EDINBURGH, Scotland – The Scottish National Party won a majority of seats in Scotland's parliament and promised Friday to hold a vote on independence, while the Liberal Democrats suffered an enormous defeat in Britain, losing more than 600 local seats.
Voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland elected national legislatures Thursday. Across Britain, voters also chose hundreds of local council seats and overwhelmingly rejected a plan to change the parliamentary election system in another blow to the Liberal Democrats.
The Scottish National Party became the first party since Scotland's regional government was formed in 1999 to win a majority of the Scottish Parliament's 129 seats. Final results showed it had won 69 seats, while Labour had 37, the Conservatives 15 and other parties eight.
Voters apparently approved of how the SNP has led a coalition government for the past four years and also backed programs to preserve free university tuition and to give the elderly free personal care.
In Britain's local elections, votes were still being counted, so the Liberal Democrats' crushing loss could grow even worse. The debacle for the junior partner in Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative-led coalition government sparked new calls for the resignation of party leader Nick Clegg, who is also Cameron's deputy.
The Liberal Democrats lost control of nine local councils including Sheffield, Clegg's own town.
The deputy prime minister, whose party pushed for the referendum and strongly supported voting reform, called the results "a bitter blow" but insisted the coalition would continue and the Liberal Democrats would move on from their setback.
"In a democracy when you ask a question and you get an overwhelming answer, you just have to accept it," Clegg told the BBC. "Clearly, this has been a really disappointing day and we have had a lot of very disappointing results overnight, but we are going to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and move on."
The Conservatives gained about 80 council seats, while Labour gained 800. Cameron, who marked his first year in office Friday, said his party had "fought a strong campaign explaining why we took difficult decisions to sort out the mess we inherited from Labour."
He welcomed the "clear and resounding answer" given by the British people in the referendum but stressed that the coalition government will last through its five-year term.
"What the British people want us to do now is to provide a good, strong, decisive Government in the long-term national interest of this country, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats working together," Cameron said.
Inflation has been surging in Britain, despite sluggish growth and harsh spending cuts that are slashing government jobs and hiking university tuition fees.
The parliamentary election system votes were still being counted, but early results indicated just over 68 percent of voters had voted "No" to changing the system in which the candidate with the most votes wins the seat, regardless of whether they get a majority.
Around 19.1 million votes were cast in the referendum, with overall turnout across the U.K. at around 42 percent, according to provisional figures from the Electoral Commission.
The Liberal Democrats had supported the Alternate Vote system, where voters rank candidates in order of preference. The winner is the first candidate to secure a majority, either in the first round of counting or in later rounds by picking up votes as lower-ranked candidates are eliminated.
Despite its worst showing in 80 years in Scotland, the Labour Party just missed a majority in the Welsh Assembly, winning 30 of the 60 seats.
Elsewhere, votes were being counted Friday to determine whether Northern Ireland is led by a British Protestant as usual or by an Irish Catholic for the first time.
Early returns showed strong support for the two dominant forces in Northern Ireland politics: the Protestants of the Democratic Unionists and the Catholics of Sinn Fein. The two parties have spent the past four years in a surprisingly stable power-sharing government that developed from Northern Ireland's U.S.-brokered 1998 peace accord.
Political analysts said it wouldn't become clear until full results are declared Saturday whether Sinn Fein has been able to overtake the Protestant side and become the No. 1 party in the British territory for the first time.
In Scotland, analysts said Labour's campaign theme that a vote for the Scottish National Party was a vote for independence had backfired, and Scotland's Labour Party leader Iain Gray said he would resign in the fall.
"I voted for the SNP this time, but I'm not in favor of independence." said Alex Burns, 44, from Edinburgh. "Scotland would have gone bankrupt if it had been outside the U.K. during this economic crisis."
Opinion polls since the 1990s have found support for independence hovering at around 30 percent.
"The SNP have been shown trust by the people in a way no party ever has before in a Scottish election," party leader Alex Salmond said, promising to bring an independence vote in the next four-year term. "We'll take it forward to increase the powers of our parliament."
One question sure to be asked is how Scotland would have fared by itself with the near collapse of two gigantic banks based in Edinburgh: the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group, which were both part-nationalized following the worldwide credit crisis in 2008.
Professor Susan Deacon, a former Labour minister, welcomed the prospect of a referendum.
"It is nonsense to say that a vote for the SNP is a vote for independence, Labour overplayed that and lost," she said.
Robert Barr reported from London. Shawn Pogatchnik in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.