Scottish nationalists on course to make historic gains in election

Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), gives a thumbs up while campaigning in Musselburgh, Scotland, Britain on May 1, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 
Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), gives a thumbs up while campaigning in Musselburgh, Scotland, Britain on May 1, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

EDINBURGH (AFP) - Scottish nationalists are on course to make historic gains in Thursday's general election and win unprecedented influence in Westminster, ironically energised by their defeat in last year's independence referendum.

Over 55 per cent of Scots said "No" when asked "should Scotland become an independent country?" in September, seemingly delivering a hefty blow to the Scottish National Party (SNP) that was created in 1934 with the express purpose of splitting from Britain.

Instead, the party has regrouped and renewed, building on momentum generated during the independence campaign and gaining strength from anger against budget austerity.

Combative SNP leader Alex Salmond stepped down following the defeat, to be replaced by protege Nicola Sturgeon, whose wit and grit have even won supporters south of the border.

Since the independence vote, the party's membership has quadrupled to over 100,000.

Stoked by the pain of defeat, the tartan army now tops poll after poll in Scotland and according to an Ipsos Mori survey for Scottish Television, could grab all 59 Scottish seats, an increase of 53 since 2010.

- Kings of Scotland -

"This will be the first time this has happened at a Westminster election," said Gerry Hassan, an expert on Scottish politics and author of 'The Strange Death of Labour Scotland'.

"Taken with their control of the Scottish parliament and Labour's loss of local government dominance, it indicates a sea change in politics north of the border," he told AFP.

In the referendum on Sept 18, "the SNP lost a battle, but is winning the war," added Kate Jenkins, of the London School of Economics.

Defeat would be a crushing blow for Labour, which would lose dozens of seats in a region traditionally considered to be its home turf.

Young gun Mhairi Black epitomises the SNP's surging confidence and influence.

The 20-year-old student is odds-on to win the seat of Paisley and Renfrewshire South, in the process booting out Labour heavyweight Douglas Alexander, the current shadow foreign secretary, who has held six different ministerial positions in past governments.

Robin McAlpine, director of the think-tank Common Weal, identified three factors in Labour's demise: unfulfilled promises to the region under Tony Blair (1997-2007), losing control of the Scottish Parliament and its role in the campaign to preserve the union.

Labour lost trust after "aligning itself with the Tories and insulting many working-class voters who supported Scottish independence," he said.

- London calling -

Defeat for Labour on Scottish turf would have serious consequences at Westminster, the seat of Britain's parliament.

Deprived of a rich source of MPs, Labour leader Ed Miliband would have little choice but to work with the SNP, which shares his left-wing ideals, in order to oust Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.

The Tories have used this potential match-up to attack Labour in England, warning voters that a Miliband government would be propped up by a party that wants to break up the United Kingdom.

Miliband has hit back by ruling out a deal of "any kind" or the presence of SNP ministers in a Labour government.

Whatever the result, the SNP looks set to "have a chance to be influential" in parliament, said Duncan O'Leary, director of research at the Demos think tank.

The presence of 50 SNP MPs in the House of Commons would guarantee heated debates on subjects such as Scottish-based Trident nuclear submarines, which the nationalists want to get rid of.

Sturgeon has also refused to rule out pushing for another referendum.

However, O'Leary points out that "the SNP will hold no more than 50 seats in a parliament of 650" and would not be able to "hold Labour hostage".

Nevertheless, Hassan said the scale of victory would be "a watershed moment for everyone".