GLASGOW/ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND – Scottish nationalists rampaged to victory north of the border in Britain’s national election, obliterating their opponents and setting the stage for a new battle over independence.
In an epic performance, the Scottish National Party (SNP) ousted the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, defeated a senior Labour figure in Paisley, and took former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s onetime stronghold in Kirkcaldy.
“The Scottish lion has roared this morning across the country,” former SNP leader Alex Salmond said after triumphing in the Gordon constituency in Aberdeenshire.
“Scotland has asked to speak with a united voice, that voice will be made clearly for Scotland in the next Westminster parliament,” said Salmond, whose campaign to lead Scotland to independence was defeated last September.
But the SNP could still be shut out of any role in the British government, a scenario likely to bring a new confrontation over Scottish aspirations for independence.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives were on course to win the most seats in parliament with 316, just shy of an outright majority, with Ed Miliband’s Labour Party trailing on 239, an exit poll showed. Scotland accounts for 59 seats.
If confirmed, such an outcome would deny the SNP the kingmaker role it had sought in the House of Commons and kill off the prospect of a leftist alliance with Labour to force Cameron out of office.
But it would dramatically highlight the political divide between England and Scotland.
“This is history written as we watch and speak,” said Murray Stewart Leith, senior lecturer in politics at the University of West Scotland.
“It has serious implications for the United Kingdom as a political union. Whatever government is formed after this election will need to seriously consider its constitutional structure.”
In a stunning victory for the SNP, Labour’s Douglas Alexander — the shadow foreign secretary and campaign chief — lost to a 20-year-old politics student, Mhairi Black, by nearly 6,000 votes.
Black becomes the youngest British member of parliament since the 17th century. The leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, Jim Murphy, also lost his seat to the SNP.
Results so far from Scotland gave victory to the SNP in 50 seats, compared to just 6 seats in 2010. That included a clean sweep in Glasgow, whose large working class had been solidly Labour for decades.
Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael held on to the Orkney and Shetland seat for the Liberal Democrats, while Labour kept Edinburgh South.
The left-of-center SNP had offered during the campaign to work with Labour in order to shut out the Conservatives and reverse austerity policies. Labour leader Miliband had ruled out a coalition, insisting he could win an outright majority.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said in Glasgow the results showed a historic shift in opinion in Scotland.
“We said during the campaign that the SNP MPs would be elected to make Scotland’s voice heard, and that’s exactly what we intend to do,” she said.
The results could bolster Scots keen to push for a new referendum on independence after separatists lost one last September.
Commentator Magnus Linklater said: “You are going to get a bunch of SNP MPs going down to Westminster for whom independence is the ultimate goal, and pressure will build up.”
Since the referendum, many Scots have become disillusioned with Labour, traditionally strong in Scotland, seeing it as having moved too far away from the left and closer to Conservative thinking. Some in Scotland deride Labour as “Red Tories.”
Sturgeon — described by detractors as “the most dangerous woman in Britain” but whom polls show as the most popular politician in the country — has stressed that this election is not, for the SNP, about independence.
“Even if…the SNP wins every seat in Scotland, that is not a mandate for independence or a second referendum,” she said before the vote.
But her opponents said the SNP’s aim was undoubtedly to push for a second referendum. Cameron’s Conservatives had described the prospect of Labour and the SNP running Britain as a recipe for chaos and the potential breakup of the U.K.
Not all SNP voters are automatically pro-independence, however, and polls show that the sentiment on that issue has not changed much since the referendum.
One potential confrontation is over Cameron’s promise to hold a vote by the end of 2017 on whether Britain should leave the European Union, something Sturgeon has said would be against Scotland’s wishes.
“Europe will be the trigger,” Linklater said.