Britain votes: SNP - SNP to be the second force

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The Independent Online
THE SCOTTISH National Party will today start to form the official opposition in the Edinburgh Parliament with a substantial block of MSPs.

Early results broadened Alex Salmond's famous smile as it was plain SNP supporters had turned out to vote on a day of heavy rain while many Labour voters stayed home. "Labour have fought such a negative campaign, such a depressing campaign, I think they may have demoralised their own supporters," the SNP leader said as he awaited the result of his own count in Banff and Buchan. "I think the Labour Party are in for a hard lesson."

The first constituency to declare, Hamilton South in Labour's west Scotland heartland, showed a 10 per cent swing to the SNP. Party officials and supporters at an all-night party near the SNP's Edinburgh headquarters, hailed it as a "super result".

Heading for comfortably more than 40 seats, Mr Salmond's position as party leader looked secure, despite some grumblings from members over his gamble of a penny on income tax and condemnation of the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia.

Party officials played down suggestions that the SNP's performance was disappointing after the heady days of last summer when it overhauled Labour in the polls. Privately they believe Scots were still wary of placing their futures in the hands of an untried SNP and many shied away as the election neared. Mr Salmond and Michael Russell, the party's chief executive, soft-pedalled on the goal of independence, arousing suspicions among SNP fundamentalists.

Starting life in the new parliament as the official opposition will enable the SNP to prove itself to a sceptical public, officials believe. Treasurer Ian Blackford said the party would "put the case for independence over the course of the parliament".