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...
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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.