Academy of Government, University of Edinburgh
The SNP meets once more in the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre, one of only two conference venues biggest enough to hold an SNP. The cavernous venue is not favoured by delegates, especially the old guard who fondly remember the intimacy of conferences when most faces were familiar and the atmosphere was more like a holiday camp, including the odd heated argument, than a corporate convention. This conference is likely to be remembered most for its timing: the postponement of the Prime Minister’s decision to invoke Article 50 formally starting the process of Brexit and the First Minister’s decision on the timing of Indyref2.
Following the independence referendum, there was much speculation that the SNP would be transformed with its fivefold increase in members. A number of commentators have suggested that there is an appetite for red meat from Nicola Sturgeon this week. Evidence suggests that this demand comes more from commentators keen on an exciting story than from the wider membership. The First Minister’s announcement on Monday was not one she was forced into by pressure from her new party members.
Preliminary research shows that the new members are slightly more working class. They are younger and a higher proportion are women though these younger members seem to prefer to channel their activities into a referendum than party politics. These new members may see themselves as more left-wing than older members but this may be more perception than reality (Johns and Mitchell 2016: 237-245).
Few organisations can grow so much and so quickly without causing disruption. There have been some assertions that the SNP had moved to the left, become more hardline and that the leadership would be challenged. The evidence we have suggests that the new members are far from the trouble-makers some imagine. Inevitably there have been clashes but not on the scale that might have been expected given the numbers involved. All parties of any reasonable size will face local internal squabbles. What is remarkable is that there have been so few.
‘I bitterly regret the day I compromised the unity of my party by admitting a second member.’ Oliver Brown, quoted in Mitchell 1990: 49.
The reason is probably quite simple. For some at least, the intensity of the referendum campaign brought the SNP into sharp relief as never before. Those who joined did so because they agreed with the message articulated by the SNP’s leadership during the referendum. This was no entryist coup. These new members joined to support Nicola Sturgeon, not to undermine her. In the words of one senior SNP figure interviewed, the new members are ‘Nicola’s army’. She is likely to get at least as much support from these members as from those who joined before 2014.
Nicola Sturgeon dominates her party as no other leader of any other party in the UK. She is trusted and respected to an extent that none of her predecessors ever experienced at this stage in their leadership. It should be easy to find someone in the SNP demanding that she names a date for Indref2 but those impatient with her cautious approach are scarce.
Of course, the vast majority of new, as older, members are inactive. While the membership may have increased fivefold, the active membership has grown less significant. Many SNP branches required larger venues in the immediate aftermath of the referendum but attendance declined when new members found branch meetings dull but in most places these meetings still attract more memebrs than before the referendum. Listening to local branch office bearers’ reports does not have the same appeal as Nicola Sturgeon addressing a meeting in Glasgow’s Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre. The excitement of the referendum campaign does not translate into a local branch meetings.
The type of activities engaged may distinguish post- and pre-referendum members. The number of new members at the SNP’s Aberdeen conference will outweigh those who had attended conferences before the referendum. There will be some members at the conference – not as delegates but as ordinary party observers – who rarely attend branch meetings and have been far less active since 2014 than the old guard. There are people who were active during the referendum, joined afterwards but have been inactive since. The expectation is that Indyref2 will reawaken these sleepers who are awaiting the call.
In the past, it was common to distinguish between the national movement and the national party with the latter seen as a subset of the former. There were always people who supported independence outside the SNP but there was little sense of a national movement. The movement/party distinction always seemed more theoretical than real. The referendum created a national movement as an ‘imagined community’ in the sense that that members feel affinity with each other, even if they have never met.
Heberle’s classic definition of a social movement – ‘a commotion, a stirring among the people, an unrest, a collective attempt to reach a visualized goal, especially a change in certain social institutions’ (Heberle 1951) – comes to mind it viewing the Yes movement that encompassed but extended beyond the SNP. These included people keen to contribute but wary of conventional party politics.
A large part of this movement may have joined the SNP but many are not necessarily willing to engage in conventional party politics – attending branch meetings, leafleting, door knocking. They may be willing to be or are politically active but only in a referendum or on their own terms. Being active in social media appears to be a key part of the repertoire of this wider political movement, often dismissed by old hands who view knocking on doors and face-to-face door engagement as the essence of real activism. It is difficult to know the impact of social movement activity as compared with traditional campaigning.
While they may not have disrupted the party or sought to alter it, the SNP’s new members are happy to contribute money and vote for the party, likely to openly support the SNP but draw back from any other activities, at least until Indyref2 is called. The referendum created a realignment in Scottish politics allowing the SNP to fulfil its long-standing ambition of replacing Labour. But it may also signal a change in the nature of political activity. That may be put to the test in the next couple of years.
Research for this blog was conducted as part of ESRC study, Recruited by Referendum: party membership energised, ESRC ES/NO10590/1
Rudolf Heberle (1951), Social Movements, New York, Appleton-Century-Croft.
Rob Johns and James Mitchell (2016), Takeover: explaining the extraordinary rise of the SNP, London, Biteback.
James Mitchell, ‘Factions, Tendencies and consensus in the SNP in the 1980s’, Scottish Government Yearbook 1990, pp.49-61.