Glasgow, Scotland – They might have lost last last week’s referendum, but pro-independence parties in Scotland are in the midst of an unprecedented boom in membership.
In less than a week, more than 32,000 people have joined the Scottish National Party – making the nationalists the third largest party in the whole of Britain. The Scottish Green party has seen its number more than double since Scots voted to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Many assumed last week’s defeat would spell disaster for parties supporting Scottish independence, but tens of thousands of those who participated in the grassroots campaign that energised the country are now turning their attention to party politics.
Demand to join the SNP has been so great that the party’s website crashed last weekend. An emergency hotline has been set up, and a dedicated team assigned to cope with the numbers seeking to join.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before, it’s unprecedented,” a party member told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity.
The SNP, which is halfway through a second successive term in government in Scotland’s devolved parliament in Edinburgh, now has more than 50,000 members. More than 3,500 people have applied to join the pro-independence Scottish Green Party. The Scottish Socialist Party, which was also part of the “Yes” campaign that lost last week’s referendum, said it has also more than doubled in size.
‘Vision in the air’
Although Scotland voted no last Thursday, the campaign to leave the UK caught the imagination of thousands in cities, towns, and villages across this nation of five million people.
Many of those who delivered flyers, manned stalls and tried to convince their friends, neighbours and colleagues to vote “yes” are now joining political parties that campaigned for Scottish independence.
“The numbers are incredible,” said Malcolm Harvey, from the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen. “It does seem like people are interested in staying involved in the process.”
“There has been a sense over the last two years that Friday would be either the start point of a new country or the end point of the campaign. For those on the losing side, there is a sense that we don’t want what we have done over the last two years to end, we can continue it,” said Harvey.
Diarmuid Griffin decided to join the Scottish National Party on Friday morning, just hours after the results of the independence referendum were released.
“I was talking to my girlfriend as we were driving into work in the car. I said ‘I’m going to join the SNP. I’m going to get involved,'” said Griffin, who works in procurement for a college in Glasgow.
Although the “Yes” campaign lost overall, it did win a majority of the vote in Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city. “There was vision in the air in Glasgow. Everyone was getting a lot more engaged. There was a great feeling about the place,” Griffin said.
“That energy needs to be put into something positive, something good, that’s why I joined the SNP.”
Scotland’s referendum prompted record levels of engagement. Turnout nationally was about 85 percent. Glaswegian Linda Brooks was one of thousands whose first active engagement with politics was in the independence debate.
“I’d never been a member of a political party before, but this was a really important decision for Scotland, so it was worth participating,” said Brooks who spent months knocking on doors and handing out campaign literature in Glasgow’s west end.
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Rather than crushing these independence supporters, last week’s defeat seems to have galvanised them. Many say they need to put pressure on the Westminster government to follow through on a “vow” that there would be more powers for the Scottish parliament issued by the three main UK parties – Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – just days before the referendum.
The National Collective said the “Yes” movement will “continue to create a politically engaged, educated electorate” in Scotland”.
“What Westminster wants is a ‘Yes’ movement that is so utterly deflated that it regresses into the shadows, it stops dreaming, it stops imagining that another Scotland is truly possible,” the pro-independence group said in a statement.
Derek Mackay, SNP Business Convener in the Scottish Parliament, said a “new democratic engagement” is sweeping Scotland. Although the SNP failed to achieve its core goal and leader Alex Salmond announced he will step down next month, the nationalists remain incredibly popular.
The party is well on course to win a record third-successive term in the next devolved Scottish elections, according to a post-referendum opinion poll.
It does seem like people are interested in staying involved in the process.
One of the reasons so many Scots are joining pro-independence parties, said Harvey, is the closeness of the referendum result. For months leading up to the vote, the “No” side was as much as 20 points ahead. But in the final weeks, the gap narrowed substantially – with some polls even putting “Yes” marginally ahead.
In the end, Scots voted by 55 to 45 percent to stay in the UK, but for many campaigners the margin of defeat was almost a victory in itself.
A more significant defeat could have taken the impetus away from “Yes” supporters, said Harvey, but “having 45 percent is a psychological point. It says if we can change the mind of one out of 10 then it’s a tie”.
Some independence campaigners have even begun to refer to themselves as “the 45”. The hashtag #the45 has proliferated on social media since Friday.
Whether Scottish nationalists can sustain this level of commitment remains to be seen. There is no second referendum in the cards. Salmond has said last week’s result had settled the issue “for a generation”.
But there is talk of pro-independence politicians in the SNP, the Greens, and the Scottish Socialists standing on a common platform in the 2015 UK general election, a move that could cost the Labour party precious Westminster seats north of the border.
In the long-run, independence supporters will need to find ways to connect with the majority of Scots who voted against leaving the UK.
For now, though, they are doing something almost unheard of in the rest of Europe – trying to change the system by joining established political parties.