By Andrew Osborn and Alistair Smout
LONDON/EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Just weeks after seeing their dream of an independent Scotland wiped out in an historic referendum defeat, Scottish nationalists have turned failure into a revival which could transform British politics at next year's UK general election.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) may have failed to persuade voters to back independence from Britain, but appears to be winning the argument that it can do a better job fighting for Scottish interests than Scottish branches of London parties.
The result could be a wipe-out for the Scottish chapter of Britain's center-left Labour Party, which has dominated Scotland's delegation to the UK parliament for generations, and a thumping SNP victory that could make it kingmakers in London.
According to a poll by Ipsos-MORI last week, the SNP which now has just six seats in the House of Commons in London, would win 54 of the 59 Scottish seats in the UK parliament next year.
That would potentially turn it into the Britain's third party, able to pick which of the UK-wide parties could form a government to rule Britain, the country it tried to leave.
Labour's Scottish delegation, meanwhile, would collapse from 41 Scottish seats to just four, according to the poll.
"It’s a bizarre situation," Alan Massie, a veteran Scottish commentator, wrote in The Scotsman. "The party that was defeated in the referendum and rejected over most of Scotland is full of confidence and behaving as if it had won."
The SNP seemed to face an existential crisis after it lost the Sept 18 referendum by a 10 point margin. The next day, a subdued party leader Alex Salmond announced he was stepping down although he said his dream of independence would never die.
Yet just seven weeks later, SNP membership has tripled. Salmond's successor Nicola Sturgeon, taking over as party leader and head of the administration that runs Scotland's health, education and other domestic policies, sounds invigorated.
So complete has been the SNP's comeback that it has even started hinting that another independence referendum may be needed in the next few years, particularly if Britain's relations with the EU change.
"The tectonic plates of Scottish politics truly are shifting," Sturgeon said a few days ago. Scotland would send a "strengthened team" to London's parliament next year, "who will put Scotland first, and ensure that we cannot be ignored."
Meanwhile, Scottish Labour, which led the successful joint campaign by Britain's three main UK-wide parties to oppose independence in the referendum, has slid into despair.
Leader Johann Lamont quit last week with a scathing attack on the British parent party, which she accused of treating its Scottish chapter as a "branch office". Current and former senior Labour members in Scotland say the party is in meltdown. Whereas Salmond passed the SNP leadership to Sturgeon without a murmur of discontent, Scottish Labour faces a bitter leadership fight.
NOT GOING TO BE FORGOTTEN
Despite losing the referendum, the SNP persuaded 45 percent of Scotland's 4.3 million voters to back independence. After months in which the referendum was dismissed in London as a no-hope case, Britain's main parties had to scramble in panic as polls showed a close result in the final weeks of campaigning.
The SNP led the fight for independence against a "no" campaign that united Britain's three main parties: Labour and the ruling coalition of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives and the centrist Liberal Democrats.
Labour spearheaded the defense of the Union, with speeches from ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Scot, rallying the "no" cause in the final days. But the battle helped the SNP make the case that Labour are too much like the Conservatives, widely despised in Scotland.
"The role, hand-in-glove, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Conservative Party in the referendum campaign is not going to be either forgotten or forgiven for a generation in Scottish politics," Salmond told BBC TV in an interview.
In the final weeks before the referendum all three mainstream British parties promised to swiftly grant more self-rule powers for Scotland if it stayed in the United Kingdom.
But such changes look unlikely to be delivered in time for the British general election in May, allowing the SNP to accuse the London-based parties of betrayal.
As soon as the referendum was over, Cameron's Conservatives linked granting more powers to Scotland with a call to strip Scottish parliamentarians in London of the power to block measures applicable to England.
Cameron has since rowed back from the linkage. But the row, real or imagined, has given the SNP a strong pre-election platform: Vote for us to ensure promises are kept.
"It’s the people of Scotland who will decide whether it’s satisfactory to be conned and tricked," Salmond said.
For his part, Cameron stands to benefit from the SNP revival, since his Labour opponents have more to lose.
The SNP broadly espouses left-leaning policies of the kind ditched by centrist "New Labour" under Prime Minister Tony Blair, allowing it, in the words of historian Tom Devine, "to brazenly steal the clothes of old Labour".
The referendum may have changed Scottish voting habits. In the past, some Scottish Labour supporters would vote SNP in Scottish parliament elections but stick to Labour in British parliament elections. That pattern might be breaking down.
Thousands of Labour supporters, traditionally from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, voted for independence.
"The referendum allowed many traditional Labour voters to vote against Labour party policy, and once people have made that shift once, they're more likely to do so in the future," said Edinburgh University's Mitchell.
Mark Diffley, director at pollster Ipsos Mori Scotland, told Reuters Labour was virtually wiped out in the most deprived areas: "The places that voted yes are mainly the traditional Labour heartlands like Glasgow and North Lanarkshire," he said.
Still, the SNP's opponents hope the nationalist party is getting ahead of itself.
"Listening to the political debate in Scotland in recent weeks, it's as if the referendum result had turned out on a yes vote," said Jim Murphy, a candidate to lead Scottish Labour.
"It wasn't even close, there were two million people and more that voted no in the referendum, and yet the horse that lost that two-horse race has spent the last six weeks parading round the winning enclosure," he told the BBC.
(Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Peter Graff)