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31/07/15 09:42

First Minister at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
July 31, 2015

It’s a pleasure to make my first visit to Hong Kong. As many of you will know, Scotland and Hong Kong share ties which go back generations. These ties can be seen in the Mackintosh tartan of the Hong Kong Police Force pipes and drums, the thistle of the Jardine Matheson group emblem, and in the names of places such as Aberdeen Harbour and Edinburgh Place.

But since I arrived, what’s struck me much more than those historic links, has been the strength of our modern connections. I’ve been involved in discussions on collaboration between Scotland and Hong Kong on issues such as healthy ageing, low carbon technology and the future of cities. I’ve seen the interest there is here for Scottish products in areas such as fashion and food and drink. And most of all, I’ve been struck by the warmth of the welcome that I’ve received everywhere I’ve gone.

So I’m not surprised that there is significant interest here about recent developments in Scotland – about the sea change which has taken place over recent months in the politics of Scotland.

And in speaking to you about those developments I’m going to set out some of the implications of the events of the last year – for Scotland itself and for the UK as a whole.

But I want to begin by providing some background. After all, a sea change – a transformation created by the sea – doesn’t occur overnight. It’s usually the consequence of currents which have been at work over years or generations.

That’s certainly true of the transformation we’ve seen in Scotland. The last year has been dramatic, but there is a very deep, strong historical context to what has happened over the past year. There has been a desire for many decades for Scotland to have more autonomy. In 1885 that led to the establishment of the post of Secretary of State for Scotland within the United Kingdom Government; in the 1940s and 1950s it saw 2 million people signing the Scottish Covenant, a petition for home rule; in 1979 there was a referendum on devolution – what is not always appreciated about that referendum is that people in Scotland voted Yes but their aspirations were blocked by a technicality; but then, in 1997, the movement proved to be unstoppable - people voted overwhelmingly to re-establish a Scottish parliament that had been in abeyance since 1707.

That Scottish Parliament, the Parliament in which I am proud to sit as a member, has subsequently established itself as the centre-point and focus of Scottish political and civic life.

It’s quite interesting to note the results of a social attitudes survey which is conducted in Scotland each year. The most recent one shows that almost 60% of people trust the Scottish Government to act in Scotland’s long term interests. For the UK Government, the corresponding figure is just 26%.

At a very basic level that is because – at least in part - the Scottish Parliament is physically much closer to the people that it represents than the UK Parliament could ever be. After all, all of its members represent Scottish constituencies; at Westminster, fewer than 10% do. In addition, the Scottish Parliament is elected by proportional representation – so its composition more closely mirrors the views of the people who elect it.

The Scottish Parliament also makes a very deliberate and major effort to be accessible, to be part of Scotland, not as many parliaments in many parts of the world seem to be – institutions that almost sit apart from the people that they serve. In the last year alone, the Scottish Parliament has hosted more than 400 civic organisations from across Scotland who have come to our Parliament to hold events there, bring their concerns and priorities direct to the heart of democracy. And the procedures of the Scottish parliament are very different from those at Westminster, and less old-fashioned. The standing orders, the committee system and even the layout of the chamber place a greater emphasis on consensus and consulting around policy. Since I became First Minister I have also set my ministers the challenge of being the most open and accessible government we can be – my Cabinet meets every couple of months in a location outside of Edinburgh, often in remote and rural parts of the country. And after we have conducted the business of government, we hold open public meetings to allow citizens to bring their concerns directly to us.

So that’s a very distinctive approach to doing politics that has been taken in Scotland. But that distinctive approach to doing politics is matched by a distinctive policy agenda. In recent years, the UK Government has – in England - fragmented and partially privatised the National Health Service; it has raised fees for university education; and implemented budget cuts that have hit the lowest income and the most vulnerable members of society the hardest.

By contrast, the Scottish Parliament – under different governments - has pursued more progressive policies.

We have vigorously promoted economic growth – indeed that focus on creating economic opportunity is one of the key reasons for my visit to mainland China and Hong Kong this week. And it pays dividends - at present, Scotland has higher employment, lower unemployment and higher economic activity than the rest of the UK. And we’ve also supported social justice, alongside economic development.

The Scottish Parliament introduced world leading legislation to tackle the plight of homelessness; we reintroduced state funded university education; we legislated for equal marriage and passed the most ambitious climate change targets in the world. We’ve taken very strong action to deal with Scotland’s sometimes poor relationship with alcohol and invested heavily to expand and transform early years’ education and care.

And whereas the UK Government often sounds hostile to the European Convention on Human Rights – in Scotland the basic standards set out in the Convention are part of the founding legislation of the parliament.

Overall, within Scotland, the Scottish Parliament has demonstrated a twin commitment to economic development and social justice. And that has resonated very strongly with people across the country.

I’ve explained that background, because it’s impossible to understand last year’s referendum – and the significant support for independence it demonstrated – without recognising that it was partly a consequence of the distinctiveness of Scotland’s political culture, and the success of the Scottish Parliament.

But it’s also important to recognise that the referendum has become a cause of further democratic engagement, as well as a consequence.

That’s because the referendum inspired a quite extraordinary level of enthusiasm and energy. It was recognised around the world as a model of peaceful democratic engagement. The turnout was the highest for any vote on such a scale ever held in the UK. Everyone realised they had a vote that counted in a decision which really mattered. People got to imagine the different possible futures available to them and to their nation. That turned out to be a hugely powerful and inspiring process – including for many people who had never before participated, in any way, in the democratic process.

And the effects have lasted. Politics in Scotland has been transformed. Some political parties – including my own - have seen a significant increase in membership. Voter turnout in Scotland at May’s general election was 5 percentage points higher than it was in the UK as a whole.

And of course the results of that election were extraordinary. My party went from having 6 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the UK House of Commons, to having 56 of them.

Now, that election result didn’t provide a mandate for independence or a further referendum. But it did reaffirm the importance of Scotland having a much stronger voice in UK affairs, and it left no doubt about the desire of people in Scotland for a more powerful Scottish Parliament.

And just to touch briefly on two questions I get asked often these days – will there be another independence referendum and, if so, when?

My answer is simple. It will be if and when the Scottish people decide – and not a moment before.

No politician can impose a referendum on Scotland – no matter how much some of us would like Scotland to be independent.

And it’s worth pointing out that the reverse is also true. If the Scottish people do vote in future to have another referendum, no politician has the right to stand in their way.

However, even though the question of whether or not Scotland will become an independent country in future is one I cannot answer with certainty today – though I believe it will - there is one issue that is beyond doubt.

The result of the recent UK election has significant implications for the whole of the UK – and not just because of what happened in Scotland.

The fact is that in May there were, in effect, four different election campaigns in the four different nations of the UK, and they each delivered different results. That needs to be reflected in how the UK is governed – whether it is or not may well shape how Scotland sees the question of independence in years to come.

I’ll briefly touch on three issues which will, amongst others, test whether the Westminster system of government is – or is not - capable of being reformed to better reflect Scotland’s needs.

The first is the forthcoming referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. The Scottish Government is arguing for a “double majority” provision in that referendum. That means that the UK would only be able to exit the EU, if each nation of the UK voted to leave.

The absence of such a democratic “lock” would mean that because the population of England is so much bigger than any other part of the UK – bigger in fact than the other three UK nations combined - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could find ourselves on the way out of the EU even if we had voted to stay in.

That would clearly not be acceptable – but it is a possible scenario.

Support for the EU has consistently been stronger in Scotland than in England in recent years.

So if in Scotland, we faced exit from the EU, effectively against our will - something which the polling suggests could happen – it would not be at all surprising if that caused a swell of demand for a further independence referendum.

The UK Government could remove that possibility by agreeing to the 'double majority' provision.

And, in so doing, they would demonstrate what they often preach but less often practice - that the UK is a family of distinct nations, all with equal status and respect.

The second example relates to a key promise made by all of the major UK parties immediately before the referendum on Scottish independence – a promise to deliver a more powerful Scottish Parliament. Legislation to give additional powers to the Scottish Parliament is currently being considered by the Westminster Parliament.

MPs from Scotland have put forward a large number of amendments to strengthen that legislation, but not a single one has been accepted. The proposals of parties – SNP, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – that together represent 58 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies have been disregarded and blocked by a party, the Conservatives, which represents just one Scottish constituency. That seems to me to be a deeply unsatisfactory response to how Scotland voted in the general election and suggests an unwillingness or inability on the part of the UK government to adapt to clearly changing circumstances.

And the final issue is a policy called “English Votes for English Laws”. It’s maybe not the best choice of names – as it has quickly become known in the UK as EVEL!

But what it means is that MPs from Scotland would be excluded from certain votes in the House of Commons that are certified by the Speaker of the House of Commons as affecting England only.

Now, I recognise that in an era of devolved government for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, that might – on the face of it – seem reasonable. And properly implemented, it would be reasonable.

However, because of the financial arrangements that govern the UK, issues which may appear to relate to England only, often turn out in reality to have significant financial implications for other parts of the UK.

A quick examination of how the UK Government’s proposals for EVEL would have applied in the previous parliament, Scottish MPs would have been excluded from votes on 13 pieces of legislation that impacted directly on Scotland and from many more with financial consequences for Scotland. That would clearly not be acceptable.

I said earlier that what happened in Scotland means that there must be change to how the UK is governed and I recognise that part of that might be greater autonomy for England as well and I welcome that. But it has to be done in a way that respects all parts of the UK and doesn’t just reflect the Westminster view of the world.

If that doesn’t happen and if Scotland finds itself disenfranchised in the House of Commons on issues that really matter to us, more people in Scotland may conclude that Westminster is incapable of genuine reform that better reflects our aspirations.

And that brings me back to the currents that are driving this sea change in Scotland. There is a new political dynamic in Scotland. Responded to positively, it has the potential to benefit every part of the UK - to be an opportunity for all.

For the UK Government, it is an opportunity to rethink a mindset and a model of government which has been far too centralised for far too long.

For Scotland, the sense of possibility is even greater.

I’ve already spoken about the enthusiasm and engagement which we saw – on both sides of the debate – in the referendum. It reflects the fact that Scotland has grown since devolution into a confident, innovative and aspirational country.

In fact, one of the things I’ve noticed here in Hong Kong – and throughout China earlier in the week – is how aware people are of Scotland’s capability and potential. That’s actually in part another consequence of last year’s vote – we now have a higher international profile than perhaps ever, but certainly for decades. People around the world know that in addition to our history and our scenery, our whisky and golf, we have talented people, world-class universities, extraordinary natural resources and real strengths in some of the key economic sectors of the future.

We’ve now got all of those great assets and if we can couple them with real powers for our parliament, and one of the most politically engaged populations anywhere in the world then we can do genuinely great things.

We’ve got the chance to use our international profile to encourage investment, boost exports, promote human rights and strengthen friendships around the world.

And it also gives us the opportunity – indeed the obligation – to take the passion that was so obvious during the referendum, and apply it to tackling Scotland’s social challenges, and seizing our vast economic opportunities.

If we can achieve that, then the sea change in Scottish politics will lead to a much more fundamental sea change - it will enable us to create a stronger democracy, a fairer society and a more prosperous economy. And that will bring benefits for Scotland, and for the rest of the UK.