James Mitchell, Lynn Bennie and Kristen Knowles (Universities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Queen Margaret University)
Women for Independence (WfI) was founded three years ago to campaign for a YES vote in the Scottish independence referendum. It was only one amongst many bodies set up to campaign in the referendum but is unusual, though not unique, in continuing to exist beyond the referendum.
While a second independence referendum is probable, WfI’s continued existence owes more to its wider aspirations. Even had there been a YES majority, WfI would almost certainly have continued in business. A more formal organization has now emerged after a turbulent period when it attracted media attention surrounding its finances. This blog reports on a survey of members and supporters conducted between August 15th and September 30th 2015. 536 responded to the survey and the results are also informed by interviews with senior members as well as discussion following a presentation of the findings at the WfI national council in January 2016.
WfI now has more members and more followers than at the time of the referendum. It can boast supporters amongst recently elected MPs as well as in the Scottish Parliament. It can claim to have influenced debate in its post-referendum campaigns.
The survey suggests high levels of political engagement and activity during the referendum. 40% of respondents report attending public meetings very often, and nearly 80% displayed a window poster. 51%joined a local campaign group, 30% contributed money to WfI and just under half joined a political party. This was a very positive experience for supporters, and encouraged the view that WfI should live on beyond the referendum. Without the ‘buzz’ of the referendum and feelings of empowerment it is likely that WfI would have ended with the referendum. The desire has been to build on this experience.
Its origins in the referendum but ability to transcend that event, and assume a more formal organized form after the referendum make it worth studying. WfI aspires to operate in a more consensual and participatory manner with a flatter organizational structure. The manner in which WfI challenges Michels’ ‘iron law of oligarchy’ – Who says organization, says oligarchy (Michels 1911: 365) is important as well as interesting. It represents a strand of the increased public engagement that was produced by the referendum.
The relationship between gender and national identity has been explored at length in the literature but often at a fairly abstract level leaving much to be tested empirically. WFI’s activities during and since the referendum set it apart from the political parties but it includes many members of political parties. The relationship between parties and WfI is not easily summarized. It has a wide range and style of campaigns.
WfI provokes many questions about politics and society in modern Scotland. It may represent new anti-austerity politics; it has taken on a new form post-referendum and perhaps may yet evolve further; its appeal transcends party but has developed an interesting, even unusual, relationship with parties.
Understanding WfI is important and for that reason we set out to study its membership in a lengthy survey that will give us an understanding of who are its members, what they think, how they behave and what they hope to achieve.
The average age of WfI is 54, with 80% of members born in Scotland, 11% in England. 35% of members hold a university degree and just over a third work full-time; a further one in five work part time and over a quarter are retired. Membership is spread across Scotland with members concentrated broadly in line with the population.
Heat map of WfI membership
The membership broadly falls into three categories when it comes to subjective class. About a third of members describe themselves as working-class and a further third do not assign themselves to a class while just under a third describe themselves as middle class (the remaining small proportion are either uncertain in categorizing themselves by class or give some further class). As expected, when asked about national identity, over 60% describe themselves as Scottish not British and just under 30% see themselves as more Scottish than British with only about 3% having any British identity at all.
About 60% describe themselves as feminists, though just under 90% describe themselves as supporters of equality between men and women. Strikingly less than a quarter said they were part of the women’s movement before joining WfI but this rose to around 40% as members.
Attitudes towards Scotland’s political parties lie along an expected continuum with pro-independence parties being favoured much more than opponents. The SNP may be liked more than the Greens though there is little animosity to either. There may be less dislike of Labour than the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats but there is not much difference in it.
Over 90% voted SNP at last year’s general election with the Greens getting about 4%. Given that the Greens contested 31 of Scotland’s seats and averaged 2.6% in seats contested, this would suggest that the considerable sympathy for the Greens in WfI does not translate into votes. More WfI members failed to vote than voted for any other party with no WfI members voting Tory and about as many voted SSP as voted Labour. But this does not mean that WfI is simply a branch of the SNP. About a quarter joined the SNP in the previous year and just under 60% are currently members of the SNP. Around 5% joined the Greens in the previous year and about 10% are current Green Party members, suggesting that many Green members of WfI voted SNP either tactically or because there was no Green candidate.
Questions on a range of political attitudes resulted in a fairly clear picture of WfI as a left-liberal-environmentalist-republican body. They believe that the nation’s share of wealth is unfairly distributed, that we do not worry enough about the environment and disagree that private enterprise is the best way to solve economic problems. On balance, WfI members believe that the EU has become too centralized but overwhelmingly think the EU has generally been good; around 80% intend to vote to remain in the EU with only about 4% voting for Brexit with the remainder uncertain or not intending to vote. WfI are skeptical in the Humean rather than popular sense.
WfI, like the SNP, is divided on the issue of NATO membership (though tilting more against than the SNP), Just over 30% agree that NATO is in Scotland’s strategic interest and 40% disagree while over 30% are uncertain. WfI is overwhelmingly against nuclear weapons.
WfI is a young organization and debate continues as to what kind of political organization it should be. It prides itself on being a flat participative organization. Members are divided on whether it should have a national leader, with around equal numbers agreeing and disagreeing (although almost 40% are uncertain). There is strong support for the importance of local groups and local campaigning. There is a strong feeling that members have a chance to have a say in WfI meetings, although a small percentage (3.8%) disagree with this proposition.
There is some support for WfI fielding candidates in elections with around 35% agreeing with this – although similar numbers oppose the idea, and a large number are undecided. There is much less support for WfI becoming a Women’s Party, with over half opposed and a further 30% uncertain. WfI members want to concentrate on local issues, campaigning against austerity, helping disadvantaged women and, of course, independence which is seen as the means to these ends.
Any men who might find WfI attractive will be disappointed that they would not be welcome. Just over 10% would be happy to admit men to membership while almost 45% would be strongly opposed and a further quarter somewhat opposed.