ALEX Salmond has claimed there is “a deep undercurrent of support” for Scottish independence across the UK and a demand for a “new relationship” between the nations of the British Isles.
It came as a UK-wide poll of 2,000 people showed majority backing for the creation of an independent Scotland and the end of the 300-year-old Union.
But the First Minister rejected calls to bring forward the date for an independence referendum, expected in 2014 or 2015, saying “no amount of blustering” from Prime Minister David Cameron would change his mind.
Mr Salmond seized on the ComRes poll, which showed a six-point surge in British support for separatism since May, as evidence of a “substantial amount of support” among “ordinary folk in England” for the SNP’s flagship policy of a spilt with the UK.
The poll showed 39 per cent of those surveyed throughout the UK agreed Scotland should be independent, with 38 per cent disagreeing.
The result could have far-reaching ramifications for the independence poll, with unionist MPs taking less interest in the vote if their constituents are supportive of a break-up of the UK.
A separate poll, the latest Scottish social attitudes survey, published yesterday, added weight to Mr Salmond’s suggestions, showing 74 per cent of Scots believe the Scottish Government should have most influence over their everyday lives.
But critics have dismissed the importance of the ComRes poll, saying the Scottish sample – only 176 people – was too small to be taken seriously. Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray said it was “not a serious opinion poll”.
Mr Salmond, speaking days before his party’s conference in Inverness, said there was now a UK-wide demand for “equality between Scotland and England”.
He said “one of the reasons” voters had handed the SNP an unprecedented overall majority at Holyrood this year was because of the party’s stance on independence.
He also dropped his strongest hint yet that a referendum would include a third question on what he described as “fiscal freedom” or “economic independence”, something he said was a “legitimate point of view” that would see the Scottish Parliament have full financial powers but with foreign affairs and defence reserved to Westminster.
The SNP leader’s strongly worded claims about the end of the Union came amid reports that Mr Cameron has ordered ministers in the Tory-led coalition to make a series of high-profile visits to Scotland to campaign against independence.
And it followed another boost for Mr Salmond’s campaign to break up the UK, when oil giant BP announced a multi-billion-pound offshore investment and proclaimed reserves could last for another four decades.
The ComRes poll showed growing support in Scotland for independence, with the proportion backing a split with the UK up 11 points over the period at 49 per cent, with 37 per cent against – a fall of nine points. The First Minister said the poll and the results of the social attitudes survey represented a growing tide in favour of independence.
He said: “Among the ordinary folk in England, there’s a substantial amount of support for the idea that Scotland wants to stand on its own two feet and make its own way in the world and have a relationship of equality between Scotland and England. I think there is a deep undercurrent of support.
“The SNP won a majority in May in a parliament where it was supposed to be almost impossible to do. One of the reasons for this was because people want a new relationship between the islands.”
On the proposed referendum, Mr Salmond said: “There will be a straight question on independence, but it’s quite possible that with the straight question, that there will be a question on fiscal freedom, or economic independence.
“Every referendum held in the UK is advisory, but the reality is that once the people have spoken, the politicians will have to listen.”
The First Minister rejected calls from Mr Cameron to hold an immediate referendum, which many senior figures at Westminster think would be the best way to prevent a Yes vote.
He said: “We made it clear we would hold the referendum on Scottish independence in the second half of this parliamentary term – that’s what we said we’d do and that’s what we intend to do.
“And no amount of blustering from the Prime Minister is going to change the view we put to the people and the trust that the people have in us.”
Mr Salmond’s claims of soaring support for independence were heavily criticised by opposition MSPs and the Scotland Office, which said the ComRes sample north of the Border was small, at only 176 people this month and 183 in May. The full UK sample size was 2,004.
A Scotland Office spokesman said: “We simply don’t believe it reflects the wider picture accurately.”
Mr Gray said: “Those of us who believe in devolution have nothing to fear from the Scottish people. The only person who does is Alex Salmond, who won’t bring forward his referendum because he thinks he’ll lose. The reality is that the vast majority of Scots want to make our country better, not separate.
“A survey of a hundred-odd folk is not a serious opinion poll – to get a statistically significant poll, you really need a size ten times that, and such polls routinely show the vast majority of Scots want a strong Scotland as part of the UK because that’s where our strongest destiny lies.”
Scottish Tory deputy leader Murdo Fraser said: “This poll has a sample of fewer than 200 Scots and is representative of nothing. However, if Alex Salmond really does believe that Scotland would vote for independence, then he should stop stalling and get on with holding a referendum as soon as possible.
“The SNP have spent years demanding one and now they have the power to do so, they are dithering.”
Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat chief whip at Westminster, called on Mr Salmond to “bring it on”.