SUPPORT for Scottish independence has slipped in recent months and backing for the status quo is on the rise, a new poll shows.
The study by TNS-BMRB runs contrary to the claim by Nationalist strategists that there is a tide running in their favour.
It shows support for the Union up six points and backing for independence down four compared to an identical poll five months ago.
The poll will reignite the debate about the proposed wording of the referendum question announced on January 25: "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?"
The question has already been criticised by opponents and by many polling experts as both leading and loaded.
TNS-BMRB had just started sampling on January 25 based on the wording it has used since the first SNP administration announced its referendum proposals in 2007. It offers two options: To agree that the Scottish Government should negotiate with the UK so that Scotland becomes an independent state, or to disagree with that proposal.
The survey of 998 adults, between January 25 and February 1, indicated 35% would vote Yes in agreement, down four points on last August, and 44% would vote No, with 21% undecided, down two.
The poll also repeated a three-option snapshot first taken in October 2011 asking for preferences between maintaining Holyrood's existing powers, giving the Parliament more powers, or full independence.
Support for the status quo has risen from 29% to 32%, backing for more powers has fallen from 33% to 30%, and backing for independence drops from 28% to 26%.
Chris Eynon, head of TNS-BMRB Scotland, said: "From the initial skirmishes, it would appear that the independence bandwagon has currently lost its momentum, in spite of the poll timing coinciding with the high-profile launch of the consultation in Edinburgh Castle on Burns Day."
Mr Eynon believes some earlier ratings simply reflected the popularity of the SNP Government. But he said the debate around the practicalities of an independent Scotland had resulted in a "weakening of support and reassertion of opposition" to independence.
After 11 polls over five years, support for independence is now back to exactly the same figure it started on, having fluctuated between 31% and 41%.
The vote against independence has varied by 12 points between its starting figure of 50% and last August's low of 38%. The numbers who are undecided have ranged by 10 points, starting on a low of 15% and peaking in May 2009 at 25%.
A separate poll published yesterday suggested support for independence is slightly higher, with the gap between backers and opponents standing at around 5%. The survey by Panelbase asked 1000 adults: "Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?"
Of those quizzed, 37% agreed with the statement, while 42% disagreed. However, more than one-fifth of voters, 21%, said they were undecided on the issue. Of those who were clear about their opinion, 47% said they were for independence and 53% were against it.
However, if the referendum asked voters to chose between independence, giving the Scottish Parliament more powers but staying within the UK or keeping things as they are now, the poll pointed to a small majority in favour of independence.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon described these findings as fantastic for the SNP, showing that the party was "on a rising curve".
But Patricia Ferguson, Labour MSP for Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn, said: "Even within this poll, there are wildly different results depending on how the question is asked. That is why we must have a simple, fair
question and why the Electoral Commission must have a legal responsibility to rule on its wording."
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government has tried to brush aside concerns that almost 60,000 EU citizens could vote in an independence referendum, saying the rules were the same when Scotland back devolution. The move has increased calls for Scots currently resident in other parts of the UK to be given a say in the country's future.
Finance Secretary John Swinney said: "The approach that we've taken is to essentially mirror the franchise that elected the Scottish Parliament in May of last year, the franchise that led to the referendum in 1997 which established the Scottish Parliament, which is essentially the local government and Scottish Parliament franchise.
"That does include the 60,000 EU nationals that are living in Scotland.
"But many of these individuals – I can think of constituents of my own who are EU nationals – have been living in Scotland for 10, 20, 30, 40 years, creating opportunities and wealth in our communities. This is very much their home."