Jim Murphy Scotland Brawl
Scotland's political brawl: Nicola Sturgeon vs. Jim Murphy
03:02 - Source: CNN
Motherwell, Scotland CNN  — 

Here’s one politician who doesn’t need a “Scooby” van, a $1 sweater or a Chipotle run to show she gets everyday people.

Helping her party win an astounding 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland, the Scottish National Party’s new figurehead, leader Nicola Sturgeon, clearly has the common touch.

She has been behind the decimation of the Scottish Labour Party, which finished election night reeling, with one solitary seat in the country. The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have one apiece, too.

Prior to Sturgeon’s elevation to leader – she stepped up from deputy after last September’s independence referendum ended in a loss for the heavily-pro-independence SNP – the party had, at its peak, only 11 seats in Westminster.

Significant victories this time around include 20-year-old Mhairi Black’s victory over senior Labour politician Douglas Alexander, and the ousting of Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy.

While much of the successes this time around are attributed to a resurgence of political activism in Scotland post-referendum, and a dissatisfaction with Labour’s policies, which many in the country feel do not do enough to distinguish the party from the Conservatives, who have been in power since 2010.

Tireless campaigner

Ahead of the election, the face of Scotland’s whirlwind political awakening was a revelation, balancing on towering heels as she dived into a crowd of star-struck Scottish voters, high-fiving kids, grabbing babies and posing for five selfies at a time.

Her working-class-girl-made-good authenticity is something the American 2016 brigade can only envy amid their awkward efforts to show solidarity with the common man – Hillary Clinton with her Scooby van for cross-country campaigning, Scott Walker with his parading of a $1 sweater purchase at Kohl’s and Jeb Bush’s boast that he gets in his car to buy his own burritos.

Combining the populism of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and a hint of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s unsentimental seriousness, Sturgeon might be the planet’s fastest-rising politician.

Eight months ago her lifelong dreams of Scottish independence seemed to be dashed when Scotland voted against breaking away from the United Kingdom.

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Friday’s stunning achievement represents a rejection of Labour in the working-class heartland that helped it form multiple governments in the 20th and early 21st century and represents a historic realignment of UK politics.

Another Scottish referendum?

It could also accelerate the resurgent momentum toward another Scottish independence referendum in the years to come.

The key to Sturgeon’s success lies in the fact that she’s spent the campaign talking about everything but independence, slamming Conservative austerity and demanding the dismantling of Britain’s nuclear arsenal, which she sees as an immoral waste of money.

That’s helped her reel in some Scottish voters who are progressive but who do not necessarily support independence.

It also helps that she’s still fresh.

Sturgeon has only been in office for a matter of months since taking over from Alex Salmond as SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland’s government – which wields powers devolved from London on education, health, spending and other issues.

She’s not yet become isolated from voters or bruised by the tough decisions that governing demands. That makes it easier for her to prove she has not not forgotten where she comes from – a down-on-its-luck mining area south of Glasgow where her family lived in public housing and where, unlike many top British politicians, she attended a public high school before making it to university.

Perhaps because of her current popularity, Sturgeon scorns political rivals who seem scared to confront voters.

The popular touch

“That would drive me potty. It’s the interactions with the public that more than anything else gets you to have an understanding of what folk are actually thinking,” she told the Scotsman newspaper.

Sturgeon is the undisputed star of the UK general election campaign. She won rave reviews in a seven-way debate in April when she went head-to-head with UK foes like Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband.

In much of the UK, this has been a depressing election campaign, with voters sour on the candidates who would lead them. But in Scotland, politics is raw and vibrant, and in bars, shops and on trains and buses, the word “Nicola” is on everyone’s lips, cementing her passage into the pantheon of political fame where first names are enough.

It’s quite a transformation for a woman who, despite dedicating her life to the SNP – she is married to the party’s chief executive and her mother is a local councilor for the party – did not seem on course to become an overnight sensation.

A former lawyer, Sturgeon was once known for not suffering fools gladly and perceived as surly. But her success in picking up her party after the independence defeat and her flair for working a crowd has won her new fans.

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In Motherwell – where Sturgeon spun cotton candy and rode a carousel on Sunday – and across Scotland, working class voters are defecting in droves to the SNP.

Labour officials openly admit that while they learned the wrong lesson from the referendum by treating it as a victory, the SNP used it as a springboard.

“It’s been a seismic change in Scottish politics in the last number of months,” said Richard Lyle, an SNP member of the Scottish parliament.

It’s not that the Scots have rejected Labour’s decades-long prescription of universal health care, workers rights and welfare.

Scots shift away from Labour

They just think the SNP is more likely to deliver it, and they are beginning to view Labour as indistinguishable from the Conservatives who have long been seen in Scotland as most concerned about elite and wealthy voters in London and the south of England.

But the SNP resurgence is not universally welcomed.

Some Scots worry that nationalist fervor is blinding people to the economic disaster they believe could be triggered by separation from the UK.

Others resent the SNP for what they see as an attempt to pose as the sole face of authentic Scottishness.

“They try and conflate the country with the party,” said Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson.

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And sometimes the no-holds-barred politics boils over, as it did on Monday in an ugly scene in central Glasgow ahead of the election, where Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy and comedian Eddie Izzard were jostled by fringe nationalists as they tried to hold a rally.

The SNP said it had nothing to do with the protest, but that didn’t stop Murphy and Izzard, a transvestite who was wearing heels and a suit skirt and who has more than three million followers on Twitter, from making a political point.

“Our streets don’t belong to nationalism, they belong to the people,” Murphy told CNN. Izzard added: “I think it’s sad that the Scottish National Party will not let democratic voices be heard … they are scared of that.”

People frequently talk about how differences on independence have strained friendships and even family relationships.

Despite the SNP surge on Thursday, it’s not yet a given that it will indeed result in another independence referendum.

The Scottish parliament would have to approve such a step before the details could be negotiated with the London UK government.

And Sturgeon must first preserve her pro-independence majority in the Scottish legislature in 2016 elections, whose outcome can’t be predicted this far ahead.

Labour officials, meanwhile, hope Scots will begin more critically judging the SNP record in government, which is far from an unqualified success.

Scotland’s rejection of independence last year was not the end of anything. It just opened a new phase, manifest in this week’s spectacular SNP gains, in an intense political drama that could reshape the United Kingdom.