SUPPORT for independence has hardened in the face of the global recession, despite Labour predictions that the crisis would see more Scots turning to the Union for protection.

The latest TNS System Three survey for the Sunday Herald found support for leaving the union rose three points during the last quarter, while opposition to a separate Scottish state fell to its lowest level since the poll began 18 months ago.

The findings suggest the public has ignored Labour warnings that a breakaway Scotland would be doomed to join Iceland in the "arc of insolvency".

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The poll was taken after opposition parties initially voted down the SNP government's budget on February 28. Voters were reportedly unimpressed that MSPs could not agree a budget despite the country suffering the worst recession in decades.

The poll asked 971 adults how they would vote in a referendum on whether the Scottish government should open negotiations with Westminster on independence.

Support for commencing talks on separation was 38%, compared to 35% in October, while opposition was 40%, compared to 43%.

When TNS System Three began polling on the question, shortly after the SNP entered government, opposition ran as high as 50%. The new survey shows the gap between opposition and support, which widened to eight points last October in the initial reaction to the banking crisis, has now returned to the two-point difference seen last June.

Chris Eynon, managing director of TNS System Three, said the figures may well show a protest at Scotland's lack of powers to address the current crisis and the loss of institutions such as the Bank of Scotland, despite membership of the Union.

They could also reflect a growing confidence in Scotland's ability to go it alone after initial concerns about the economy reduced support in October.

"Either way it would appear that the global financial situation has not had any damaging effect on Scottish aspirations towards independence," he said.

"At a time when the worsening financial meltdown might have been expected to turn people against the potentially riskier options of independence, there has actually been a strengthening of support to 38%, from 35% in October, with opposition similarly declining by 3% to 40%.

"Not only have figures returned to levels similar to those recorded last June, before the financial crisis hit, but the actual percentage opposed to negotiation is the lowest since the poll was first taken in August 2007."

While leading the SNP in opposition in 2006, Alex Salmond said Scotland could be part of "northern Europe's arc of prosperity" alongside "Ireland to our west, Iceland to our north and Norway to our east".

By last October, the same countries had been dubbed the Arc of Insolvency, as Iceland's banking system collapsed and Ireland was forced to slash publish spending in an austerity budget.

Jim Murphy, the Scottish Secretary, led Labour's charge that the arc of prosperity had been a Nationalist delusion, and the global recession had exposed the brutal reality of being a small economic player.

Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy first minister, said: "This is an excellent poll, demonstrating that support for independence is rising as the SNP deliver good government through measures such as freezing council tax, reducing business rates, abolishing prescription charges and delivering a record number of police officers.

"In August 2007, the gap between independence and the unequal Union was 15 points; by last November it had halved to just eight points; and now independence is running neck and neck with the status quo. It is a hugely encouraging trend."

A spokesman for Scottish Labour said: "The vast majority of Scots do not want to separate Scotland from the rest of the UK. The question wording proposed by the SNP tries to soften the reality of their hard-line approach, but Scots are cannier than that. People want us to work together to get Scotland through the economic crisis, not break up the UK."

The poll also found support for independence was greater among men than women, the middle age ranges, and those living in the north of the country.

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