Balance of opinion tips dramatically towards independence for Scotland

Key quote

"These are dramatic and detailed findings which will increase the panic in Scottish Labour. They show Labour is suffering not just because of the Blair-Brown bloodletting but also because of their failures in Scotland." - NICOLA STURGEON MSP

Story in full SCOTLAND would become an independent country if a referendum was held tomorrow, according to a new opinion poll which will reignite the political debate over Scotland's future.

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The YouGov poll found that more Scots now want Scotland to become independent than those who want to stay within the United Kingdom.

A total of 44 per cent back independence, with 42 supporting the status quo and 15 per cent undecided.

This is a massive change on the 30 per cent or so who supported the idea of independence through the 1990s and an astonishing turnaround in the fortunes of the Nationalist movement, which could only muster 23 per cent support for independence six years ago.

The survey of 1,200 Scots is a major boost for the SNP which is now building up strong momentum ahead of next May's elections.

The poll also found that voters would like to see Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, as First Minister. He is seen as more honest, competent and likeable and less conceited than Jack McConnell, the Scottish Labour leader, who is regarded as out of touch.

The SNP and Labour are on roughly the same level in terms of popular support - but this represents a big enough shift for the SNP to allow the Nationalists to lead a ruling coalition with the Lib Dems and Greens following next year's Scottish election.

The poll, conducted for the Sunday Times at the height of Prime Minister Tony Blair's difficulties between Tuesday and Thursday last week, showed the SNP on 29 per cent for the first-past-the-post vote and the same level of support for the second, proportional representation vote.

Labour support was 30 per cent and 27 per cent respectively. On this showing, the Nationalists would win 38 of Holyrood's 129 seats, enough to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Labour's current governing partners, and the Greens.

Labour would narrowly remain the biggest party with 42 seats, down from its current 50.

The survey also revealed that 64 per cent of voters favour at least enhanced powers for the parliament while only 19 per cent favoured the status quo.

Despite the First Minister's high-profile crusade to tackle antisocial behaviour, 58 per cent of Scots believe the problem has got worse since the last Holyrood election. Some 39 per cent said the NHS has got worse and 22 per cent believe standards in schools have deteriorated.

Although the poll is a major success for the Nationalists, it has to be seen in the context of recent Scottish opinion polls, all of which have failed to show any sort of consistent pattern, either of an SNP lead or of a buoyant Labour Party.

However, delighted SNP leaders claimed the poll's findings were "humiliating" for Mr McConnell.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's Holyrood leader, said: "These are dramatic and detailed findings which will increase the panic in Scottish Labour.

"They show Labour is suffering not just because of the Blair-Brown bloodletting but also because of their failures in Scotland.

"As their London colleagues have descended into chaos, Labour in Scotland have been pretending that they could distance themselves from their parent party."

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University and an election expert, warned that Labour should advocate more powers for the Scottish Parliament to avoid an electoral backlash.

"All of the other parties in Scotland are looking to go into the election wanting to change the devolution settlement and it seems to me that the Labour Party ought to be, too."

A Labour spokesman said: "This poll is one of a number recently, all of which have shown hugely differing results, although all have made clear the electorate faces an important choice in 2007: investment in schools and hospitals with Labour, or breaking up Britain and economic instability with the SNP."

Matheson quits after 'turf war' with SNP rival

ALEX Salmond has suffered a blow to his leadership of the Scottish National Party with the resignation of one of his front-bench spokesmen, Michael Matheson, because of a "turf war" with a parliamentary colleague.

It is understood Mr Matheson was angry with another SNP front-bencher, Kenny MacAskill, for interfering in his culture, sport and media brief.

His front-bench role was taken yesterday by the MSP Stewart Maxwell as Mr Salmond moved quickly to draw a line under the issue.

Mr Matheson was unavailable for comment last night. However, friends confirmed the left-winger had been furious with Mr MacAskill's behaviour for some time, but felt nothing had been done.

The SNP issued a statement yesterday welcoming Mr Maxwell to his new post and claiming that Mr Matheson had stepped down to spend more time campaigning in the Falkirk West constituency.