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John Swinney: We have a choice of two different futures

John Swinney addresses an SNP conference | Credit: Alamy

John Swinney: We have a choice of two different futures

The SNP meets in Aberdeen for our first in-person conference in three years, and it will be fantastic to be able to properly see friends and colleagues from all over the country once again. 

The intervening period has seen all of us face some of the most extraordinary challenges of our time. Firstly, we have faced the Covid pandemic, and now, amid the backdrop of war in Europe, we face an economic and cost-of-living crisis hugely exacerbated by some of the most reckless moves by any UK Government in living memory.

We face a Tory government flagrantly and quite purposefully pursuing policies that are designed to make the rich richer and doing it by taking money from the household budgets of the poorest.

That is not just morally reprehensible, it is also politically and economically bankrupt as a strategy. It is hard to put into words just how wrong-headed, inept and potentially catastrophic the proposals contained within the Conservatives’ so-called “mini-Budget” are. 

Precipitating a run on the pound – seeing it plunge to its lowest-ever level against the US dollar – sending the cost of borrowing soaring for mortgage holders, individuals and business and forcing the Bank of England to intervene to prevent a collapse in pension funds probably wasn’t what the new prime minister and chancellor had in mind for their first substantive actions in office following the period of official mourning for Her late Majesty the Queen. 

And while the new Truss government has now embarked on a series of U-turns regarding the top rate of tax and the publishing of independent OBR forecasts – and who knows, by the time these words are published we may have seen further reversals – huge damage has already been done and cannot quickly or easily be undone. 

The Tories’ reckless actions in recent days have seen them part company with all logic, common sense and anything resembling public opinion and instead enter the realms of fantasy. But it is a fantasy world with real world consequences, which will be paid by millions of ordinary people, not by the bankers and hedge fund managers their actions were designed to pander to and benefit. 

I have already told parliament about reductions in some public expenditure this year, and I may have to do more of that in the weeks to come

Bluntly, what we have seen from the Truss-Kwarteng fiasco is the triumph of zealotry over reason. Or, as one prominent commentator put it, in the pages of the Financial Times, “these people are mad, bad and dangerous – they have to go”.

They need to go, not just because they have proven they cannot be trusted with the UK’s public finances, but because in order to try and make their fantasy economics work they are now threatening a new age of extreme austerity, as if the 12 years we have already endured under Tory rule is not enough.

And we should be in no doubt as to what renewed austerity would look like or what its cruel effects would be. Last week saw the publication of an independent academic study, published by Glasgow University and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, which laid bare those costs, with the shocking finding that Westminster austerity has likely been the cause of more deaths than the pandemic. 

It revealed that almost 335,000 more deaths than expected – including around 20,000 in Scotland alone – were recorded across Scotland, England and Wales in an eight-year period, and that these were “likely to have been caused by UK government economic policy.” That is a disgrace. And it is an utterly damning indictment of 12 years of Tory rule.  

In the coming weeks, the Scottish Government will set out to parliament our response to the UK Government’s budgetary decisions. 

As I have already made clear, that will involve some very hard choices. There is no way to escape the reality that, barring a complete shift in direction from the Tories at Westminster, we are currently facing the most challenging financial position of any administration since the advent of devolution almost 25 years ago.

I have quite simply never seen financial strain of the order that I and my colleagues are now wrestling with, and that includes the aftermath of the financial crash in 2008, when I was finance secretary.

There is simply no way, with the limited financial powers currently at our disposal, that we can wholly insulate Scotland from the damage that is being done by the chancellor’s decisions and the uncertainty that has been created.

The financial pressure we are under is absolutely huge as a result of soaring inflation which has already shrunk our budget by around £1.7bn from when it was set.

And, unlike the UK and other governments, which can borrow extensively to fill those gaps, the limits of devolution mean we cannot do that and operate within a fixed financial envelope.

That’s why I have already told parliament about reductions in some public expenditure this year, and I may have to do more of that in the weeks to come.

But I am deeply concerned that, from everything they have said, the Truss government now has public spending firmly in its sights, as they aim to cut budgets in a belated effort to try to undo the damage they have already done.

Cutting public spending would further impact our budget here in Scotland and would once again see the most vulnerable people in our society hit the hardest as they see cuts to the services they depend upon.

We are utterly determined to ensure that here in Scotland we do everything we can to protect people from the cost of living crisis and the impact of UK government policy decisions. That is why we have increased the Scottish Child Payment – a benefit without parallel anywhere else in the UK – to £25 a week, as well as expanding eligibility for it and also taking early action to increase other welfare payments we control in line with inflation.

Of course, not only is the UK Government attacking the social fabric that protects the most vulnerable in society – they are also engaged in a systematic assault on the limited powers Scotland has to defend itself, as part of an insidious post-Brexit power grab. 

And they are engaged – along with all of the Westminster parties – in a Trumpian bid to defy democracy by denying a cast-iron electoral mandate and blocking the right of the Scottish people to decide their own future in an independence referendum.

But the case for independence simply gets stronger the more we see of the catastrophic governance from Westminster. Who, having witnessed the shambles of the last few weeks – piled on top of the years of chaos created by Brexit – can honestly claim that they believe Scotland’s economy, our pensions, mortgages and livelihoods, are safe in Westminster’s hands? 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Independent European countries comparable to Scotland are both wealthier and fairer than the UK, outperforming it in a whole range of economic and social performance league tables. 

So, increasingly, the question is why not Scotland? We have vast natural and energy resources, world-leading industries and a highly educated and talented workforce supported by colleges and universities which are among the very best anywhere in the world. 

We have all the key ingredients needed to thrive and to match the performance of those many countries which are outperforming the UK right now. What we don’t yet have is the political powers to give us the tools to do the job – only independence can do that. 

And should there be any doubt about how badly independence is needed, nothing that Labour has proposed comes anywhere close to addressing the problems we face. 

The Truss-Kwarteng fiasco is the triumph of zealotry over reason

Labour’s periodic promises to address the constitutional question are increasingly akin to Brigadoon – a mystical land that appears every so often before vanishing again into the mist. And nothing in what they have suggested would have prevented Brexit being imposed on Scotland or protect us from future Tory power grabs. 

Labour stand shoulder to shoulder with the Tories not only in opposing Scotland’s right to decide its own future, but in imposing Brexit upon us. England and Wales both voted for Brexit and got Brexit. Northern Ireland voted Remain and has been allowed, quite reasonably given the cross-border issues involved, to effectively remain in the EU single market.

But Scotland, which voted more decisively in the 2016 referendum than any other nation in the UK, and roundly rejected Brexit, has been effectively told to lump it. That has dragged us out of a single market seven times bigger than the UK, doing massive damage to our exports, including our world class food and drink sector, hampering our leading universities and research centres and cutting off opportunities for our younger people.

The Tories have created this situation and Labour now embraces it, with Keir Starmer saying their priority is to “make Brexit work”.  That may be Labour’s message to Scotland – it will never be the SNP’s. 

It is clearer than ever that Westminster is taking Scotland in the wrong direction, and simply cannot be trusted to act in our best interests. Since 2014, almost every promise it made to Scotland has been broken as a hard-line Brexit that only the most extreme ever supported was forced through against our will.

We are now facing a stark choice of two futures – becoming an independent country in which decisions about Scotland’s future are made by the people who live here, and which looks outward in a spirit of cooperation to our neighbours across Europe and beyond, or accepting continued crisis and control from Westminster as the Tories and Labour retreat into an insular vision that is utterly at odds with the realities of the 21st century world.  

In the coming days the UK Supreme Court will hear legal arguments over the right of people in Scotland to determine their own future, and we must allow the court to proceed with its deliberations. 

But it is clear that independence is becoming the constitutional future of choice for people across Scotland. The most recent Social Attitudes Survey showed that support for independence is the majority view and has risen to its highest level in that long-running series, which has been polling since the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999.

That is significant because, unlike day-to-day opinion polls which provide a snapshot of views at a given moment depending on specific political events, the Social Attitudes Survey tracks and records long-term changes in the mood of the nation. 

That mood is now clearly one which recognises the status quo is not an option – and that independence is the only option which properly addresses the challenges we face as a nation. 

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