FIRST minister Alex Salmond's plan for a referendum on independence has received a boost after a new poll showed a surge in support for a separate Scottish state. The latest snapshot has revealed that 40% of the population want the Scottish government to negotiate independence with the UK government, a figure that is up 5% in three months.

This contrasts with 44% of people who do not want Scotland to pull out of the UK, which is 6% down from August.

The poll, which was carried out in late November and early December by TNS System Three, has the advantage of not being commissioned by a political party.

The firm shaped its independence poll around the exact referendum question Salmond wishes to put to the Scottish people in 2010, namely whether his administration should "negotiate a settlement with the government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state".

The result is significant as it shows a clear shift in favour of independence within the past three months.

In TNS System Three's August poll, which was based on the same question, 50% of those polled disagreed with the Scottish government's flagship policy, compared with 35% who agreed. In other words, the gap in support for independence has narrowed from 15% in August to 4% in November.

The survey also includes a detailed breakdown by age, gender and region.

Men, by 47% to 43%, were shown to favour independence, as did young people. Within the 18-24 age bracket, 47% back separation, as opposed to 32% who do not. Of those in the 25-34 demographic, 53% support the break-up of the UK.

However, opposition to independence is still strong among women, as 44% of female respondents declined to support the SNP independence question, compared with 34% who were in favour.

Pensioners, too, remain sceptical. In the 65+ bracket, only 30% agreed with the SNP proposition, while 57% expressed opposition.

The poll findings seem to legitimise Salmond's view that a strong Nationalist performance in government will fuel the demand for independence.

On the other hand, the snapshot was taken before last week's controversy surrounding the Scottish government's actions on the Donald Trump proposal for a golf and housing complex in Aberdeenshire.

TNS managing director Chris Eynon said of the findings: "While a higher percentage continues to oppose than support the independence option, there has been a significant shift in opinion in favour of the proposal. It would appear that, as the SNP administration has bedded in and started to develop its policies, this has enhanced its credibility and increased public confidence in the prospect of an independent Scotland."

A spokesman for the Scottish Liberal Democrats said: "In polls that do not ask people if they support more powers for the parliament within the UK, the figures have a tendency to be all over the place. We know that over the past year, whenever pollsters have given the options of more powers, this has overwhelmingly trumped the status quo and independence."

Deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon said: "This is the strongest level of polling support for independence in almost a year - showing major progress since the last poll - reflecting the impressive ratings of the SNP in government. The trend is very clear, and shows that people are moving to the independence position as they see the success and credibility of the SNP in government. The National Conversation is leading the constitutional debate, and pulling the other parties in its wake."

Dr Peter Lynch, a senior politics lecturer at Stirling University, said: "Alex Salmond will be happy about this. The SNP's aim is to build support for independence by doing well in government. They will use this poll to say, You cannot have a Constitutional Commission without discussing independence.'"

Labour MSP Jackie Baillie said: "The people of Scotland have consistently shown that they are against independence. The SNP must listen to those views and concentrate on the things that really matter to Scots, like tackling crime and antisocial behaviour, creating more opportunities for our young people and improving our health service."