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Scottish Independence Campaigners Are Joining Political Parties in Droves

In just one week, more than 38,000 people have enlisted in the Scottish National Party, making the nationalists the third largest party in the entire UK.

Pro-independence campaigners on the eve of the referendum. Photo by Phil Caller

On the Friday morning of the Scottish independence campaign’s defeat, Lizzie Cass-Maran woke up distraught in the home she shares with her wife and four-month-old child in Fife, Scotland. When she went to bed on Thursday, things weren’t looking good for the yes campaign, and she woke up to confirmation that the noes had it. “I sat and cried for a long time,” recalls Lizzie.


When she eventually dried her eyes, rather than letting disappointment disaffect her, she joined a political party for the first time in her life. The 32-year-old became a member of the Scottish Green Party, which had been a prominent part of the campaign for a yes vote.

She’s not the only one. Since Scots voted to stay in the UK earlier this month, tens of thousands have flocked to pro-independence parties in Scotland. In less than a week, the Scottish Greens has more than doubled in size, to more than 5,000 members. In just one week, more than 38,000 people enlisted in the Scottish National Party, making the nationalists the third-largest party in the entire UK, behind only Conservatives and Labour. When you consider that the population of Scotland is smaller than that of London, you can begin to understand the scale of the surge in support for these parties.

Independence supporters have struggled to accept the referendum result. Some people briefly became conspiracy theorists, claiming that the vote was rigged. Alex Salmond talked about Scots being tricked into voting no. Maybe these are all just phases on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief and the support for the parties won’t last, but defeat seems to have galvanized grassroots activists across the country.

“A couple of years ago I’d have felt that joining the Greens was powerless, but because we’ve got so close with the referendum you kind of feel the impossible is possible,” says Lizzie, whose mother was a Liberal Democrat councilor in England.


“It’s trying to take the good things about Thursday—1.6 million voted for yes. Eighty-six percent did vote. It’s trying to take the positives out of what was a bad outcome,” says Lizzie, whose wife also joined the Greens that Friday.

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Far from defeat destroying Scotland’s independence movement (as many thought it would) the disappointment of losing has quickly given way to renewed political engagement, says Michael Rosie, a sociologist at the University of Edinburgh. At the same time, the major pro-UK forces—Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats—have quickly descended into in-fighting about what powers should be offered to Scotland’s devolved parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh.

“The side that lost is acting like the side that won by being energized, and the side that won is acting like the side that lost by falling into bits,” says Dr. Rosie.

Many independence supporters, says Rosie, are wary of Westminster parties reneging on their vow to grant more powers for Holyrood, which was issued on the eve of the referendum and widely seen as crucial in securing a no vote. Joining a political party, for some, is a way of keeping up the pressure on London.

For others, becoming a member of a pro-independence party is a logical next step after participating in a mass grassroots campaign that mobilized sections of Scottish society like no other. “The grassroots movement inspired me. It said ‘you know what, you can make a difference’,” says John Thompson from Glasgow, who joined the SNP on the Friday morning after the vote. “I felt rather proud to be involved in the referendum. I really want to get involved more.”


Like many of the legions of new recruits, John, a 32-year-old father of one, was not politically active before the independence campaign. In fact he only voted for the first time in 2011. “I was apathetic. I was of the opinion that none of it mattered, that politics didn’t make a difference,” he says.

Now, after spending months going to political meetings and trying to persuade his friends and family to vote yes, John is a paid-up party member. “I’m not sure what I can contribute in the party, but I want to stand up and do what I can,” he says.

This week’s surge in party membership in Scotland is even more remarkable when you consider that people have been leaving UK political parties in droves. In 1983 almost 4 percent of Britons were members of a political party. Today that figure is less than one in every hundred. Both Conservatives and Labour have less than 200,000 members today—down from a post-war height of 2.8 million for the Tories and just over 1 million for Labour. The SNP, with more than 50,000 members, is now bigger than the Liberal Democrats in the whole of the UK.

In Scotland, a remarkable 1.5 percent of the electorate are now members of the SNP. The nationalists and others are profiting from the yes campaign’s ability to engage with people who hate Westminster politics. A majority of working-class Scots—and almost 40 percent of Labour voters—voted for independence.


Dissappointed pro-independence campaigners on the morning adter the referendum. Photo by Phil Caller

Over the weekend, Clare Archibald joined the Scottish Socialist Party, which had also been involved in the yes campaign. “It sends a message to the mainstream parties in the UK that we might have been defeated in the referendum, but we will seek alternatives,” says Archibald, a homeless-support worker living in Fife.

Having joined the Labour club in college, Clare says, she “didn’t have a lot of faith in the system” until the referendum campaign. “A lot of people lost hope that anything could change,” she says. “We didn’t win the vote, but we found something to believe in again.”

Ironically, despite winning last week, the parties opposed to independence face the toughest electoral task, says Michael Rosie. Although they managed to save the union, the Scottish Labour party in particular alienated large sections of their base with a starkly negative message warning about the consequences of going it alone.

“It is much harder for Scottish Labour. Rather than going up, I expect their membership to go down. They need to recapture the center ground of Scottish politics, which is concerned with issues of social justice,” says Michael.

The big question in Scotland is whether the party political newbies will stick around. "The challenge on the yes side is how to capitalize on their increased numbers,” says Michael. “How to keep these people energized and also to reach out beyond party political structures to maintain the social movement.” It’s a problem every party in Westminster would love to have.

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