LONDON (Reuters) - Just a month before the most unpredictable British election in a generation, Scottish nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon raised the prospect of another independence referendum after 2016 that could break apart the United Kingdom.
Though Scots voted to stay part of the United Kingdom in a Sept. 18 referendum, support for the Scottish National Party (SNP) has surged before a UK-wide general election on May 7.
Former Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond said during the referendum campaign that the September vote was a once in a generation chance to break the 307-year-old union with England.
But speaking on Tuesday in a four-way televised debate in Scotland with the leaders of the Scottish Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties, SNP leader Sturgeon raised the prospect of another vote after a Scottish parliamentary election in 2016.
Sturgeon said she still wanted independence, but cautioned that next month’s UK-wide election was not a re-run of the referendum and would not lead directly to independence for Scotland.
When asked whether the SNP would seek a mandate for another breakaway vote in the 2016 election, she said: “Well that is another matter. We will write that manifesto when we get there.”
Her response prompted an audible groan from some in the studio audience in Edinburgh, one of whom told her that the people had spoken and said “no” to independence.
With neither Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives nor Ed Miliband’s Labour Party forecast to win an overall majority, opinion polls indicate nationalists will win 35-50 of the 59 Westminster seats in Scotland, up from six in 2010.
The SNP aims to win a “kingmaker” position by taking many of the 41 Scottish seats that Labour won in the 2010 election.
“We will work with Labour to keep David Cameron out of Downing Street,” said Sturgeon.
When asked directly by Jim Murphy, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, if she wanted Miliband to be prime minister, Sturgeon said:
“I don’t want David Cameron to be prime minister. I am offering to help make Ed Miliband prime minister.”
“Nicola, we don’t need your help,” said Murphy, who warned voters that a vote for the SNP could allow Cameron to win the election by dividing the opposition vote.
In the most unpredictable British election since the 1970s, once marginal parties such as the SNP and the UK Independence Party are threatening to tear up the certainties of the post-1945 two-party system.
It is unclear whether either of Britain’s two major parties could form a durable government after May 7 to rule the $2.8 trillion economy.
The stakes are high: If Cameron wins, he has promised a referendum on European Union membership by the end of 2017.
Sturgeon, who took over from Salmond as SNP leader in November 2014, said she would push for modest state spending increases and proposed the unilateral scrapping of Britain’s submarine-based nuclear deterrent.
She said that in the event of a hung parliament, SNP lawmakers in Westminster would seek to defeat a Conservative minority government in a vote of confidence even if the Conservatives were the biggest single party by seats.
“This is two-for-the-price-of-one election: You can vote SNP and you get David Cameron thrown in for free or you can vote Labour and you can throw David Cameron out for good,” Labour’s Murphy said.
Editing by Andrew Osborn