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Scotland Tense Ahead Of United Kingdom Elections This Week

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

EDINBURGH, Scotland — With only a few days to go until the United Kingdom’s national elections, tensions were simmering in Scotland.

The heads of the two leading parties in Scotland — battered Labor and the ascendant Scottish National Party — took shots at each other Sunday night in their final debate before U.K. polls open Thursday, exposing how much bad blood has arisen between two parties that, in fact, agree on a number of key economic issues.

“(British Labor leader) Ed Miliband said he would rather see the Tories back in office than work with the SNP,” Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon said, in one of several sharply worded statements. “I think that’s pretty appalling.” Sturgeon later called Labor “desperate.”

For his part, Scottish Labor leader Jim Murphy accused the SNP of reckless politics, saying it was “willing to bring down a Labor budget” to advance its own cause.

The campaign fight between Labor and the SNP in Scotland has highlighted a division that many thought was put to rest when a referendum on Scottish independence was defeated in September.

But the battle has larger implications. If the SNP gains many seats at Labor’s expense Thursday, it could play kingmaker in the new British government, since neither Miliband’s center-left Labor nor Prime Minister David Cameron’s center-right Conservative Party are expected to win a majority of seats on their own.

That means Scotland, despite accounting for only about five million of the U.K.’s 64 million residents, could swing an election that many believe will determine Britain’s future in the European Union and on the world stage for years to come.

The nationalist SNP has undergone a remarkable rise since the “Yes” movement it helped lead lost in September. Under Sturgeon, who took over from Alex Salmond after the defeat, the SNP has more than quadrupled its membership — fueled in part by a sense among Scots that post-referendum promises from London over greater autonomy have gone unfulfilled.

As a result, the SNP, which holds only six seats in the British Parliament, is forecast to win at least 50 of the available 59 seats from Scottish districts when final ballots are counted.

Meanwhile, Labor, which has long maintained a stranglehold on Scottish politics, has unraveled. Come Thursday, the party is expected to lose most if not all of the 41 British Parliamentary seats it holds in Scotland, according to TNS and other polling firms.

The new math has set off a political chess match.

In her bid to lure Labor supporters, Sturgeon has said the SNP wants to work with Labor (although not as part of a formal coalition).

But Miliband and Murphy have sought to put distance between themselves and the SNP, fearing that any association with a Scottish nationalist movement would hurt them with English voters. At Sunday’s debate, Murphy took aim several times at Sturgeon, seeking to pin her down on a five-year moratorium for a new independence referendum as Sturgeon equivocated.

Cameron and the Tories, meanwhile, have sought to capitalize with English voters on the rise of the SNP, telling them that, essentially, flipping the lever for Labor means voting for the Scottish nationalist group.

“The fact is that Labor cannot win a majority on their own. They can only get into Downing Street with the support of the SNP,” Cameron said in a campaign speech last month. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who remains personally popular in Scotland, even though her party is a non-factor, also hammered the point at Sunday’s debate.

Despite the “Better Together” unity campaign that won by a margin of about ten percentage points in September, the issue of Scottish independence remains at the fore. The fact was highlighted last week when the Scottish and English editions of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspapers atypically diverged on their election endorsement, with the former recommending the SNP and the English edition pushing for the Tories.

At a Labor rally in Glasgow on Monday, Murphy and the comedian Eddie Izzard, who supports the party, were heckled by a small number of nationalist supporters, forcing the pair to abandon the event early. Sturgeon condemned the hecklers.

On the streets of Edinburgh, there has been less fanfare than during the referendum vote, with fewer signs and overt campaigning. Still, the effects wrought by a post-referendum nationalist surge could be felt.

On Leith Walk, a main thoroughfare in the city’s northeastern neighborhood, candidates from the Liberal Democrats and other parties pumped hands with voters on the street, hoping to attract those fleeing Labor but unsure about the SNP.

And as bikers and joggers made their way through the city’s Hollyrood Park later in the evening, many said they were doing something they never expected a few months ago: looking toward the nationalists.

Lisa Webb, an environmental worker who was raised in Edinburgh, encapsulated the feelings of many Scots as she exercised.

“I voted no on the referendum, but I think might vote for the SNP now,” she said. “The way Labor has carried itself has really not appealed to me. And I’d never vote for the Tories.”

Photo: Lawrence OP via Flickr

Hong Kong Officials, Democracy Protesters Hold First Talks

Hong Kong– Hong Kong authorities and pro-democracy protesters Tuesday held their first talks aimed at ending weeks of rallies that have paralyzed parts of the city, after its leader ruled out major reforms.

Chief executive Leung Chun-ying, in an interview late Monday, said open elections for his successor as demanded by demonstrators would result in the largest sector of society — the city’s poor — dominating the electoral process.

But hours before the talks began, he raised the prospect of limited reforms — offering protesters an olive branch after more than three weeks of rallies and roadblocks in the financial hub.

Several major intersections in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city have been paralyzed since September 28 by mass rallies demanding free elections, in one of the biggest challenges to Beijing’s authority since the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests of 1989.

“I hope this dialogue can calm the relatively tense atmosphere in society,” said Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, Leung’s deputy, in her opening remarks Tuesday as the talks got under way at a medical college.

As part of promised constitutional reforms China has offered Hong Kongers the chance to vote — for the first time — for their next chief executive in 2017.

But only those vetted by a 1,200-strong committee loyal to Beijing will be allowed to stand for election — a proposal activists have labelled a “fake” democracy.

Under the current system the committee directly elects the leader.

“When five million eligible voters directly vote for the chief executive through one-person-one-vote, no matter which way you look at it, it is much more democratic than having the leader chosen by a 1,200-strong committee,” Lam added.

“The government’s direction of development…is not democratic, equal, open and is not an improvement,” said Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the groups leading the protests.

Chow, wearing a black T-shirt with the words “Freedom now” and accompanied by four other student leaders, demanded that the public should have the right to nominate candidates for the 2017 chief executive election.

“The Hong Kong people’s demands for the city’s future constitutional development are very simple — civil nominations. We don’t want pre-selected candidates,” Chow said.

But Lam said the city must work within the framework provided by Beijing.

“Hong Kong is not an independent country, it cannot decide its political system on its own,” she said.

Leung, in an interview Tuesday afternoon with AFP and other media, said he was open to creating a more democratic committee to vet candidates for his successor.

– ‘All concerns and opinions’ –

He said that while Beijing would not back down on vetting his successor, the committee tasked with selecting those candidates could become “more democratic”.

The offer is still a long way from meeting the core demands of protesters. But Leung’s comments were the first indication of a potential negotiating point.

Lam also said the government will consider whether to prepare a report for mainland Chinese authorities on events in the city after Beijing’s decision at the end of August on Hong Kong’s political reforms.

Analysts have suggested such a move to appease protesters.

Leung in the interview Tuesday afternoon insisted his administration remains in charge of dealing with the ongoing protests, after repeated speculation Beijing was really calling the shots.

“We don’t have any instructions from Beijing, or suggestions, as to when or who we clear the streets,” he said, adding he did not feel the need to speak to his political masters on the mainland on a daily basis.

He warned police could move on the barricades at any time — even with talks going on — because patience among many locals was running out and some were “taking the law into their own hands”.

Five representatives from each side faced each other across a large rectangular table for the two hours of talks.

Protests have been largely peaceful until recent days, when police trying to reopen some roads and armed with pepper spray and batons clashed with demonstrators.

There are fears of further violence should the talks make no progress.

Joy Lam, a 36-year-old social worker, was watching the talks on a small screen at a protest site behind the government headquarters, away from the bigger crowds in Admiralty.

As student leaders made fiery speeches, many of those watching alongside her erupted into cheers and applause. But she said she was not optimistic.

“It’s not good, the government is still telling us what to do. I don’t think we will get any agreement because this government is still ignoring the people’s hopes and wishes,” she said.

AFP Photo/Anthony Wallace

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Scotland Rejects Independence In Historic Referendum

Edinburgh (AFP) – Scots rejected independence on Friday in a referendum that left the centuries-old United Kingdom intact but headed for a major shake-up that will give more autonomy to both Scotland and England.

Despite a surge in nationalist support in the final fortnight of the campaign, the “No” secured 55.30 percent of the vote against 44.70 percent for the pro-independence “Yes” camp.

After a campaign that fired up separatist movements around the world and stoked political passions across the country, turnout was 84.6 percent — the highest ever for an election in Britain.

“No” campaigners across Scotland cheered, hugged and danced as the results came in the early morning and British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “delighted”.

“It would have broken my heart to see our United Kingdom come to an end,” he said outside his Downing Street offices in London, looking visibly relieved after averting a humiliating defeat that could well have cost him his job.

Many “Yes” activists watched dejected and in tears in the streets of the Scottish capital Edinburgh, although First Minister Alex Salmond urged them to take heart from the huge numbers — 1.6 million — who backed independence.

“I don’t think any of us, whenever we entered politics, would have thought such a thing to be either credible or possible,” the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, who will continue to head the regional government, told supporters in Edinburgh.

The result reassured investors worried about the economic risks of a break-up and the pound reached a two-year high against the euro while European stock markets rallied.

The CBI business lobby group said the result would be greeted by a “collective sigh of relief across the business community”.

A “Yes” vote would have brought to an abrupt end a union between Scotland and England stretching back to 1707 and was being closely watched by separatist movements who are also now clamoring for a referendum, like the Catalans in Spain.

The British government must now deliver on promises made in the heat of the campaign to give more powers over tax, spending and welfare to the devolved government in Edinburgh.

In his televised address, Cameron said he would offer all parts of the U.K. greater local control — heading off growing demands from right-wing Conservatives and the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) for England to be given more powers.

“Just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare, so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues,” he said.

In what would be a radical shake-up of the constitutional order, he said these new powers would be delivered “at the same pace as the settlement for Scotland”, suggesting legislation would be drawn up as soon as January.

Emily St Denny, a politics professor at Stirling University, said the effect was that “Scotland gains almost everything except for full independence”.

“The context is difficult because English and Welsh lawmakers are unhappy with the promises made to Scotland,” she said.

Andrew Blick, a politics lecturer at King’s College London, said: “The undertakings made in the last desperate phase of the campaign by the leaders of the Westminster parties will mean further drastic change for an intact United Kingdom.”

In Edinburgh, nationalists struggled with their emotions.

Charlotte Darroch, one of many 16- and 17-year-olds who were allowed to vote in a British election for the first time, said the result was “just crushing, quite devastating”.

“I genuinely thought the feeling on the ground was different,” said the 16-year-old, wearing a blue-and-white Scotland flag over her school uniform.

But Louise Fleming, 21, who also lives in the Scottish capital, said she was “relieved”.

“We can’t expect everything to be great tomorrow but the right outcome has occurred,” she said.

Scotland’s largest city Glasgow was among some big wins for the “Yes” campaign, but the margin was not enough to mitigate a flood of “No” votes across the country.

The indication was that better-off and rural areas had voted “No” while urban centers and poorer parts voted “Yes”.

Cameron said the referendum had produced a “clear result”, adding: “Now the debate has been settled for a generation.”

However, Salmond left the door open to a vote in the future, saying that Scots had opted “at this stage” to stay but had shown “substantial” support for going it alone.

Harry Potter author and pro-union supporter J.K. Rowling, who is English but lives in Scotland, said Scots should be “proud”, whatever their differences.

“Been up all night watching Scotland make history. A huge turnout, a peaceful democratic process: we should be proud.”

AFP Photo/Leon Neal