Polls show referendum is on a knife-edge

First Minister spoke to the world media today at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. Pic: Lisa Ferguson

First Minister spoke to the world media today at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. Pic: Lisa Ferguson

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THE independence referendum is still on a knife-edge with a new poll today showing the No side just ahead on 52 per cent and Yes on 48 per cent.

First Minister Alex Salmond has said he is “more confident than ever” that Scotland will vote for independence despite the No campaign’s narrow lead.

The YouGov survey comes just days after Yes took the lead for the first time with 51 per cent to 49.

The latest poll shows support for Yes has increased by ten points since a similar poll five weeks ago, with five-point falls in people planning to vote No and those saying they were undecided.

Yes Scotland chief executive Blair Jenkins said: “This poll confirms that the referendum is neck and neck – we are in touching distance of success next Thursday, and there is everything to play for. It will spur on everybody who wants and is working hard for a Yes to redouble their efforts. We are working flat out to ensure that we achieve a Yes vote, because it’s the biggest opportunity the people of Scotland will ever have to build a fairer society and more prosperous economy.”

Better Together campaign director Blair McDougall said: “Every voter has the power to tip the referendum either way. This decision is far too important to be a protest vote. That is why thousands of Scots will be pounding the streets over the next week to make sure that we win the referendum.”

With just six days to go, Alex Salmond and deputy Nicola Sturgeon were today campaigning around Scotland on a seven-city tour, including Edinburgh, while Ed Miliband was due to join Gordon Brown and Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont at a rally in Glasgow.

They plan to highlight what they argue are the seven key gains of independence, including job-creating powers, protection for the NHS, savings as a result of scrapping Trident, the SNP’s “transformational” childcare, control of social security and the minimum wage, and “always getting the governments we vote for”.

Mr Salmond said: “A Yes vote is a golden opportunity for people in Scotland – to use that wealth and control policy so that many more people benefit.”

Meanwhile, Edinburgh Central MSP Marco Biagi said Royal Bank of Scotland would be “shooting itself in the foot” if it moved operations away from Edinburgh.

The bank signalled yesterday it could moves its registered office to London in the event of a Yes vote. But RBS chief executive Ross McEwan wrote to staff to reassure them: “This is a technical procedure regarding the location of our registered head office. It is not an intention to move operations or jobs.”

And he added; “Our current business in Scotland, including the personal and business bank, IT and operations, human resources and many other functions, are here because of the skills and knowledge of our people, and the sound business environment. So far, I see no reason why this would change should we implement our contingency plans.”

Mr Biagi said: “Ships have been flying flags of convenience for decades, RBS clearly feels it has to say it will do the same in order to calm the markets. RBS would be shooting itself in the foot to move operations away – not least because of the loss of a skilled and experienced workforce and the cost of relocation. Scotland’s advantages in having officially the best educated population in Europe and much lower property costs than London will continue.”

Alex Salmond called on the UK Cabinet Secretary to investigate why “a Treasury source” discussed RBS’s relocation plans with the BBC several hours before it was announced to the markets.

But Sir Jeremy Heywood said today there had been no breach of the Ministerial Code in relation to reports of the RBS position in the media.

He said the Treasury had simply been confirming the position after reports appeared elsewhere in the media.

The International Monetary Fund warned a vote for independence was likely to spook the financial markets.

It said success for the Yes campaign would create “uncertainty” in the short term as politicians thrashed out “complicated” issues, such as what currency Scotland would use.

Longer term, the impact on the economy would be determined by the detailed results of the negotiations carried out in the wake of the vote, it added.

Ukip leader Nigel Farage, due to speak at a rally in Glasgow today, said he expected Scottish banks to relocate south of the Border if there is independence and if they did not there would be a run on them as Scots withdrew their money to put it in UK institutions.

He said: “If I was an investor with an account in Edinburgh and there was a Yes vote I would have to get my money out as quickly as I could.”

Mr Farage claimed he would boost the No vote with his visit to Scotland, but the Better Together campaign was keen to distance itself from him.

The Ukip leader said he aimed to expose the referendum as a sham. “If it was called a separation referendum that would be all right, but how can it be independence when Alex Salmond is utterly committed to membership of the EU?”

Mr Farage also called for a “new constitutional settlement” for the whole United Kingdom following the referendum.

He said Scottish MPs should be stripped of the power to vote on English matters at Westminster if “devo-max” goes ahead.

At a press conference in Edinburgh for the international media yesterday, Mr Salmond said Scotland was “on the cusp of making history”.

He claimed support for independence from the majority of world leaders who have not spoken out for the UK.

He said: “Given the UK Government asked every world leader to make a statement of support for their position, and given that only a handful have obliged and done so, I think we have to conclude that other world leaders said ‘nein’ or ‘no’, or whatever language they were speaking in, to that request from the Foreign Office.”

Meanwhile, Respect MP George Galloway and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon clashed during a debate for young voters in Glasgow.

The BBC’s Big, Big Debate at the new SSE Hydro venue was attended by thousands of 16 and 17-year-old’s representing every secondary school in Scotland.

The future of the NHS in Scotland was one of the hot topics.

Pro-independence campaigners have repeatedly claimed a Yes vote is needed to protect the NHS here because spending cuts by the Tory-led coalition down south would be reflected in Westminster’s grants to Scotland – but the No camp argues decisions over health are already devolved to Holyrood.

Mr Galloway, representing Better Together, claimed the Conservatives at Westminster “will be out in the spring”, killing off “the privatisation agenda”.

He said: “The National Health Service is an entirely devolved matter. It could only be privatised if people were foolish enough to elect a Scottish government that was ready to privatise it.”

Former health secretary Ms Sturgeon said: “I know how hard it is to protect the budget of the health service when our overall budget is being reduced by Westminster.

“I will fight with every breath in my body to keep the National Health Service in public hands, but we are going to be more able to do that when we have control of our own budget so that we set our own priorities.”

The rival camps’ efforts to prove they have support from the business world is continuing apace. Leaders of more than 100 Scottish businesses declared their support for a No vote.

Those giving their support to the Better Together campaign included John Boyle, chairman of investment company The Hamilton Portfolio, fashion designer Belinda Dickson and Daniel Johnson, owner of the Paper Tiger and Studio One retail chain.

But businessman Tim Martin, chairman of pub chain JD Wetherspoon, dismissed the argument that Scotland is too small to prosper alone as “utter nonsense”.

Mr Martin said: “New Zealand has got a similar population to Scotland and its own currency and does tremendously well. Singapore has a fantastic economy with only two to three million people, Switzerland does well.

“There’s obviously no reason why Scotland can’t have it’s own government, if that’s what the Scots want.”

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com