A MAJOR annual public opinion survey has recorded its highest level of support for Scottish independence - at 52 per cent - and concluded the Union “has become decidedly less popular”.
Led by eminent pollster Professor Sir John Curtice, the 39th annual British Social Attitudes Survey, published today, also showed growing divisions across Britain and Northern Ireland over constitutional issues exacerbated by Brexit.
The study, carried out by The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), examined shifting attitudes in Scotland to the Union over the years, with support for independence rising from 23 per cent in 2012. Fieldwork for the latest report was carried out in September and October last year.
In Scotland, the report found that support for independence has increased in recent years, with 52 per cent of people favouring the proposition when asked to choose between independence, devolution and no Scottish Parliament.
And it also showed rising tensions over the Union taking place in Northern Ireland where the survey recorded support for Irish reunification has increased from 14 per cent in 2015 to 30 per cent in the latest study.
The authors of the report pointed to the 2014 referendum and Brexit as factors behind the increase in support for independence in the past decade with some 65 per cent of Scots who voted to remain in the EU now supporting independence, up from 44 per cent in 2016.
They said: “Since 2014 there has been a marked increase in the level of support for independence, and especially so since the EU referendum of 2016, after which leaving the UK became more popular than devolution for the first time.
“Against this backdrop, it is perhaps not surprising that Scotland’s constitutional status should have become an issue of lively debate once more.
“The Union has certainly become decidedly less popular north of the border.”
In the absence of an agreement with UK ministers, the Scottish Government is planning to hold an independence referendum on October 19 next year using Holyrood powers if the Supreme Court rules that such a vote would be lawful.
Keith Brown, the SNP's deputy leader, welcomed the survey's findings.
He said: "This is the highest ever support for independence in this series of authoritative surveys. Becoming independent means never again will Scotland suffer the damage of Westminster Tory governments people here don’t vote for.
“Because of Westminster control over Scotland we are subject to a Tory party moving ever more to the right - apparently planning to scrap the cap on bankers’ bonuses while the vast majority of people take a hit to their living standards because of Brexit.
“Independent European countries similar to Scotland are wealthier and fairer than the UK, so why not Scotland?"
The research further showed that the UK has become more politically polarised over the issue of Scottish independence with 82 per cent of SNP supporters now backing the prospect, compared with only 5 per cent of Conservative supporters.
The 77 percentage gap between supporters of the two parties on this issue has grown from 46 percentage points in 2012.
In 2011 around a quarter of Conservative supporters (24 per cent) and Labour supporters (25 per cent) in England said that Scotland should become independent. However, now almost twice as many Labour supporters (30 per cent) as Conservative supporters (16 per cent) express that view.
The survey also examined attitudes to reform of the voting system across the UK and found for the first time a majority - some 51 per cent - favour introducing proportional representation for general elections.
The development was down to a significant increase in backing for reform among Labour supporters, the survey found.
The study also considered attitudes towards the NHS in Scotland and England and found Scots more willing than people in England to pay higher taxes to improve the level of health care for everyone, and more likely to say it is unfair wealthier people can afford better health care.
Sir John Curtice, senior research fellow at NatCen, said: “Supporters of the major parties in Scotland and England are more polarised than ever over the question of how Scotland should be governed, something that will not make it easier to secure widespread assent to whatever outcome emerges from the current debate.
"Support for leaving the UK has also grown in Northern Ireland, while more people than ever want to change the voting system in Westminster, making the issue of how the United Kingdom should be governed more contentious perhaps than ever before. The new government faces a particularly formidable challenge in bringing the Union together.”
Fieldwork for the research was undertaken in September and October last year. A total of 6250 people took part in the survey including 1365 in Scotland.