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Glasgow (AFP) – Scottish nationalists were headed for sweeping gains in Britain’s general election on Thursday, with an exit poll indicating a surge in support that could increase pressure for a new independence referendum.

“My message is that we’ll stand up for Scotland,” Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), told supporters after casting her ballot in a Glasgow suburb.

“We will look to make alliances with people across the UK to make Westminster politics better,” she added as the count got underway in the city’s Emirates Arena — a giant sports complex.

An exit poll after the last ballots were cast indicated her party was on track to win 58 out of the 59 Scottish constituencies in the House of Commons — up from the SNP’s current tally of just six seats.

The result would be a stunning reversal from eight months ago when the SNP lost an independence referendum in which 55 percent of Scots voted against breaking off from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The SNP has also said it would be prepared to work with a minority government led by the main opposition Labour party, potentially handing it more leverage.

The referendum has paradoxically had the effect of invigorating the nationalist campaign, which has accused Prime Minister David Cameron’s government of breaking promises on granting Scotland more autonomy.

“The SNP has done almost a complete wipeout,” said Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics.

Sturgeon urged caution over the exit polls, however, tweeting: “I’d treat the exit poll with HUGE caution. I’m hoping for a good night but I think 58 seats is unlikely!”

“Whatever the results, I’m very proud of our campaign,” she wrote.

Voters across Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city which was once a Labour stronghold, said that they hoped for a stronger voice for their nation in parliament.

“Whatever the outcome, whatever party wins, they are going to need to change how they see Scotland as a political entity,” said John Lyons, a retired civil servant casting his ballot.

Scotland has had a devolved government in Edinburgh since 1998, although major decisions about tax and spending, defence and foreign policy are still taken in London.

The desire for greater powers and influence is a common refrain in Glasgow, a once proud shipping and industrial hub.

“I don’t think Westminster or the central government has given Scotland enough credit or enough power,” said Sam Aaron, a 38-year-old doctor.

“I dont like the Conservative government because I don’t think they represent Scotland’s interests to be honest. I think that’s an English government,” he said.

John James Swift, a 19-year-old student, said the election was “a chance that more people will have their voices heard”.

“The biggest thing I want is independence. As soon as possible, in the next year and a half, two years. And a fairer society,” he said.

The pain of budget cuts under Cameron are keenly felt in Scotland — where memories of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who is blamed for the decline of many traditional industries, are still raw.

“We need a lot of changes regarding all the austerity. There are so many people struggling, struggling,” said Mary Johnstone, 86.

She has made clear she would seek to block the Conservatives forming a coalition or minority government and would work with Labour — but would not give even them an easy ride.

Labour is committed to continuing Cameron’s austerity programme but on a reduced scale, while the SNP wants to see increased public spending each year.

Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose party seems to have suffered the brunt of the SNP surge, reached out to Scottish voters during the campaign saying that he understood their “patriotism and pride”.

He promised to “hold Scotland’s interests in my heart and in my head” — an appeal that may have fallen on deaf ears.

Photo: AFP / Glyn Kirk

This post has been updated.

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