A triumphant Alex Salmond swept back to power in Scotland in such emphatic style that he put the break-up of Britain firmly on the political agenda for the first time in 300 years.
First Minister Salmond led the Scottish Nationalists to the best result in their history, securing 69 of the Scottish parliament's 129 seats — the first majority for any party since devolution in 1999.
The result was devastating for both the Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray, who immediately announced he would resign in the autumn, and Tavish Scott, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader.
Mr Gray, who led Labour to its worst Scottish electoral performance in living memory described his party’s performance as “very much second best. We could have done better. I do accept responsibility,” he said.
“We have to address very, very fundamental questions about the structures and organisation of the Labour Party in Scotland.”
Claiming his party's victory as “historic”, Mr Salmond immediately declared his intention to bring forward a referendum on Scottish independence. His new majority at Holyrood gives him the votes to get a referendum Bill through the Scottish Parliament, meaning that Scots will be asked if they want to secede from the United Kingdom at some time in the next five years.
Mr Salmond claimed the SNP had restored the trust of the people in a way that no party had ever done in Scotland. “We must trust the people,” he said, adding: “That is why in this term we will bring forward a referendum and trust the people with Scotland's own constitutional future.”
The Nationalist success came at the expense of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The Labour Party, which has treated Scotland as its most trustworthy fiefdom for much of the last century, suffered its worst result north of the border for more than 80 years as the SNP took seat after seat in the Labour heartlands of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire.
With only 37 MSPs in the Scottish parliament — down from 46 in the last parliament — Labour needs someone to turn the party around. Many of the potential candidates who may have replaced Mr Gray have now lost their seats to the SNP.
But the SNP victory was also fuelled by the extraordinary collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote. The Liberal Democrats went into the election with 16 seats at Holyrood. They finished with just five and without a single constituency MSP on the mainland of Scotland.
The Tories, already down to their core supporters, saw their share of the vote dip, but they held their ground in the face of the massive SNP surge, starting with 17 seats and ending up with 15. In many areas, the Labour vote held up reasonably well, but with Liberal Democrat supporters switching in huge numbers to the SNP, Labour was simply swept aside.
Mr Salmond announced victory in a speech to supporters in Aberdeen. The First Minister declared: “Before the SNP was formed, one of our forebears was the National Party of Scotland. I think, 70 years or more years later, the SNP can finally claim that we have lived up to that accolade as the national party of Scotland.”
David Cameron congratulated Mr Salmond on his victory but stressed that he would campaign hard against Scottish independence: “I will campaign to keep the United Kingdom together with every fibre that I have.”
The SNP has already published a draft Bill for an independence referendum. However, over the past four years Alex Salmond has not had the votes required to pass it in the Scottish Parliament.
Now that he does have the votes, he will re-publish the draft Bill in the next year or so, and spend three years raising the profile of the issue. After the Bill itself passes through Parliament, there will be a referendum. Scots will be asked whether or not they want the Scottish Government to open negotiations with the UK Government to secede from the Union.
If Scots vote in favour, the Scottish Government would open negotiations. It is unlikely any UK Government would stand in the way of the democratic decision of the Scottish people.