By Angus MacSwan and Andy Bruce
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 victory across Britain overall 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.
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, basking in the triumph on Friday morning, repeated her words from the campaign that independence was not the immediate priority. But she signaled battles ahead with the Conservatives.
"Even a majority Conservative government cannot ignore what happened in Scotland yesterday. There has been an overwhelming vote for Scotland to have a louder voice at Westminster and an overwhelming vote against continued austerity," she told the BBC.
She sidestepped a question about whether she would be making the case for another independence vote in the SNP manifesto for elections to the Scottish parliament next year.
But she added: "I said to people that if they voted SNP then I would not turn round the morning after the election and assume that their votes were a vote for independence. I am not going to go back on that."
"If there's ever going to be another referendum, people will have to vote for that in the Scottish parliament election."
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 Union which legally brought Britain and Ireland together, although what is now the Irish Republic broke away in the 1920s.
The SNP rampage ousted the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, Jim Murphy, from parliament, and took former Prime Minister Gordon Brown's onetime stronghold in Kirkcaldy.
Labour's UK campaign chief Douglas Alexander lost his seat 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 Conservative Prime Minister David 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.
Alistair Carmichael, Scottish secretary in the government in London, held on to the Orkney and Shetland seat for the Liberal Democrats and David Mundell, the only Conservative from Scotland in the previous parliament, was re-elected in Dumfriesshire in the south. Labour kept Edinburgh South.
Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander, who as treasury secretary was the most powerful Scot in the outgoing cabinet, was trounced in Inverness in the Highlands.
Since the referendum, many Scots have become disillusioned with Labour, seeing it as having moved too far away from the left. Some in Scotland deride Labour as "Red Tories", using the alternative name for the Conservatives.
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 that 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)