This time​ ten years ago, Scotland was gearing up for its first, and as yet only, independence referendum. The ‘Yes’ campaign was noisy, lively, inventive – a ‘political carnival’, as Lynn Bennie, James Mitchell and Robert Johns describe it in their new book, Surges in Party Membership: The SNP and Scottish Greens after the Independence Referendum (Routledge, £135). Its ‘innovative campaigning methods’ included ‘campaign stalls, impromptu flash mobs, city marches and creative, cultural events. There were choirs, concerts, flags and posters, fire engines and other Yes-mobiles.’ In the middle of the coalition government’s austerity programme, the ‘Yes’ campaign promised a country free from Tory policies and Tory prime ministers. The Conservatives lost all of their Scottish seats when Labour won at Westminster in 1997, regaining one in 2001. They still had only that single seat at the time of the referendum. Much was made of the fact that, since the arrival of Yang Guang and Tian Tian at Edinburgh Zoo in 2011, there had been more pandas than Tory MPs in Scotland. But this hadn’t stopped the Tories coming to power in the UK in 2010 and inflicting long-distance economic devastation on Scotland on a scale not seen since Thatcher. Wasn’t devolution supposed to protect us from this?

Soon enough, Yang Guang and Tian Tian would also outnumber Labour’s Scottish contingent at Westminster. The referendum went against independence – 55 per cent to 45 – but was followed by an extraordinary upheaval, as tens of thousands of people, politically animated or re-animated by the referendum, flooded into the ‘Yes’ parties – not just the SNP but also the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialists. Before the vote, SNP membership was around 25,000. By the end of 2015 it was 115,000 – one in every 33 registered voters in Scotland. Membership of the Scottish Greens went from 1500 to 9000, membership of the SSP from 1500 to 3500. Within a year, the majority of members of each party had joined since the referendum.

According to Bennie et al, many factors lay behind the influx: a principled commitment to independence; the desire to remain politically active after the referendum; the ease and low cost of joining parties online; the participatory thrill of the surge itself, which was hyped across the media. But the most striking motivation was anger. The 2015 general election provided an opportunity to take revenge.

Labour had been the party of Scotland for decades. Having panicked at the rise of the SNP in the 1970s, when the party’s membership peaked at around 70,000, Labour portrayed itself as the natural protector of a nation defined by heavy industry and high levels of social housing (more than half of all households in the 1970s). All of this underpinned a distinctive Scottish value system that was threatened by the South of England’s Tory turn. By the end of the 1980s, even many nationalists saw a Labour government in London as the only viable route to a Scottish Parliament and therefore to protection from further denationalisation. Labour delivered this in 1999.

The SNP victory in the Scottish Parliament election of 2007, when it won 47 seats to Scottish Labour’s 46, signalled a backlash to Labour’s UK-wide success. In government at both Westminster and Holyrood, it was harder for Labour to serve as protector against itself, but it could and should have. In the 1980s, Labour had become expert in the rhetoric of Scottish difference from England, partly because this was something its Scottish MPs instinctively understood; it was all very well talking about the unity of working people and the dangers of narrow nationalism, but anyone could see the glaring differences in political culture between the Thatcherite South-East and Clydeside. Pandering to the former was obviously going to store up problems with the latter. But Scottish voters proved a loyal bunch, especially to one of their own: Gordon Brown actually increased Labour’s vote share in Scotland by 2.5 per cent in 2010, against a drop of 6.2 per cent across the UK.

The referendum result changed everything. In less than a year, Scottish politics reorganised itself around the new poles of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. Just a few months before the referendum, Labour was polling ahead of the SNP. But of those Scots who voted Labour in 2010 and ‘Yes’ in 2014, 82 per cent switched to the SNP in 2015. Bennie et al suggest that 10 per cent of the SNP’s ‘surge joiners’ were former Labour Party members. The SNP monopolised the ‘Yes’ vote, while ‘No’ splintered between Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, giving the SNP a natural plurality – and an enormous majority of Scottish seats at Westminster – which would survive as long as independence remained top of the agenda.

For a decade, it did. This was in part a result of the Tories’ continued rule at Westminster, which reinforced the SNP’s claim to ‘stand up for Scotland’. But it also reflected Labour’s reluctance to accept that expectations were now different. Analysis of the party’s collapse in Scotland in 2015 often attributes it to Labour’s willingness to campaign alongside the Conservatives in the ‘Better Together’ campaign. This certainly didn’t help. But the campaign was led by Labour’s Alistair Darling, it relied almost entirely on Labour activists and drew on Labour’s vision of unionism. The sound collectivist goals that underpinned the case for independence – a stronger social state, an end to austerity, closer links to Europe – would be best achieved, Labour argued, within the UK. It was, in Brown’s soggy phrase, about ‘pooling and sharing’.

This was what Scottish Labour had always said about independence, reflecting the party’s glum philosophy that social justice is desirable, but might not be achievable. But now the context had changed. For years, Labour’s vote in Scotland had been becoming increasingly passive; loyalty was long-standing but no longer connected to any great enthusiasm. The referendum inspired a return to active citizenship, encouraged by the kind of self-fashioning optimism about ‘new’ politics that it is fatal to refute. Of course, independence wouldn’t have been all it was cracked up to be. That wasn’t the point. Labour offered nothing remotely like the ideal of politics that people saw in the ‘Yes’ campaign. Instead, they were trying to get things back to normal.

When David Cameron emerged from 10 Downing Street after the referendum to announce a policy of ‘English votes for English laws’, the scales tipped. One of Bennie et al’s interviewees recalls that Cameron ‘thought Scotland was back in its box. We remembered we’d been campaigning for fairness. And the way to get this was by joining a party.’ The surge that almost wiped out Scottish Labour in the election was propelled by this wounded defiance.

Why swap Labour for the SNP? The spirit of the ‘Yes’ campaign seemed to promise a rejection of the constraints and compromises of Britain’s failing system, not just more party politics. Wasn’t Scotland’s governing party just another box to get back in? It seemed not: almost 80 per cent of those who had joined the SNP post-referendum reported that that campaign felt ‘bottom-up and grassroots’; 84 per cent agreed that it ‘felt more like a movement than a party’.

This tells us something important about the SNP’s success, and its recent decline. The referendum wasn’t a revolution. It was a vote. The point of all those flash-mobs, marches and meetings was to get people to the ballot box. ‘It would be wrong to see the “Yes” campaign as entirely or even partly dominated by grassroots activity,’ the authors write. ‘What emerged was a grassroots campaign combined with the policy of independence largely defined and even framed by the SNP.’ But the idea of a spontaneous grassroots campaign, freed from the machinations of political parties, captured the public imagination to the extent that it became hard ‘to distinguish between the myth of a social movement campaign and its reality’. People who joined the SNP after the referendum were less inclined to participate in traditional forms of party activism such as canvassing and attending branch meetings, but they were more active online. This sort of armchair participation, the authors suggest, is more attractive to, and inclusive of, younger, disabled and women members, but less likely to be the stuff of which lasting transformations are made.

Scottish nationalism has traded for decades on another myth: Scotland’s distinctive model of ‘popular sovereignty’, in which the people, rather than the Crown-in-Parliament, have power. But real popular sovereignty goes onto the streets and asserts itself as legitimate. Our dismay at what this might look and feel like – and our uncertainty about its legitimacy – is the reason we have something else instead.

The referendum campaign, and the surge that followed, was not, then, a transformative social movement but a shot in the arm for liberal democracy, with its professional representatives and private, peaceful voting booths. After decades of apathy, people returned to the ballot box and party membership rather than to the streets. No alternative was offered. Successive Tory governments have refused to grant another referendum, but despite consistent Holyrood majorities in favour of holding one and a backdrop of disruptive climate change activism, there has been hardly a squeak of direct action in the name of independence.

Instead, the SNP promised to revive liberal democracy, away from the ‘democratic deficit’ and humiliating compromises of Tory Britain. After the party’s fourth successive Holyrood victory in 2021, Nicola Sturgeon made a ‘co-operation agreement’ with the Scottish Greens that turned the SNP’s minority into a ‘Yes’ majority. Within the parties, this made sense, but the Greens are an activist party, less concerned than the SNP with maintaining a broad coalition, and their promotion to government prompted a backlash from Scotland’s media, business lobby and more socially conservative voters. Policies on gender recognition, marine conservation and carbon emissions targets were abandoned under intense pressure.

The problem for independence voters is that parties tend towards oligarchy, and drift away from the bond they initially share with their supporters. Bennie et al suggest that the influx of less active members into the SNP actually helped its leaders to increase their authority and avoid more radical proposals that might have fractured its huge coalition of voters. The result, especially under Sturgeon, was defensiveness and groupthink at the top, exacerbated by the closing off of any legal route to an independence referendum by the UK government. Falling membership numbers were concealed; by the time Sturgeon resigned it was revealed that the official count was 72,186 rather than the reported 100,000. When Green members instigated an internal debate over the future of their deal with the SNP, Sturgeon’s successor, Humza Yousaf, rashly opted to dissolve the co-operation agreement, inadvertently forcing his own resignation as the Greens withdrew their support. The police investigation into the SNP’s finances, which began with complaints by disgruntled members about a ‘ring-fenced’ £660,000 fund for a second referendum, has dispelled any of the glamour and optimism still remaining from the referendum campaign. The SNP, it turns out, is just another party.

The independence movement may not have been as transformative as its supporters hoped, but it was, for a time, genuinely exciting. It raised the political stakes, insisting that those who wanted to rule should offer something worth going outside (or at least online) for. The SNP briefly did that, and Labour was punished for refusing even to contemplate it. Now Labour, surging ahead of the SNP in the polls, is being rewarded for holding the line and refusing a fresh referendum. The slow grind of disenchantment means they have not had to change. Last year, Yang Guang and Tian Tian were sent back to China, having failed to breed. Farewell to Scotland’s pandas. Welcome back, Scottish Labour.

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