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European Council of Ministers

First Minister Alex Salmond <em>Picture: Scottish parliament</em>

First Minister Alex Salmond Picture: Scottish parliament

This address was given to the Scottish parliament by Alex Salmond on his re-election to the post of First Minister for Scotland, 18 May 2011.

When Donald Dewar addressed this parliament in 1999, he evoked Scotland’s diverse voices: “The speak of the Mearns. The shout of the welder above the din of the Clyde shipyard. The battle cries of Bruce and Wallace.”

Now these voices of the past are joined in this chamber by the sound of 21st-century Scotland. The lyrical Italian of Marco Biagi. The formal Urdu of Humza Yousaf. The sacred Arabic of Hanzala Malik. We are proud to have those languages spoken here alongside English, Gaelic, Scots and Doric.

This land is their land, from the sparkling sands of the islands to the glittering granite of its cities. It belongs to all who choose to call it home. That includes new Scots who have escaped persecution or conflict in Africa or the Middle East. It means Scots whose forebears fled famine in Ireland and elsewhere.

That is who belongs here, but let us be clear also about what does not belong here. As the song tells us, for Scotland to flourish then “Let us be rid of those bigots and fools / Who will not let Scotland, live and let live.”

Our new Scotland is built on the old custom of hospitality. We offer a hand that is open to all, whether they hail from England, Ireland, Pakistan or Poland. Modern Scotland is also built on equality. We will not tolerate sectarianism as a parasite in our national game of football or anywhere else in this society.

Scotland’s strength has always lain in its diversity. In the poem Scotland Small, Hugh MacDiarmid challenged those who would diminish us with stereotypes. “Scotland small?”, he asked. “Our multiform, our infinite Scotland, small? Only as a patch of hillside may be a cliche corner. To a fool who cries ‘Nothing but heather!’”

The point is even the smallest patch of hillside contains enormous variation – of bluebells, blaeberries and mosses. So to describe Scotland as nothing but heather is, said MacDiarmid, “Marvellously descriptive! And totally incomplete!”

To describe Scotland as small is similarly misleading. Scotland is not small. It is not small in imagination and it is not short in ambition. It is infinite in diversity and alive with possibility.

Two weeks ago, the voters of Scotland embraced that possibility. They like what their parliament has done within the devolved settlement negotiated by Donald Dewar. They like what the first, minority SNP government achieved. Now they want more.

They want Scotland to have the economic levers to prosper in this century. They are excited by the opportunity to re-industrialise our country through marine renewable energy, offering skilled, satisfying work to our school leavers and graduates alike. But they also know we need the tools to do the job properly.

This chamber understands that too. My message today is let us act as one and demand Scotland’s right. Let us build a better future for our young people by gaining the powers we need to speed recovery and create jobs.

Let us wipe away past equivocation and ensure that the present Scotland Act is worthy of its name.

There is actually a great deal on which we are agreed. The three economic changes I have already promoted to the Scotland Bill were chosen from our manifesto because they command support from other parties in this chamber.

All sides of this parliament support the need for additional and immediate capital borrowing powers so we can invest in our infrastructure and grow our economy. I am very hopeful that this will be delivered.

The Liberal Democrats, Greens and many in the Labour party agree that Crown Estate revenues should be repatriated to Scottish communities. We await Westminster’s reply. Our leading job creators back this government’s call for control of corporation tax to be included in the Scotland Bill.

The secretary of state for Northern Ireland – a Conservative – supports the devolution of this tax, and the cross-party committee of this last parliament agreed unanimously that if the principle was conceded in Northern Ireland then Scotland must have the same right.

But these are not the only issues which carry support across this chamber. There are three more constitutional changes we might agree on. Why not give us control of our own excise duty? We have a mandate to implement a minimum price for alcohol. We intend to pursue that in this parliament come what may.

However, our Labour colleagues agree that it is correct to set a minimum price for alcohol, but they were concerned about where the revenues would go. Gaining control of excise would answer that question. It means we can tackle our country’s alcohol problem and invest any additional revenue in public services. So I ask Labour members to join with me in calling for control of alcohol taxes so that we together we can face down Scotland’s issue with booze.

Another key aspect of our national life controlled by Westminster is broadcasting. All of Scotland is poorly served as a result. If we had some influence over this currently reserved area we could, for example, create a Scottish digital channel – something all the parties in this parliament supported as long ago as 8 October 2008.

We agree that such a platform would promote our artistic talent and hold up a mirror to the nation. How Scotland promotes itself to the world is important. How we talk to each other is also critical.

These are exciting times for our country. We need more space for our cultural riches and for lively and intelligent discourse about the nation we are and the nation we aspire to be.

Finally, many of us agree that, in this globalised era, Scotland needs more influence in the European Union and particularly in the Council of Ministers. At the moment that is in the gift of Westminster.

Sometimes it is forthcoming, more often it is withheld. We in the Scottish National Party argue for full sovereignty – it will give us an equal, independent voice in the EU.

However, short of that, the Scotland Bill could be changed to improve our position. When the first Scotland Act was debated in Westminster in 1998, there was a proposal, as I remember, from the Liberal Democrats, to include a mechanism to give Scotland more power to influence UK European policy. It was defeated then, but why not revisit it now? Let Scotland have a guaranteed say in the forums where decisions are made that shape our industries and our laws.

I have outlined six areas of potential common ground where there is agreement across the parliament to a greater or lesser extent: borrowing powers, corporation tax, the Crown Estate, excise duties, digital broadcasting and a stronger say in European policy.

I think we should seize the moment and act together to bring these powers back home. Let this parliament move forward as one to make Scotland better.

Norman MacCaig observed that when you swish your hand in a stream, the waters are muddied, but then they settle all the clearer. On 5 May the people of our country swished up the stream and now the way ahead is becoming clear.

We see our nation emerge from the glaur of self-doubt and negativity. A change is coming, and the people are ready. They put ambition ahead of hesitation. The process is not about endings. It is about beginnings.

Whatever changes take place in our constitution, we will remain close to our neighbours. We will continue to share a landmass, a language and a wealth of experience and history with the other peoples of these islands

My dearest wish is to see the countries of Scotland and England stand together as equals There is a difference between partnership and subordination. The first encourages mutual respect. The second breeds resentment.

So let me finish with the words of Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, who addressed this parliament in 1706, before it was adjourned for 300 years. He observed that: “All nations are dependent; the one upon the many.” This much we know. But he warned that if “the greater must always swallow the lesser,” we are all diminished. His fears were realised in 1707.

But the age of empires is over. Now we determine our own future based on our own needs. We know our worth and should take pride in it.

So let us heed the words of Saltoun and “Go forward into the community of nations to lend our own, independent weight to the world.”

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Michael Russell <em>Picture: Crown Copyright/Scottish Government</em>

Michael Russell Picture: Crown Copyright/Scottish Government

Michael Russell has served as secretary for education and lifelong learning since 2009, and is standing as the SNP candidate for Argyll and Bute on 5 May.

The strangest question I was ever asked on a doorstep was on the last Saturday of the 1987 election campaign, which was my first parliamentary outing. In torrential rain I knocked on a door in Stonehouse in Lanarkshire, about the most distant town from the sea in Scotland and nestling within the old Clydesdale constituency which was totally landlocked.

The voter, however, wanted to know the SNP position on lighthouse dues – and specifically to whom they should be paid. Playing for time, I parried with remarks about the weather, the campaign and lots of other things until I dredged from my memory something I had read somewhere about the issue. Amazingly, my response seemed to satisfy him.

This election has produced no such surprises as yet – though, having just looked it up, I am now adequately if not fully prepared to discuss the General Lighthouse Fund and the levying of 38p per net registered ton for up to nine voyages a year with a tonnage cap set at 35,000.

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Fortunately most of the questions relate so far to the SNP government’s council tax freeze, to the state of the roads, to education (and particularly student fees) and – in Argyll at least – to the strong disregard in which voters now hold Nick Clegg in particular and the Liberal Democrats in general.

Politicians do evince powerful reactions. Over the years, I have heard astonishing vitriol about friends of mine and fawning appreciation of others with whom I refuse even to spend the time of day. But there seems at present to be a special circle of electoral hell reserved for the man who only 12 months ago former and future prime ministers were clamouring – on live television – to agree with.

In the Highlands, what is openly talked about as the Liberal betrayal is felt especially keenly. A prominent Shetland crofter, explaining the Liberals’ historic hold on whole swathes of the north and west, once said to me that his grandfather had told him that the Liberals were the party that had saved crofting and given the islanders a future, victories they had won by by standing up to the lairds.

Now – to men like him – it seems as if that history has been turned on its head. The crofters’ party is doing the lairds’ dirty work and slashing the services on which rural areas depend. Promises made just a year ago – such as the promise not to raise VAT – are being broken, and claims trumpeted from the rooftops – like an unshakable commitment to reduce rural petrol prices – are turning out to be hollow indeed.

Liberalism in the Highlands and Islands has always been based on the strength of the candidate as well as the cause. Men such as Inverness MP Charles Fraser-Mackintosh – known in the 1880s as “the Member for the Highlands” as a result of his advocacy of land reform and Gaelic – embraced both Land League and Liberal principles, and the open preference expressed this week by John Farquhar Munro for Alex Salmond as first minister reflects that tradition.

JF was the co-sponsor of my Gaelic Bill in the first parliament and he is the best type of old-style Highland Liberal – determined to say what he believes to be true, no matter what his party or his opponents think.

I have experienced both sides of that determination, as his dogged (and successful) resistance to many of the changes proposed by the Shucksmith Commission on crofting made my work as environment minister particularly difficult for a while.

The SNP’s natural embrace of a strong localism – ensuring that decisions are made as close to communities as possible – and our radical approach to land reform, including our determination to repatriate the earnings of the Crown Estate, give a message to Highland communities that is in keeping with their traditions as well as their present need.

A commitment to the language (I was particularly proud to be the first-ever government minister to speak in Gaelic at a European Council of Ministers) and a passion for education (including ensuring the protection of rural schools) strike a chord as well.

Richard Lochhead and Roseanna Cunningham have also demonstrated a practical approach to supporting rural industries and rural employment that is producing results, though there is much still to do.

With four weeks to go in this campaign – it has been a long one – it is more than likely that there will be more surprise questions in store for me and for every other candidate. But I think the real surprise of this election would be if the new-style Liberal Democrat candidates in the Highlands and Islands did not find themselves paying a very heavy electoral price for their party’s decision to sell its political soul for a share of power in London.

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