EDINBURGH: British politicians are drawing battle lines for a fight over the future of Scotland, where a nationalist victory in elections last month has dramatically increased the chances of independence.
With the resounding victory of the Scottish National Party (SNP), who won the first overall majority in Edinburgh's devolved parliament since it opened in 1999, a referendum on independence many thought was unlikely will now go ahead.
Lawmakers at the Scottish parliament, a futuristic complex which sits incongruously on the edge of Edinburgh between the city's historic tourist district and rolling hills, admit even they were surprised by the results.
“It was a bit of history,” Dennis Robertson, an SNP lawmaker who won a seat for the first time in the May 5 election, told AFP over coffee at the parliament.
“We never imagined that the majority was going to be as it turned out.”
Before the poll, the SNP headed a minority administration and did not have enough lawmakers to push through the necessary legislation to hold a referendum, meaning the idea of an independent Scotland still seemed fanciful.
But the nationalists' haul of 69 seats in the 129-member legislature has paved the way for the referendum, setting up the biggest challenge to the 300-year-old union between Scotland and the United Kingdom for generations.
“The election fundamentally changes things,” said Professor John Curtice of Glasgow-based Strathclyde University.
“A political pathway towards Scotland becoming independent has now opened.”
Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister and the charismatic SNP leader, has wasted no time in racing down to London to demand more powers for Scotland in the wake of his victory.
He had his first face-to-face meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday at Downing Street at which he made clear the Scottish government's opposition to London's tough austerity measures.
Salmond has said a referendum will be held in the second half of the parliament's five-year term, giving him time to win round his countrymen and laying the ground for a protracted fight with his opponents.
“Clearly, independence is coming,” Salmond told AFP.
“My desire is simply for Scotland to cooperate with others on an equal basis, to be a good neighbour and a sovereign citizen of the world. Scotland will soon be in a position to bring all its gifts to the world, of that I am certain.”
Despite the excitement generated by the SNP's resounding victory, which left the main opposition Labour a distant second, commentators are sceptical that Scotland is hurtling towards independence.
They point to polls that consistently show only around a third of Scots back full independence and experts believe Salmond will instead use his enhanced mandate to win greater powers for the Edinburgh parliament.
Since Scotland was granted devolution 12 years ago, it has had powers to legislate in areas including health, education and local government but important powers such as defence and foreign affairs are still held by London.
Professor Micheal Keating, a political scientist at Aberdeen University, predicted that a referendum might contain two questions, one on full independence and another on whether Scotland should enjoy more devolved powers.
“I think people will go for more devolution,” he said.
If Salmond did persuade his countrymen to back independence in the referendum, the path to a sovereign state may still be a long one.
The referendum is unlikely to be binding and a 'yes' vote would only give the Scottish government a mandate to open negotiations with London.
It is also possible that London would demand a second referendum once talks were completed, the British government's Scotland minister Michael Moore said this week.
In a taste of the sniping ahead, a spokesman for Salmond dismissed Moore's suggestion as “irrelevant nonsense.”
The nationwide British parties have wasted no time in declaring their intention to fight Scottish independence, with Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron vowing to defend the union with “every single fibre that I have”.
But first they will need to recover from the shock of the SNP victory.
Labour, which has traditionally dominated Scottish politics, was hit hard and dropped to just 37 seats despite having expected to win back power.