'Lion roars' as Scottish nationalists score historic sweep

Edouard Guihaire with Naomi O'Leary in London
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Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon attends the Glasgow election count at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow on May 8, 2015

Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon attends the Glasgow election count at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow on May 8, 2015 (AFP Photo/Andy Buchanan)

Glasgow (AFP) - Scotland's nationalists swept to a "watershed" victory north of the border in Britain's general election, leaving the pro-independence party in a prime position to push its cause at Westminster.

The Scottish National Party won 56 of 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland in Thursday's vote, up from just six at the last election in 2010, the final results showed Friday.

"It is an extraordinary statement of intent from the people of Scotland. The Scottish lion has roared this morning across the country," former SNP leader Alex Salmond said.

The extent of the victory was embodied by Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old student who unseated Labour's campaign chief, Douglas Alexander, to become Britain's youngest MP since 1667.

Labour's leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, was also defeated by the SNP, a deeply embarrassing loss for the main opposition party in what was once one of its heartlands.

"The SNP has done almost a complete wipeout," said Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics.

The final result gave Labour just one seat in Scotland, down from 41 in 2010, while Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives held their single seat and the smaller centrist Liberal Democrats went from 11 seats to just one.

"In Scotland we have seen a surge of nationalism overwhelm our party," an ashen-faced Labour leader Ed Miliband said, before later resigning.

The SNP's historic landslide is all the more astonishing as it comes just months after voters rejected the party's call for independence from the rest of Britain by 55 percent in a referendum.

- 'Bring country together' -

"This is a watershed, historic election," said Nicola Sturgeon, who took over as SNP leader after the September referendum.

But she was quick to talk down prospects for any immediate push for independence.

"This election was not about independence," she said.

"It's clear from these results that it wasn't just people who voted 'Yes' in the referendum who have placed their trust in the SNP, significant numbers of people who voted 'No' have done so as well."

Sturgeon instead focused attention on economic aims, saying that the SNP would team up with other progressive political forces and push for "an end to austerity."

Malcolm Harvey, a constitutional expert at Aberdeen University, thought it unlikely the SNP would press for independence right away.

"This is a chance for them just to chip away at that so that when it comes eventually, the step to independence would be that bit smaller," he told AFP.

With the Conservatives set to become the largest party in the new parliament, the SNP will no longer be able to play kingmaker, as it had hoped when opinion polls indicated Labour could emerge on top.

The size of their bloc will, though, give them a powerful voice at Westminster, including that of Salmond, who was elected to the Commons in the northeastern Scottish seat of Gordon.

In his victory speech outside Downing Street on Friday, Cameron quickly promised to give Scotland "the strongest devolved government anywhere in the world, with important powers over taxation".

But Gerry Hassan, an expert on Scottish politics, warned the election could signal the possible start of the "end game" for Britain as a united country.

- 'As soon as possible' -

The independence referendum paradoxically had the effect of invigorating support for the SNP, which has since accused Cameron's government of breaking promises on granting Scotland more autonomy.

Since September, the SNP has seen its membership quadruple.

Experts say this is linked to the party casting itself as a strong, anti-austerity voice for Scotland rather than necessarily indicating increased support for independence.

Scotland has had a devolved government in Edinburgh since 1998, although major decisions about tax and spending, defence and foreign policy are still taken in London.

The desire for greater powers and influence is a common refrain in cities including Glasgow, a once proud shipping and industrial hub.

John James Swift, a 19-year-old student voting on Thursday, said: "The biggest thing I want is independence. As soon as possible."