Independence vote for Scotland after shock SNP majority
The SNP has secured enough seats to form a historic majority in the Scottish Parliament for the next five years.
Alex Salmond's party has achieved 65 seats which means there will be a referendum on independence during the next term.
The Nationalists crossed the line when David Torrance overturned a notional Labour majority of almost 3,500 votes to take Kirkcaldy.
SNP candidates took the key seats of Fife North East, once a Liberal Democrat stronghold, and Dunfermline, a constituency in Gordon Brown's back yard.
The SNP has picked up votes from all of the other three political parties. Labour are currently on 29, the Tories on nine, and the Lib Dems on 4.
In the last parliament the Nationalists had a minority government. The SNP had 47 seats compared to Labour's 46.
Iain Gray, Labour’s Holyrood leader, clung onto his seat by only 151 votes but a series of his front bench colleagues, some of whom had been MSPs since devolution started in 1999, were ousted.
Mr Gray is expected to resign after leading one of the most incompetent political campaigns ever in Scotland, but many of his supposed leadership rivals lost their seats, leaving the party in turmoil.
Such was the astonishing scale of the victory that Mr Salmond appeared likely to be able to command a parliamentary majority for an independence referendum once the final results are declared this afternoon.
This may depend on how many seats the pro-separation Greens win, but the BBC was predicting that the SNP landslide means they will enjoy a parliamentary majority on their own.
Before today, a SNP majority was thought unlikely under Holyrood’s complicated voting system by which some of the 129 MSPs are elected under the first-past-the-post system and others by proportional representation.
The SNP leader has promised to stage a vote on separation in the second half of the parliament, which lasts until 2016, but will come under pressure from his party’s fundamentalist wing to bring forward the date.
Kenny MacAskill, the SNP Justice Minister who released the Lockerbie bomber and a fundamentalist Nationalist, gave a taste of things to come during his victory speech after retaining his Edinburgh Eastern constituency.
“It is time for Scotland to take responsibility and become a nation once again,” he said.
As revealed in the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, Mr Salmond will stage a presidential-style triumphal return to Edinburgh this afternoon.
He has arranged a helicopter landing one the lawns at Prestonfield House, one of the country’s most prestigious hotels then will deliver his victory speech to the world’s media.
Astonishingly, Labour started the six-week election campaign as favourites with a double-digit lead in the opinion polls.
However, the party’s strategists threw away their lead thanks to a chaotic strategy that focused on attacking the Tories instead of the SNP.
This was a rerun of the party’s extremely successful Westminster general election campaign last year in Scotland, but it underestimated the sophistication of Scottish voters who are used to casting their ballots differently for Holyrood.
Labour also agreed to match most of the SNP’s flagship promises, such as free tuition fees and a council tax freeze, a move that focused voters’ minds on personality rather than policy.
Mr Gray was also viewed as a dour and uninspiring individual compared to the charismatic Mr Salmond.
The Labour leader’s campaign reached its nadir when he ran away from anti-cuts protesters in a railway station and sought refuge in a sandwich shop, with TV cameras catching the embarrassing incident on film.