First Minister Alex Salmond’s pro- independence party won an unprecedented majority in elections to the Scottish Parliament, handing him a second term and a mandate to push for greater autonomy for Scotland.
British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to defend the U.K. from potential breakup even as he congratulated Salmond on an “emphatic win” in yesterday’s vote. Salmond’s Scottish National Party crossed the 65-seat threshold for the first overall majority since the 129-member parliament in Edinburgh was established in 1999.
“It’s pretty spectacular, little short of a revolution,” John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, said by phone today. “It leaves whoever is running the U.K. government with an unpleasant headache.”
Victory for a resurgent SNP raises the prospect of constitutional upheaval, posing a further challenge to Cameron’s coalition in London as it makes the deepest U.K. budget cuts since World War II. Salmond, 56, has said he will bring in an independence referendum in the second half of a five-year term.
Cameron pledged to “treat the Scottish people and the Scottish government with the respect they deserve,” he told reporters in London today. “But on the issue of the United Kingdom, if they want to hold a referendum, I will campaign to keep our United Kingdom together with every fiber that I have.”
‘Done No Harm’
Polls before the election suggested that support for the SNP hasn’t translated into a greater appetite for Scotland to become independent from the U.K. In a YouGov Plc poll conducted on April 26-29, 57 percent of respondents said that they rejected independence, while 28 percent said they were in favor.
“There is a big difference between electing someone to run the country competently and independence,” said Colin McLean, chief executive officer of Edinburgh-based SVM Asset Management Ltd. “A lot of businesses are happy with their record. Certainly they have done no harm to the Scottish economy.”
The SNP capitalized on its four-year record in office to complete the rout of Labour that it began at the last Scottish election in 2007, when it ended a half-century of Labour domination north of the border.
“I will be speaking with the prime minister, laying down markers for what this mandate means in terms of Scotland’s relationship with the United Kingdom,” Salmond said in his victory speech in the grounds of an Edinburgh hotel after arriving by helicopter. “I believe this is a victory for a society, a people, a nation.”
Iain Gray, Labour’s leader in Scotland, held off an SNP challenge in his Edinburgh district by just 151 votes. After witnessing a margin of support as wide as 16 percentage points crumble as the SNP gathered momentum in the months before the vote, he said he planned to step down later this year.
Labour’s finance spokesman, Andy Kerr, was among four former ministers to lose out to the SNP, while the Nationalists also wrested overall control of Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city, for the first time.
“I have decided to stay on until the autumn as we conduct a fundamental and radical reappraisal of the structure and direction of Scottish Labour,” Gray, 53, said in an e-mailed statement. “The Scottish electorate has spoken and given a clear result which the Labour Party acknowledges.”
Eating into traditional Labour territory, the SNP also picked up seats from Cameron’s Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, his U.K. coalition partners, in a result Curtice said was “utterly unprecedented.”
David McLetchie, the former leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, lost his district to the SNP candidate, though the BBC reported he will re-enter parliament from the regional list. Annabel Goldie, the present leader, was also re- elected based on the overall number of votes for the party.
The Nationalists won 69 seats, an increase of 23 based on the redrawing of some constituencies, to 37 for Labour, a drop of seven on that basis from 2007. The Conservatives took 15 seats, the Liberal Democrats five and the Greens two, with one independent, according to results after all votes were counted.
The Parliament was re-established in 1999 by the Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair after a near 300-year hiatus following the formation of the U.K. in 1707. The first two administrations were coalitions of Labour and the Liberal Democrats before Salmond’s minority government.
The legislature, with 73 electoral districts and 56 regional seats, has power over policy areas including education, health and justice, with foreign and defense policy plus broader economic matters controlled by ministers at Westminster in London. A Scotland Bill currently going through the U.K. Parliament includes measures for Scotland to raise more of its own revenue and gain borrowing powers.
Local elections also took place yesterday across England and assembly voting in Wales and Northern Ireland as the coalition faced the first test of its program to eliminate the bulk of the budget deficit in five years. The Liberal Democrats bore the brunt of voter anger over the spending cuts, with Labour picking up hundreds of seats.
In Scotland, many of the campaign clashes between Salmond and Labour’s Gray, focused on who could better defend public services in the face of the cuts.
The next parliament will run for five years instead of four to avoid clashing with Westminster elections in 2015.
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