SIX out of ten Scots support holding an independence referendum before the next Holyrood election – according to polling from a conservative think-tank.

Onward was founded by Tory MP Neil O’Brien in 2018, with Theresa May's former deputy policy chief Will Tanner brought in as director. It's chaired by Tory life peer Daniel Finkelstein, a columnist for The Times newspaper, and Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk MP John Lamont is amongst six serving Conservative members of parliament on its advisory board.

It describes itself as “a powerful ideas factory for centre-right thinkers and leaders”.

In new polling released today to coincide with the SNP conference, it says “Scots increasingly reject having a referendum in the next two years”, with the combined share of voters backing a referendum this year or next year at 27% – down from 35% in February.

However, a breakdown of the polling shows two thirds of Scots do want the poll to be held within this parliamentary term.

As well as the 27% who want the vote held in the next two years, 26% think it should be staged in 2023-24 and 9% say 2025-26 is the right time.

The total adds up to 62% approval for the question to be asked before this parliament term is out.

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Announcing the Programme for Government last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “At this juncture in history it is essential we consider the kind of country we want to be and how best to secure it. As we emerge from the pandemic choices fall to be made."

She went on: “These are questions which cannot be avoided, nor postponed until the die is already cast. So we intend to offer that choice.

“We will do so only when the Covid crisis has passed but our aim, Covid permitting, is that it will be in the first half of this parliament - before the end of 2023.”

Commenting on the survey, SNP MSP Stuart McMillan said: “This poll shows a clear majority of people in Scotland want an independence referendum in the current Holyrood term.

“This is entirely in line with the cast-iron democratic mandate for a referendum secured in May’s election when Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP were re-elected with a record share of the vote.

“By any measure, 62% support is a resounding endorsement of the First Minister’s position.

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“More and more Scots are increasingly recognising that responsibility for rebuilding Scotland after Covid is too important to be left to Boris Johnson’s Tory party, which will again hammer the most vulnerable in our society with another decade of austerity. That is why Scotland will have a referendum for recovery that will be built in Scotland for the people of Scotland.”

Speaking to Boris Johnson after the SNP's record Scottish election result in May, the FM told the Tory leader that the staging of a fresh ballot on the constitution is “a matter of when, not if”.

At the time, he said said it would be said it would be a “reckless and irresponsible” time to ask the independence question and, despite the record vote share, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said that the SNP coming one seat short of a parliament majority meant Scots are not “agitating” for a referendum – a position that ignores the Green gains made in May.

On the timing, 11% of people who'd voted SNP at the 2019 general election said they'd cast their ballot next year. Another 30% want to go for next year, 36% for 2023-24 and 12% for 2025-26.

For Labour voters the breakdown was 3%, 21%, 25% and 5% respectively. For Conservative voters, it was 4%, 6%, 5% and 4%. 

No other party affiliation was included and the findings are based on a survey of 1007 people in Scotland earlier this month.

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Commenting, Tanner said: “As the SNP gather for their party conference this weekend, it is clear that their priorities are not those of the Scottish people.

“An overwhelming majority – including three in four of the SNP’s own voters – say that the Government should focus on tackling coronavirus, not constitutional reform, and less than a third of people want a referendum in the next two years.

“The message is clear. Instead of ratcheting up the separatist rhetoric, the Scottish Government should be working with the rest of the UK to prevent a fourth wave of infections, bring back jobs and growth and fix public services.”