You could be forgiven for thinking that the independence referendum was a once in a generation opportunity and that, after a no vote, things would return to normal for 20-30 years (in other words, a human generation). What you didn’t know is that we are talking about a new political generation, which seems to have the same timescale as fruit flies or, in this case, bacteria. You can go to bed and wake up to a new generation.
After only a few days, a key change has been a surge in membership for Yes parties, with the biggest numbers going to the SNP – a 65% rise from 25,642 to 42,336 in approximately 4 days (reported in The Herald, BBC, C4), the membership of the Scottish Greens more than doubling, from 2000 to 5000 and the SSP reportedly doubling its membership to 4000 (I can only get that from twitter so far). The Guardian reports that the SNP has become the UK’s 3rd largest party, ahead of the Liberal Democrats and UKIP, which seems all the more remarkable given that its membership in 2003 was 9450 (see page 42 of Mitchell, Bennie and Johns).* It has all happened so fast that no one can quite get their head round the arithmetic when they report it (it’s also worth re-checking the SNP website – on the 23rd they reported 50000 members).
But what does it all mean? The obvious answer is that it represents a positive response to the no vote. Many people have quickly become part of #the45 and are seeking ways to keep the prospect of Scottish independence high on the agenda. I think we can ignore the idea put forward by Sillars (who has always been free to say what he likes) and Salmond (who now has the freedom to wind people up on a regular basis) that Scottish independence could realistically come from a majority in the Scottish Parliament, but it is more realistic to think that a consistently high showing in Scottish Parliament elections will make another referendum seem, eventually, to be a natural step. The numbers seem to contradict the idea that a no vote in a once-in-a-generation referendum signals the end of a push for independence. Instead, we may be in election territory, where one side accepts the result this time, only to plan victory in the next vote.
However, the more immediate answer is that it helps the SNP negotiate further devolution, backed by the tangible sense that its support is, by this measure, rising. It contributes to the sense, generated by Yes votes in Glasgow and Dundee, that Scottish Labour may not compete well in the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2016 (although, who knows about the general election in 2015, where Labour almost always does well?). Each party may enter those negotiations knowing that an inadequate-looking devolution settlement, after the general election in 2015, will gift the 2016 election to the SNP.
Lynn Bennie and I spoke about this on Radio Scotland on the 23rd (about half-way in) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04hz7tb
*There should be one note of caution when we try to compare the numbers over a longer term. As Mitchell, Bennie and Johns (p41) point out, the initial rise in SNP membership, in the mid-2000s, followed the party getting its act together, reforming membership rules, centralizing the operation, and doing away with a fixed membership fee – to allow people on low incomes to join (as the SNP sought other ways, beyond membership, to raise money). We will also have to wait to see if the SNP’s membership is still skewed towards men.