From Losers To Possible Kingmakers, A Scottish Party Comes Back Strong

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Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), delivers a speech in Glasgow, Scotland, on March 28. After its loss at the polls last year on the issue of Scottish independence, the party has quadrupled its membership and is on the ascendant. (Reuters/Landov)
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), delivers a speech in Glasgow, Scotland, on March 28. After its loss at the polls last year on the issue of Scottish independence, the party has quadrupled its membership and is on the ascendant. (Reuters/Landov)

Political life is full of comeback stories, but few are quite as dramatic as the boomerang that Scottish nationalists have experienced over the last six months.

Last September, the Scottish National Party lost a vote on whether to break away from the United Kingdom.

Now, membership in the SNP has quadrupled, and that unexpected turn of events means that this party, dismissed as a loser last fall, could determine who becomes the next prime minister after British elections in a few weeks.

People who wanted Scotland to leave the U.K. had waited their whole life for last year's vote. Then the long, slow buildup to Scottish independence deflated with a massive whoosh as the nationalists learned that they had lost by 10 points.

The morning after the referendum, Edinburgh librarian Robyn Marsack looked to the future with a sigh and a note of hope.

Sturgeon has delighted the audiences during a series of televised debates. Here, she is seen with British Prime Minister and Conservative leader David Cameron at the first, on April 2, after which newspapers hailed her as "Queen of Scotland" and "Surgin' Sturgeon."
Sturgeon has delighted the audiences during a series of televised debates. Here, she is seen with British Prime Minister and Conservative leader David Cameron at the first, on April 2, after which newspapers hailed her as "Queen of Scotland" and "Surgin' Sturgeon."

"There's also a feeling that something has been unleashed that can't be held back now," she said. "It's out there."

At the time, that sounded like an attempt to put a positive spin on a painful defeat. Then thousands of new members started signing up for the Scottish National Party.

"It did come as a surprise," says political scientist Tony Travers of the London School of Economics. "I don't think any of the ever-present political pundits had predicted this."

"I think the reason it happened is that, clearly having voted to stay in the United Kingdom, the people of Scotland could signal that they were still very interested in degrees of freedom and autonomy, if not quite independence," he says.

For decades, the U.K. was dominated by two big parties: Labour and Conservatives. That's still true, but neither is expected to break 50 percent in next month's election. That leaves an opening for a small party to be kingmaker. And right now, the SNP is out-performing all the other small parties.

Demonstrators march in Glasgow, Scotland, to call for the scrapping of Britain's Trident nuclear weapons program on April 4. Opposition to Trident is a cornerstone of the SNP's platform.
Demonstrators march in Glasgow, Scotland, to call for the scrapping of Britain's Trident nuclear weapons program on April 4. Opposition to Trident is a cornerstone of the SNP's platform.

If they do as well as expected, the Scottish nationalists could pull the new government to the left. The party wants more spending on social services, and the SNP opposes Britain's nuclear weapons program, Trident.

"It's often asked of me, 'Is Trident a red line?' " party leader Nicola Sturgeon said in one recent debate, "Well here's my answer: You better believe Trident is a red line."

The audience roared. That's become typical of Sturgeon's performance in these debates. During one faceoff among seven leaders, people searched for her name more than any of the others. After the debate, the Daily Mail hailed Sturgeon as "Queen of Scotland," while the Belfast Telegraph ran the headline: "Surgin' Sturgeon." One of the most Googled questions during the debate was "Can I vote for the SNP?"

It's a development that Charlie Jeffrey, a politics professor at Scotland's University of Edinburgh, calls "very interesting."

"A party which is Scottish and which can only stand in Scotland, [people asking], yeah, can we have some of that?" he says.

"It's a strange situation, isn't it?" he says, "When the party in the campaign that lost is now on such a political high."

Sturgeon has joked that her party climbed so fast, she might be experiencing altitude sickness. But her opponents have not let voters forget that the party was founded on a belief that Scotland should be an independent country.

People often referred to last year's independence referendum as a "once-in-a-generation" vote. Now that the SNP is on a rocket trajectory, many are wondering whether another vote could come much sooner.

Sturgeon recently brushed aside such speculation.

"A vote for the SNP in this election is not a vote for another referendum," she said. "It is a vote to make Scotland's voice heard much, much more loudly."

But then she said she wouldn't entirely rule out another Scottish independence vote, either.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Here's a story about bouncing back from a bad defeat. In Scotland last year, Nationalists lost a vote on whether to break away from the United Kingdom. Now the party that pushed for that independence vote is more successful than it has ever been. The U.K. is three weeks away from national elections. People from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will all cast their votes, and the strength of the Scottish Nationalists could determine who becomes the next prime minister. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from London on this unexpected power shift.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Last September, the long buildup to Scottish independence deflated with a massive woosh. People who wanted Scotland to leave the U.K. had waited their whole lives for this vote, and they lost by 10 points. In Edinburgh, librarian Robyn Marsack sighed heavily and looked to the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBYN MARSACK: There's also a feeling that something has been unleashed that can't be held back now. It's out there.

SHAPIRO: At the time, that sounded like an attempt to put a positive spin on A painful defeat. Then something strange happened. Thousands of people started signing up for the Scottish National Party, the SNP. Since September, party membership has quadrupled.

TONY TRAVERS: It did come as a surprise. I don't think any of the ever-present political pundits had predicted this.

SHAPIRO: Tony Travers is a political scientist at the London School of Economics.

TRAVERS: I think the reason it happened is that, clearly having voted to stay in the United Kingdom, the people of Scotland could signal that they were still very interested in degrees of freedom or autonomy, if not quite independence.

SHAPIRO: For decades, the U.K. was dominated by two big parties - Labour and Conservative. That's still true, but neither is expected to break 50 percent in next month's election. That means a small party could be kingmaker. And right now, the SNP is outperforming all the others. If they do as well as expected, the party could pull the new government to the left. The SNP wants more spending on social services, and they oppose Britain's nuclear weapons program, Trident. Here's leader Nicola Sturgeon in a recent debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

NICOLA STURGEON: It's often asked of me...

(APPLAUSE)

STURGEON: Is Trident a red line? Well, here's my answer - you better believe Trident is a red line.

SHAPIRO: That enthusiastic applause is typical for Sturgeon. During a debate with seven leaders on the stage, people searched for her name more than any of the others. An Irish newspaper ran the post-debate headline Surgin' Sturgeon. One of the most Googled questions during the debate was can I vote for the SNP?

CHARLIE JEFFREY: That's very, very interesting, isn't it? A party which is Scottish and which can only stand in Scotland - yeah, can we have some of that?

SHAPIRO: Charlie Jeffrey is a professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

JEFFREY: It's a strange situation, isn't it, when the party in the campaign that lost is now on such a political high.

SHAPIRO: Sturgeon has joked that her party climbed so fast she may be experiencing altitude sickness. But remember, this party was founded on a belief that Scotland should be an independent country. So does this rocket trajectory by the SNP mean there will be another Scottish vote to secede? Sturgeon says not right away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STURGEON: A vote for the SNP in this election is not a vote for another referendum. It is a vote to make Scotland's voice heard much, much more loudly.

SHAPIRO: But then she said she wouldn't entirely rule out another Scottish independence vote either. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.