THE president of the SNP has insisted he had “no idea” how many members the party has, despite reports of a recent exodus to Alex Salmond’s Alba Party.
Michael Russell admitted some SNP members had quit over progress on independence and controversial policies around gender recognition and transgender rights.
However he said he didn’t “obsess” about how many were left, and said it would be wrong for the party’s ruling body to see the numbers each week.
The former Brexit Secretary, who stood down as an MSP at May’s Holyrood election and now leads the SNP’s independendence taskforce, also admitted there were divisions in the Yes movement he was trying to “repair”.
He said he wanted “mutual respect” across the movement, not more “vitriol”, “character assassination” and people saying “one thing to your face and another behind you back”.
He said: “That has to stop. I don’t want this to continue, I’d much rather that we all just accepted difference, and moved on.”
Mr Salmond, who launched Alba in March after a bitter falling out with Nicola Sturgeon, claims his new party has 6000 members, more than the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
The SNP publishes its membership figures in its annual accounts.
At 31 December 2019, the party reported it had 125,691 members, up 157 on 2018.
The accounts and membership figures for 2020 are due out this autumn.
Asked how many members the SNP had, Mr Russell replied: “I don’t know.
“I have no idea what the full figure is, but it is a very substantial number.
“I mean, I don’t obsess about membership numbers, nor do I see them every week, nor does the NEC [national executive committee] see them every week, not should they.”
Mr Russell acknowledged the spring was a fractious time for the Yes movement, with the launch of Alba seeing the defection of two MPs, a clutch of councillors, and some activists.
Talking about the SNP now working alongside a diversity of Yes groups, rather than dominating the movement as it did in 2014, he said: “I am trying to repair relationships and build relationships across the Yes movement. But the basis of that is mutual respect.
“There are people who profoundly disagree with what the SNP does – I accept that – so profoundly that… some people have left.
“Not a huge number, but some people have. I understand that.
“But what I can’t live with is vitriol, hatred, disparagement of others.
“We can’t work in that way. So what I’m looking for is essentially drawing a line and saying, Let’s just try and do this in as positive and least less destructive way possible.
“If we can do that, then I think a lot of good work can happen.
“If we can’t do that, then I’m not playing, I’m certainly not getting myself involved with people who are going to behave like that.”
Asked about long-standing SNP members leaving the party and defecting to Alba, Mr Russell said he understood some of their “frustration”.
He said: “Clearly they believed that the SNP was not going to deliver for them.
“I think they’re wrong. Personally, I want to deliver. I know the First Minister wants to deliver.
“I think they’re wrong about that, but I understand it, and if that is their motivation, fine.
“There are some policy issues, you know, the GRA [reform of the Gender Recognition Act] issue has been divisive, and some people are very fixated on that.
“And again, if that is a difference that cannot be reconciled, fine.
“But I go back to the point about how this is done. You can have disagreement. You can have disagreement about the urgency in which independence is pursued, and the means by it.
“You can have disagreement about policy issues such as GRA.
“What you cannot live with is that type character assassination.
“That just cannot be dealth with. That is my bottom line.
“I want to work with lots of people to achieve independence, but I can’t work with people whose motivation appears to be to destroy the party which I’ve been a member of for 47 years, I just can’t do that.
“Nor can I work with people who say one thing to your face and another thing behind your back. That has to stop. I don’t want this to continue, I’d much rather that we all just accepted difference, and moved on.”