Ian Swanson: Defeated SNP stronger than ever

The referendum campaign has boosted grassroots activism. Picture: John Devlin
The referendum campaign has boosted grassroots activism. Picture: John Devlin
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THERE were lots of dejected-looking Nationalists in the referendum count centre at Ingliston as it became clear the Scottish electorate had given the thumbs down to the SNP’s dream of independence.

Hopes had been so high after opinion polls showed the vote too close to call. But as soon as the results started coming in from council areas across Scotland, the real picture began to emerge.

Twelve hours later, Alex Salmond announced he was standing down as First Minister and SNP leader – a second big blow to the Nationalist cause.

It was easy to see how everything could turn bad for the SNP.

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With independence off the table for the foreseeable future, what would the party do? Could it devote the same energy to securing the lesser goal of more powers for Holyrood? Would activists on whom the party relies decide to throw in the towel after decades of campaigning had ended in defeat? Could the party command the same attention once the man who has dominated Scottish politics for so long leaves the stage?

But instead of creating despair and disillusionment, it seems the referendum result has prompted the opposite reaction.

The SNP has seen an extraordinary doubling of its membership in a week, including some former Labour figures like Tommy Sheppard.

There has been an upsurge in grassroots activity – rallies, local meetings and campaigns on social media – aimed at maintaining some of the momentum from the Yes campaign. And Nicola Sturgeon looks likely to be elected as the new SNP leader without a contest.

Rather than focus on the two million votes against them, the Yes campaigners are celebrating the fact 1.6 million people voted in favour of independence.

The 45 per cent Yes vote was way above the one-third support which independence seemed consistently to attract in the years running up to the referendum.

The SNP now looks in a strong position to be re-elected at the 2016 Holyrood election despite the No victory in the referendum.

Instead, it is Labour which looks in trouble in the wake of the referendum. Although the party got the verdict it wanted from the voters, the voting pattern showed many people in poorer areas – traditionally loyal to Labour – had opted for Yes.

It made no change to the outcome, but it means the party can no longer take its core vote for granted.

And to make matters worse, Labour is also at the centre of speculation about Johann Lamont’s future as leader. The rumour is that former defence secretary and Scottish secretary Jim Murphy is preparing to switch his career from Westminster to Holyrood.

Labour is also under pressure, along with the Conservatives and Lib Dems, to deliver on the “vow” made by Gordon Brown and the three party leaders during the campaign on more powers for Holyrood.

The vow, undoubtedly a rushed response to a poll putting Yes ahead, did not spell out the details of the extra powers – because the parties don’t agree what they should be. Now Lord Smith of Kelvin, who oversaw the Commonwealth Games, is trying to bring the parties and their ideas together in line with a tight timetable for producing draft legislation, but he has his work cut out.

It seems the debate sparked by last week’s referendum is far from over – and whichever side people were on, the continuing argument shows it was not enough to just say No.