Scotland independence vote looms after separatist win

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Scotland moved closer to a vote on independence after the party of nationalist First Minister Alex Salmond secured a historic majority Friday in elections for the Edinburgh parliament.

In the first overall majority for any party since the parliament opened in 1999, the Scottish National Party (SNP) battered the once dominant Labour Party to win 65 seats in the devolved 129-seat Holyrood assembly.

Salmond pledged to hold a referendum on Scottish independence within the next four years, something he could not deliver in his first term as the SNP were outnumbered by unionists.

"Just as the people have bestowed trust in us, we must trust the people as well, and that is why in this term of the parliament we shall bring forward a referendum and trust the people with Scotland's own constitutional future," he said in a speech after winning his own seat in the assembly.

The SNP leader also vowed to increase the powers of the Scottish parliament, which already decides on matters such as education, health, the environment and justice.

Key areas including foreign affairs and defence are still controlled by the British government in London.

"We will take that mandate and that trust forward. We will take it forward to increase the powers of our parliament," Salmond said, calling for extended borrowing powers and the right to set Scotland's own corporation tax.

The election on Thursday was held alongside polls for the devolved national assemblies of Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as local elections in England and a nationwide referendum on changing Britain's voting system.

In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron congratulated Salmond on the "emphatic" win but said he "passionately believed" in keeping the United Kingdom together.

"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 single fibre I have," Cameron said.

The Scottish result was a major turnaround given that just two months ago opinion polls suggested that the SNP was likely to be turfed from power by the resurgent Labour Party, the main opposition group in Scotland.

Salmond has headed a minority administration since 2007 when the SNP took power for the first time in Scotland, ousting Labour who had been in office in coalition governments since 1999.

With the arrival of a coalition in London last year of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives -- the third party in Scotland -- Labour had counted on winning back power north of the border and the polls pointed that way for many months.

Iain Gray, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, announced that he would step down within six months following Friday's result.

Salmond could not resist taking a pot shot at the collapse of Labour's vote, comparing them to an endangered beast.

"I suppose it's a bit like the American bison. I dare say we'll still see one or two dotted about, but the great herds of Labour have gone forever," he said.

Nearly two million people cast their ballots.

Commentators said the SNP's change in fortunes was unlikely to be due to any upsurge in support for Scottish independence, which surveys show does not have overwhelming public backing.

Instead they said it was down to the SNP's perceived ability to stand up for Scotland against deep spending cuts introduced by the coalition in London, plus a lacklustre campaign by Labour.

Professor Murray Pittock, a vice principal of Glasgow University, and author of "The Road to Independence?", suggested Labour may also have been guilty of complacency.

"The scale of it is a surprise," he said. "Labour has steadily treated Holyrood as a B-team, just somebody that people should vote for to give the Tories a bloody nose. Labour was negative."

© 2011 AFP

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