an enormous response to public consultation, that led to the historic votes on same-sex marriage spring to mind.

Through our Scottish Parliament we have also led the way in enhancing our democracy by putting young people at the very heart of decisions about how our communities and country are run. 

There have been times during the parliament’s history when co-operation has been hard won, achieved not because it was easy but because it was the right thing to do. If I need to remind myself that obstacles can present themselves, I can recall some of the early budgets I delivered when I served as finance secretary in a minority government. 

Those were often challenging processes – understandably so given the decisions being taken and the circumstances. At key moments, we found we did not have the support we needed in parliament before colleagues eventually came together. 

I know from those experiences that co-operation can come about for many reasons and that it can take different forms.

I did not expect to find myself accepting office as first minister

Devolution has enabled Scotland to forge a distinct path, and I am proud to say I played a part, along with others, in making some of these things happen. What is clear from those examples – and more besides – is that the Scottish Parliament works best when it operates through collaborative work and agreement.

The mother of our parliament, Madame Ecosse, provided a further valuable piece of advice in that opening speech, one that at times it feels we may have lost sight of – “sing it in harmony – fortissimo”. While the voice of the parliament could often be described as loud in the two-and-a-half decades since she spoke those words, rarely in recent times has it felt harmonious.

A lot has been said about parliament no longer being the collaborative place it once was – more than that, colleagues have fairly recognised that debate has become polarised at times. 

Speaking in the chamber shortly after taking on the role of first minister, I acknowledged my contribution to that environment and promised to do better to serve the people of Scotland to the absolute best of our abilities. All of us parliamentarians should reflect on our conduct from time to time and remind ourselves of the shared purpose behind our privileged position.

As first minister, I have committed the government I lead to playing its part in rediscovering a sense of shared purpose across the chamber. I hope there is the space and the willingness for that to happen in the interests of those who elected us. 

In the same spirit, I have pledged to be the first minister for everyone in Scotland, to serve all the people of this country, and give everything I have to build the best future for all of us. 

A good idea is a good idea, regardless of which side of the chamber it comes from

I am the first to accept there are challenges to be overcome and changes we need to make to return our chamber to a spirit of collaboration that we know best serves the people of Scotland. I hope that by recalling past achievements and the ways of working that made them possible, we can be inspired to have a substantial discussion about how we can work together to deliver on an agenda to make things better for people in our country, particularly those who need us most.

I have set out my four priorities for the people of Scotland – eradicating child poverty, growing the economy, tackling the climate emergency, and improving public services. They will need to become shared priorities across the parliament if we are to pass the legislation and budgets needed to deliver benefits for people in their everyday lives. 

My role as first minister is to do whatever is needed to secure a consensus in parliament around action we can take in order to eradicate the scourge of child poverty – and I look forward to working with others and seeking their support to achieve that aim, very much in the spirit of Winnie Ewing’s vision. 

When I stood down as deputy first minister in March last year, I believed that would be the last senior office I would hold in politics. Having served as a minister and cabinet secretary for 16 years by that point, I felt I had done my bit. I did not expect to find myself accepting office as first minister a little over a year later. 

As someone who had served in this parliament since the days when we sat together in the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, I was fully able to appreciate what an extraordinary privilege and honour it was to accept the office of first minister.

Indeed, we all have the unique honour and privilege of serving the people of Scotland in our role as parliamentarians – and so we owe it to them to do so without resorting to opposition for opposition’s sake.

future will be built by working hard

I am determined to build on all we have already achieved, and I make no bones about the fact that a good idea is a good idea, regardless of which side of the chamber it comes from. Part of my commitment to all of Scotland’s people is also a commitment to listen to voices from across the chamber and take their views and suggestions into account. 

Delivering on those good ideas in the best interests of the people of Scotland is what I am most interested in. That’s why I’ve made it clear to all parties that my government will engage with them positively and consider ideas from any member who wishes to put them forward.

What we need to do now is to look to the future. That future will be built by working hard every day for those we serve – and those efforts will surely be amplified if we step forward in harmony.

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