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17 January 2016, 06:00
SCOTLAND will vote for independence if the UK withdraws from the European Union, according to a ground-breaking new poll for The Sunday Times and Heart.
As David Cameron prepares to put EU membership to a referendum as early as this summer, the Panelbase survey reveals that the price of putting the issue to a vote could be the break-up of Britain.
The poll of 1,053 voters in Scotland and 1,034 adults in England and Wales points find that Scots are overwhelmingly opposed to "Brexit" (by 65% to 35%) while those south of the border England are narrowly in favour (53% to 47%).
Because of England's far larger population just over 51% support for Brexit there would be enough to overturn Scottish support for the EU.
In the event of a UK vote for Brexit, a majority of voters in Scotland (54%) say they would want a second independence referendum to be held and in those circumstances support for a separate Scotland rises to form a small majority.
The poll puts current support for Scottish independence at 47%, two points up from the September 2014 referendum, with 53% opposed - unchanged since last September.
However, backing for Scotland to become independent grows to 52% when voters are asked if their minds would be changed by the UK withdrawing from the European Union.
Nicola Sturgeon has signalled that she will not seek to hold another referendum unless there is a significant change in circumstances and until there is reason to believe that the "yes" side would win.
She has indicated that Brexit could represent that perfect storm which would put the issue of Scottish independence firmly back on the agenda.
It comes after Henry McLeish, the former Labour first minister, warned in The Sunday Times last week that Brexit would indeed lead to Scottish secession.
Accusing David Cameron of "playing with constitutional fire", he added that even he as a unionists would prefer Scottish independence to Scotland remaining part of the UK but outside of the EU.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde university, said: "If Britain were to vote to leave the EU it could tip the balance on independence from a narrow margin against to a narrow margin in favour."
But he said it was clear it would not take support for independence to the 60% mark that the SNP leadership privately want before staging another referendum, amid concerns that another defeat on the issue would prove a heavy setback for the yes movement.
There remains a sense among Scottish voters that independence is just a matter of time, with just over two-thirds (67%) viewing it as likely within five to 30 years, unchanged since last September while just 23% (+1) think it unlikely in the next few decades.
Today's Panelbase poll will also place added pressure on UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn by offering evidence that British voters would be more likely to support the party if it was led by someone else.
The most popular choice of leader appears to be Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, with 37% of voters saying they would more likely vote Labour if he was in charge when he was placed head to head with Corbyn on 20%.
Ed Miliband, Corbyn's predecessor, is also a more popular choice - with 28% saying they would be more likely to back the party under him than under his successor (26%) and in Britain as a whole even Tony Blair scores higher.
Asked which leader would make them more likely to vote Labour, 31% of British voters opted for Blair when placed head to head with Corbyn, with 28% saying they would more likely back the party under the current leader. However, the position was reversed to 27% v 25% in Scotland where Blair is less popular.
Curtice added: "Corbyn may not be an asset but it is not clear that anyone else would be much more successful."
The poll, conducted from January 8-14, also suggests voters regard David Cameron as a stronger leader, with 47% of British voters viewing him as a strong leader for allowing ministers to campaign for either side in the EU referendum while only 21% considered this week.
While Corbyn is viewed as strong by 39% and weak by 25% for allowing Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria.