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Scotland’s Party: Who are the SNP?

James Mitchell
15 October 2009

An OurKingdom symposium: see also articles by Gerry Hassan, David Torrance and Gareth Young

Scotland must seem like a place apart to readers of many newspapers in England. News that reaches the English public on the activities of the SNP Government often portrays Scotland as almost a foreign country. How else to explain the enduring popularity of a Government hell bent on picking fights with London, tartanising everything that moves led by a megalomaniac?

If this was anywhere approaching an accurate description of the SNP, it would be nowhere near power. So who are the SNP?

In order to begin to answer that question, colleagues in the Universities of Strathclyde and Aberdeen conducted a survey of the party's entire membership and conducted in-depth interviews with around 80 senior party members. The conclusions from this research are not startling, though there are some surprises, to anyone who follows Scottish politics seriously. But the findings are authoritative and shed light on a party that came to power in the Scottish Parliament in 2007 and shares power at local level, with the largest number of councillors, across the length and breadth of Scotland.

Two striking features of the SNP membership stand out. The SNP has long been assumed to be a youthful party - partly because in past elections, though not in 2007, it polled well amongst young voters. In fact, the SNP is little different from other established parties in having a relatively old membership with an average (mean) age of 58.7 (and a median of 61). Equally surprising, given the role senior women have played in the SNP over the last 40 years, it is a decidedly male party. Almost 70% of the SNP's membership are men.

The SNP was influenced no less than others by the activity of the women's movement in the run-up to the first elections to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 ensuring that the proportion of women MSPs exceeded the proportion in the party - hardly a major hurdle - but that proportion has slipped back in successive elections.

It will surprise few to find that the SNP is a predominantly middle class party though more than half of its members were reluctant to identify themselves as belonging to a class. National identity is - again unsurprisingly - the more important identity which SNP members assign to themselves. But there is a significant minority - almost 20% - who acknowledge having some British identity even though the vast bulk see themselves as more Scottish than British. The party draws its support pretty evenly from religious groups though the size of its Muslim population is too small, reflecting the size of the population in Scotland, to be able to say anything meaningful about this group though that hasn't stopped some ill-informed commentary in the media.

The SNP has always inclined to the left, how left-wing dependent on context, but has tended to articulate a social democratic message when it does best. This is strongly supported by the party membership both in their own self-identification but also across a range of issues.

In each of the matters discussed so far, the SNP resembles Scottish Labour though there appears to more suspicion of the state, a more decentralist and even anarchic tendency, than would be found in the Labour Party. Whether this reflects the experience of a party that has only recently taken control of state institutions - which might mean that in time the SNP will become more like Scottish Labour in its statist approach - or is some more deeply engrained outlook will be worth careful observation.

But while informed commentators can usually predict the outcome of SNP debates on socio-economic matters, it is far less predictable on the liberal agenda. It is more liberal than Scotland as a whole, though Scotland is fairly socially conservative, and probably little different from Labour. There is little doubt that the SNP Group in Holyrood is more liberal than the small group of Parliamentarians at Westminster, the latter appears to split down the middle on many issues on the liberal agenda.

One of the most striking findings of the survey - though not reflected at all in interviews with the party's leaders - is the existence of an element that does not support independence. While 87% of members support independence as their first constitutional choice, a significant minority would simply prefer more powers for Holyrood. And amongst those who support independence, a sizeable minority would prefer independence outside the EU. At first sight this seems surprising but students of the SNP will be well aware that the constitutional question is only one - though the most important - motivating factor leading people to join the party. This is a political party with a wide range of policies not a pressure group for independence.

The membership shows remarkable pragmatism as far as independence is concerned. Independence is seen as the SNP's primary aim but also accepts that this goal may need to take second place and believes that to achieve independence the SNP must make devolution work. It does not rule out coalition and would support pacts even if it involves making compromises. This pragmatism has to be set in context. The SNP had just won power and become Scotland's largest party when the survey was conducted. The real test will come when, as it must, the SNP suffers a setback. Will the SNP recoil into an uncompromising ideological foetal position following a major defeat, as parties are prone to do? If it did so, then it would struggle to regain electoral support. The lesson the SNP leaders have learned is that successful parties cannot run too far ahead of the electorate.

The message that emerges from the survey and interviews is fairly clear. The SNP is, as it has long maintained, a moderate left of centre party. It is fairly liberal and pragmatic. That is the party that the electorate sees on a daily basis.

James Mitchell is Professor of Government at Strathclyde University, a contributor to 'The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power' and author of 'Devolution in the UK', published by Manchester University Press (£60)

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