THE foundations of public support for the Union have never been weaker, according to Britain’s leading political scientist as a new poll found most voters want Scotland to be an independent country.

Sir John Curtice made the assessment following the publication of Panelbase survey yesterday which put backing for Yes in an independence referendum at 54%, with No support at 46%.

The result is almost a complete reversal of the 55% to 45% split for the UK side in the September 2014 plebiscite.

Sir John, who is professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said: “Never before have the foundations of public support for the Union looked so weak.

“Unsurprisingly, for many nationalists, the past three months have exemplified how Scotland could govern itself better as an independent, small country.

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“More importantly, it may have persuaded some former Unionists of the merits of that claim, too.”

In an article for the Sunday Times which commissioned the survey Sir John pointed out that the average of the Panelbase polls over last six months, including the latest one yesterday, put Yes on 51% and No on 49%. He said it was the first time in polling history that Yes had been ahead for such a long period.

The poll echoes the result of a Panelbase poll commissioned by Business for Scotland and published by the Sunday National last month which also gave a 54% to 46% split in favour of the independence side.

Yesterday’s survey found strong backing for Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, with the First Minister’s approval rating on the issue at 60 points. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s approval rating on the crisis was at minus 39 points.

Sir John noted: “Our latest poll from Panelbase confirms other recent polling that has suggested those who intend to vote yes in a second independence referendum have nudged ahead. Support for the SNP is also at a record high.

“Panelbase’s polls conducted over the past six months, including today’s, have on average put ‘yes’ on 51% and ‘no’ on 49%.

“This is the first time in polling history that ‘yes’ has been ahead over such a sustained period. Support for independence is up three points on that recorded on average last year – and six points on 2018.”

He added: “However, the character of the latest swing in favour of independence is different – and arguably even more troubling for unionists.”

He said those who had switched from No to Yes were among people who voted both Remain and Leave in the EU referendum in 2016.

The Scottish public also appeared to support the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic much more than that of the UK Government, he added.

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“As our poll makes clear Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government are widely thought to have handled that responsibility well – while voters take a very different view of Boris Johnson’s administration,” Sir John wrote.

The latest Panelbase poll contacted 1026 voters in Scotland between Tuesday and Friday last week.

Responding to the poll, SNP depute leader Keith Brown said: “The majority of polls since the Westminster election have had Yes in the lead – majority support for independence is now the established position of the people of Scotland.

“On the basis of this sustained record support, it’s impossible for the UK Government to deny Scotland a choice over its future.

“This out-of-touch Tory government exemplifies the very worst of the Union, and Boris Johnson may be the best recruiting tool for Scottish independence since Margaret Thatcher.

“The focus of the Scottish Government remains on tackling the coronavirus pandemic, this poll shows Nicola Sturgeon’s approval rating is three times that of Boris Johnson.”

He continued: “While the SNP take absolutely nothing for granted, these polls do make for positive reading ahead of the Holyrood election in 2021.”

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The past seven days have seen a row flare up between Johnson and Sturgeon after the latter said she would not rule out quarantining visitors to Scotland from south of the Border where levels of Covid-19 infections are higher. Johnson responded to say there was no border between Scotland and England – a statement which former First Minister Henry McLeish said demonstrated Johnson’s contempt for Scotland and for devolution.

McLeish said such rhetoric would fuel support for independence.

Earlier this year at the outset of the pandemic the Scottish Government announced it had paused work on a second independence vote. But yesterday the Sunday Times reported senior SNP figures were now predicting a vote will take place within a year of the Holyrood election next May.

The level of coronavirus infections continues to be suppressed in Scotland with one global health expert saying last week the country could eliminate coronavirus by the end of the summer if the decline in new cases continues.

England, in contrast, has seen further outbreaks after lockdown restrictions were relaxes earlier than in Scotland.

Professor Devi Sridhar, of Edinburgh University, said: “I think Scotland is on track to eliminate coronavirus by the end of the summer by looking at the rate of the decrease [in new cases] ... But we are going to see little bumps, so it’s a question of how small can you keep those bumps.”