EDINBURGH/ABERDEEN (Reuters) - Scottish nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon on Friday held out the possibility of a new independence referendum - but not immediately - after her party’s crushing victory north of the border in a British national election.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) obliterated its opponents, taking 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the Westminster parliament. The Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats could muster only one seat each.
This marked a spectacular gain from the six seats the SNP won in the last United Kingdom election in 2010. But with the Conservatives securing overall victory in Britain to stay in power, a wide divide has opened up between England and Scotland.
The results from Thursday’s election immediately put the question of another referendum on Scottish independence at the forefront of minds north and south of the border, even though Prime Minister David Cameron repeated a promise to devolve further powers to Edinburgh.
Scots voted against independence last September but the SNP, which led the drive, has surged in popularity since then and eclipsed the pro-union Labour Party, which has traditionally counted Scotland as a stronghold in Britain-wide elections.
Sturgeon has given conflicting signals about whether she will promise another referendum in the SNP manifesto for elections to the Scottish parliament in 2016.
On Friday she said independence was not the immediate priority. “There will only be another referendum when people in a Scottish parliament election vote for a proposition. There is no proposal on the table right now,” she told reporters.
Despite Sturgeon’s words, her opponents say the SNP’s aim is to push for a second referendum. Not all SNP voters are pro-independence, however, and polls show that the sentiment on that issue has not changed much since last year’s referendum.
Some voters still scented another chance to break with Britain. “I’m delighted about the SNP result,” said Mary Haxton, a 60-year-old university worker in the oil city of Aberdeen.
“Scotland can move forward itself. Why should we have to kowtow to Westminster when we can do it on our own?” she said on Union Street - a shopping street named after the 1800 Acts of nion which legally brought Britain and Ireland together, although what is now the Irish Republic broke away in the 1920s.
Since the referendum, many Scots have become disillusioned with Labour, believing it has moved too far from the left. Some deride the party as “Red Tories”, using the alternative name for the Conservatives.
Sturgeon signalled battles ahead with the Conservatives.
“There was an overwhelming vote for Scotland’s voice to be heard, for an end to continued austerity, and those issues that we put so firmly at the heart of the campaign we now intend to put firmly at the heart of Westminster,” she said.
In the rout, Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy lost his parliamentary seat and the SNP also took the Kirkcaldy constituency long held by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has retired from parliament.
Labour’s UK campaign chief Douglas Alexander lost to a 20-year-old politics student, the SNP’s Mhairi Black, the youngest British member of parliament since the 17th Century.
“The Scottish lion has roared this morning across the country,” former SNP leader Alex Salmond said after triumphing in the Gordon constituency in Aberdeenshire.
Salmond handed the party leadership to Sturgeon, who is also Scotland’s First Minister, after the referendum defeat. He will now take a seat in the House of Commons in London.
The SNP had hoped to play kingmaker in a leftist alliance with Labour to force out Cameron. Labour had ruled out a deal but failed to win enough seats anyway to make that an option.
The SNP secured a clean sweep in Glasgow, whose large working class had been solidly Labour for decades.
Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander, who as treasury secretary was the most powerful Scot in the outgoing coalition cabinet, was trounced in Inverness in the Highlands.
Many Scots feel that pledges of greater autonomy for Scotland, made by the main British parties during the referendum campaign, have been unfulfilled.
Declaring victory outside Number 10 Downing Street, Cameron promised to give powers back to both England and Scotland, which with Wales and Northern Ireland make up the United Kingdom.
“In Scotland, our plans are to create the strongest devolved government anywhere in the world with important powers over taxation and no constitutional settlement will be complete if it did not offer also fairness to England,” Cameron said.
One trigger for a new referendum could be Cameron’s promise to hold a vote by the end of 2017 on whether Britain should leave the European Union, which Sturgeon has said would be against Scotland’s wishes.
Mark Diffley, head of research at pollsters Ipsos MORI Scotland, said a solid SNP win in next year’s Scottish parliament election could lead to a second referendum.
“If the UK votes to leave the EU against the will of the people in Scotland, the first minister has basically said that would provide the grounds for another referendum.”
“But the key thing about another referendum is that you have to call it at a time where you think you will win it, and that’s the tricky bit. That doesn’t seem like that will happen imminently. And I don’t think they can just keep calling them.”
Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by David Stamp