8 April 2019
Scotland’s governing party hit 100,000 members four years ago - how have they managed to sustain and improve those numbers since then?
In September 2014, Bruce MacFarlane was one of many who watched on in anguish as Scotland voted against independence. Aged just 15 at the time, MacFarlane had been too young to vote. But he had no doubts as to where his political convictions lay.
In the aftermath of 2014’s referendum, the youngster – like many disappointed Scots across the country – decided to join the SNP. Seemingly energised in the wake of defeat, unwilling to relinquish the fight for their cause, thousands across the country joined pro-independence parties in the days, weeks and months that followed.
“The morning after I was devastated,” MacFarlane says. “I had devoted what felt like my life to the cause, and I had not committed all that time to disappear back into the wilderness. Me and my dad found ourselves in a McDonald’s in Gallowhill in Paisley at 5am on the day after. We had been up for well over 24 hours. So it was really in that moment I thought the best way to continue the fight was joining a political party.”
“I was never interested in party politics during the independence campaign, so the thought of joining a political party only occurred after the result,” he adds. “Crucially, I believed the SNP was, and still is, the best vehicle for independence.”
The SNP’s rise in the aftermath of the referendum seemed incomprehensible. Party membership trebled in the weeks that followed the vote, and by March 2015 the numbers of registered members hit 100,000, a total that would have been unthinkable months before.
The assumption that this was a temporary blip, that many would soon fall away, was perhaps natural. Whilst the SNP had dominated at Holyrood, they had struggled to make inroads at Westminster, where Scottish Labour reigned unchallenged. But the 2015 UK General Election swept those notions aside. Labour’s uncontested position in Scotland had not just been challenged – it had been erased, the party losing 40 of their 41 seats to the SNP. It became apparent that a seismic shift had occurred across the country.
The SNP sent shockwaves across Britain when they won 56 seats in 2015.
Much has changed in the political world since party membership hit six figures for the first time in 2015.
And plenty has changed for Bruce MacFarlane as well. The eager youngster inspired to action in the aftermath of defeat is now convenor of Paisley Tannahill SNP Branch. His enthusiasm remains as strong as ever.
“In all honesty I have never wavered. Every day something else happens at Westminster which further proves the need for independence,” he says.
And he believes attitudes expressed towards Scotland at Westminster often serve as a key vehicle for attracting new members to the party.
“We had a surge when the SNP MPs walked out of parliament last June, for example,” he says. “I think for many people that incident highlighted the complete disrespect that Westminster has for our MPs. When people see their elected representative being treated with such disrespect, then they feel like they have also been disrespected. Even when people don’t agree with everything their MP does, they still don’t want to see them being treated with disrespect.”
“And to see that, I think, was the tipping point for many people,” he adds. “My tipping point was in my despair eating a McDonald’s in Gallowhill at five in the morning. Every other member will have their own tipping point that made them join.”
As MacFarlane suggests, the Westminster walkout did indeed provoke a surge in membership, with another 5,000 people joining the Scottish nationalists in a matter of 24 hours. And in September last year, the SNP overtook the Conservatives to become the second largest political party in the UK.
Dr Michael Higgins, a senior lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, believes concerns around Brexit have helped the SNP to maintain their strong membership figures years after the independence vote.
“The issue that occasioned the sharp increase in membership – the issue of independence – remains a current one,” he says. “The expectation might have been that the motivating energy of independence would diminish sharply as the indyref faded from memory, but Brexit has provided a new context in which to reflect upon the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK, in a way that has served the SNP well.”
“I suspect a catastrophic Brexit would sustain an active interest in Scottish independence, which, again, benefits the SNP,” he adds.
This view is shared by Steven Bonnar, an SNP councillor in North Lanarkshire who joined shortly after the independence referendum.
“The referendum on the EU has changed the terms of the No vote in my opinion,” he says. “I think there is generally apathy, perhaps even dumb-foundry, around the mess that Brexit has become. But the party’s position has largely remained unchanged on this, which offers stability where it has been lacking within British politics.”
“People who take the active steps of joining a party in the first place clearly have that passion,” he adds. “I don’t feel that has dissipated simply because politics hasn’t stopped for a deep breath yet in the UK, and people are genuinely concerned about their rights being removed and the insular way in which Brexit is going.”
Michael Higgins also believes the SNP have been able to bolster their support through the party’s use of online media.
“There is no doubt that social media has been a driving factor in the rise of SNP membership,” he says. “In the same way as recent parliamentary petitions and other campaigns, it is the appearance of a critical mass forming through social media that motivates individual political action.
“And when these are political actions that themselves can be undertaken online – whether it be signing an online petition or joining a political party – the transition from seeing to liking to joining can be seamless.”
When any political party experiences such a dramatic growth in its membership, change is inevitable. New faces grow prominent, and fresh perspectives emerge from previously unheard voices. So, how has the SNP changed since hitting the 100,000 mark four years ago?
Research conducted last year suggests that, ideologically, the party remains largely the same as it was before the membership surge: broadly centre-left, and pragmatic in its goal of achieving independence.
The most significant changes within Nicola Sturgeon’s governing party have been demographic ones. The SNP has a lot more female members than it did prior to 2014, and has attracted a lot of younger voters as well.
James Mitchell, a professor of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh, was one of the researchers responsible for the above findings.
“Members joining the SNP not only supported its constitutional position but also its socio-economic philosophy,” he says. “The Conservatives had hoped for the same and attempted to mobilise unionist supporters to join but appear to have had less success – in part this was because while many might have been inclined to support the Conservatives position on the union, and even vote Conservative, they would not necessarily be attracted to other Conservative policies.”
“Labour struggled because many potential members supported the party’s socio-economic policies and philosophy but disagreed with Labour’s constitutional position,” he adds.
While the makeup of the SNP appears to have remained largely unchanged since the membership surge, increased activism and involvement from a larger segment of the Scottish population has undoubtedly had an impact upon how they operate internally.
There’s a lot more engagement in policy development and creation at a grassroots level,” says Christopher McEleny, a former Deputy Leader candidate and councillor in Inverclyde. “The size of the party also means that we need to continue to engage with members, whereas when we were much smaller perhaps the parliamentarians we had then very much set the policies for members to follow. That’s changing.”
“I would say our members and activists are able to “pick up” the key points our elected representatives make and then pass them on to their own circles of influence quicker than all other parties in Scotland,” he adds.
Infographic: Justin Bowie
“A lot has changed within the SNP since they first formed over 80 years ago”
After he became Labour leader in 2015, there were initial suggestions that Jeremy Corbyn would be able to win back voters who had switched to the SNP during the 2015 UK General Election.
Independence supporter Sean Smith was one such example. Despite voting for Sturgeon’s party in 2015, he quickly joined Labour when Corbyn was vying to become Ed Miliband’s successor, and has since been an activist for them in spite of the party’s unionist stance.
“I’m an independence supporter but the main political ideology I support and identify with is socialism,” he says. “The SNP, while broadly left of centre, is not a socialist party, and a lot of its policies are more centrist. I don’t support their policies on education and fracking, for example.”
Yet Scottish Labour has failed to mount a sustained recovery in a land that they once dominated with impunity, and Smith admits that he struggles to see them overtaking the SNP anytime soon.
“I think the SNP will maintain their membership as there is no better, more professional or more mainstream champion of independence,” he tells me. “Unless they do something grossly offensive I cannot see people leaving, at the very least, until Scotland gains independence.”
“I think they’ve been helped by Scottish Labour’s current malaise,” he adds. “They were totally dead and incompetent for a while, but while they have a leader that is currently coming up with good socialist policies, they’re struggling for any sort of positive coverage at all.”
While the SNP have, of course, been able to retain a significant number of members who joined up in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum, some have, of course, fallen by the wayside.
“After the low of the result of referendum, like many others, I was disheartened and still wanted change so I joined the SNP as a way of doing this,” says former member Daire Coyle. “I was really involved in what was going on in politics and with the SNP winning the overwhelming 56 seats at the general election it gave me further desire and want for the cause of a second independence referendum.”
“Ultimately this hasn’t happened as of yet and it’s largely one of the reasons why I have fallen away from not only the party, but politics in general,” he adds. “I also disagreed with the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act a lot, and that perhaps was another reason why I fell away.”
Yet while Coyle is no longer a party member, he still votes for the SNP.
“I have still voted SNP, but mainly because I don’t have faith in anyone else,” he says. “I am also still a supporter of some of their policies. For example, working in the education sector, the pupil equity funding from the SNP government is a great thing for schools.”
Yet whenever any SNP-related discussion arises, it inevitably finds itself drawn back to that one enigmatic topic around which their very existence is based: Scottish independence. And members appear to hold different views as to when a second referendum should take place.
“This is the big question and one that divides my household,” says Bruce MacFarlane. “However, we all agree that next time we have to win, so timing is key. My dad wants to do it now, with no hanging about. But I am more inclined to play the long game. I’m happy to wait another couple of years.”
“There is no question it is a question of timing in relation to calling the next vote,” says Steven Bonnar. “I don’t think folk are apathetic towards independence but when it comes to the idea of referenda perhaps folk feel they have to vote too much. I don’t share this view, but I can understand it.”
“I feel personally that once we know what the final Brexit deal is, and if that results in us losing our rights and freedoms enjoyed by our European friends, then it will be time to ask Scotland again,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Christopher McEleny believes the party should push for a second vote immediately. “We should be pushing to hold a referendum before the end of 2019,” he says. “Sitting back to wait and see what happens risks losing the opportunity to let the people of Scotland decide.”
Yet while the timing of a second referendum may prompt disagreement among members, it does not appear to be a watershed issue that will result in extensive division, with Professor James Mitchell previously referring to this idea as a “social media myth” that contradicts research.
For now, north of the border, the SNP remains dominant. And issues which have defined the party in recent years, such as Scottish independence and Brexit, appear unlikely to disappear anytime soon.