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Alex Salmond said on Friday that he was stepping down as Scottish first minister after voters in Scotland’s hotly-contested referendum decisively rejected independence.

Speaking in Edinburgh, Mr Salmond, who has devoted his three decades in politics to the cause of secession, said: “I believe that in this new exciting situation, redolent with possibility, party, parliament and country would benefit from new leadership.” He said that despite his decision, his “dream will never die”.

Mr Salmond added that when he spoke to David Cameron earlier, the prime minister would not commit to the fast-track delivery of greater powers to Scotland which was promised earlier in the week.

The No campaign won a comprehensive victory in Thursday’s referendum, by a margin of 55.3 to 44.7 per cent. But the impact of the vote will trigger a major constitutional upheaval for the whole of the UK.

Shortly after the result of the referendum was announced, Mr Cameron held open the door for sweeping constitutional reform of the UK, pledging greater powers for English MPs over English legislation.

After an army of “silent” No voters defeated an unprecedented challenge to the 307-year union a relieved Mr Cameron declared Scottish independence was now off the table “for a generation”, possibly a lifetime.

But while Mr Salmond’s dream of independence was defeated on Thursday night, the UK prime minister acknowledged Scots had made clear they wanted to exercise more powers closer to home. That in turn is expected to lead to a new constitutional settlement for the entire UK, with more power for English MPs over their own affairs and a transfer of money and power from Westminster to big cities.

Addressing the nation outside Downing Street, Mr Cameron said “the settled will of the Scottish people” was to stay inside the UK and that he would “honour in full” a pledge to deliver new powers over tax and welfare for the Scottish parliament.

But he said new powers for Scotland had to be accompanied by a deal that gave English MPs more of a say over their own affairs. “The question of English votes for English laws requires a decisive answer,” he said. The “millions of voices of England must now be heard”.

“The position is this,” he said. “We lost the referendum vote but can still carry the political initiative. More importantly, Scotland can still emerge as the real winner.”

The current deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon is seen as a front-runner to succeed him. She said she could “think of no greater privilege than to seek to lead the party I joined when I was just 16”.

Hours earlier, Mr Salmond had conceded defeat in a rousing and at times defiant speech to supporters. Hailing the turnout of 86 per cent and the estimated 1.6m voters who had backed independence, Mr Salmond said Scotland would expect the recent pledges of further devolution to be “honoured in rapid course”.

Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign, said many pro-union supporters had been cowed into silence and that this was their victory. “The silent have spoken,” he said. “Some people have felt unable to speak except through the ballot box.”

Yes supporters held their heads in their hands as it became increasingly clear through the night that Mr Salmond’s passionate campaign had failed to convince wavering Scots to break their links with the rest of the UK.

Mr Salmond secured victory in Glasgow – the city voted Yes by 53 to 47 per cent – and also won in Dundee. But the margins of victory were not as great as he had hoped and those victories were offset by heavy defeats elsewhere in the country. The No campaign won Edinburgh, by 61 to 39 per cent.

Overall, the referendum turnout of 84.6 per cent is approaching a record for the era of universal suffrage. Wales saw similar levels in the general elections of 1950 and 1951 but for Scotland and the UK as a whole, the last time this figure was surpassed was the general election of January 1910, when 86.8 per cent of an all-male electorate voted.

Business leaders welcomed the result of the referendum, while also voicing concern over continuing political uncertainty.

“There can be no doubt that many businesses will breathe a sigh of relief that the prospect of a contentious currency debate and prolonged economic negotiations have been avoided, and yet we know that significant changes are still on the cards,” said Simon Walker, director-general of the Institute of Directors in London.

“As negotiations commence on a future settlement for Scotland, the focus must be on ensuring that any new powers are used to boost Scotland’s economic competitiveness, unleash enterprise and attract further investment.”

James Sproule, chief economist and director of policy at the Institute of Directors, said: “My immediate reaction is pleased and relieved. I didn’t think [independence] was going to be a good deal for the Scottish people or Scottish business.”

Hundreds of Yes supporters accepted defeat in central Glasgow as their ranks began to thin in George Square, the main gathering point, as dawn approached.

One kilted man with blue face paint held his head in his hands for several minutes, motionless. A red-headed girl was in tears. Others kicked the chunks of glass that littered the ground in disgust.

Walking home after a night on George Square, Robert Lindsay, a pensioner who supported the Yes campaign, said: “I’m pretty down but a lot of people have been mobilised and politicised by this. There were a lot of us.”

Additional reporting by Sarah Gordon

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