EDINBURGH/LONDON - A poll showing support for Scottish independence at its highest ever level threw the fate of the United Kingdom into question on Tuesday, just two weeks before Scots vote on whether to secede.
The poll by YouGov showed the unionist lead had shrunk to 6 percentage points from 22 a month ago as support for independence jumped to 47 per cent in August, suggesting a major shift in opinion ahead of the September 18 referendum.
After months of polls showing nationalists heading for defeat in the vote, the YouGov poll for the first time raises the real prospect that secessionists could achieve their goal of breaking the 307-year-old union with England.
"A 'Yes' victory is now a real possibility," YouGov President Peter Kellner, one of Britain's most respected pollsters, said. "A close finish looks likely."
Polls show different levels of support for the unionist campaign and although none have shown the independence camp in the lead, the sudden surge indicated by the poll electrified Britain's political class after its summer break.
A vote to breakaway would be followed by negotiations with London on what to do about sterling, the national debt, North Sea oil and the future of Britain's nuclear submarine base in Scotland ahead of independence pencilled in for March 24, 2016.
If Scots voted to leave the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron would face calls to resign ahead of a national election in May 2015 while Labour's chances of gaining a majority could be scuppered if it lost its Scottish lawmakers.
Sterling fell to near a five-month low against the dollar and also slipped versus a generally weak euro on Tuesday, while the cost of hedging against sharp swings in the pound rose as investors sought to insure against the risk of secession.
Traders saw further losses as the vote approaches.
"A Scottish 'Yes' to independence poses far more questions than it answers but my best guess is that a 'Yes' would trigger a 3-5 per cent fall by sterling as an initial reaction," said Kit Juckes, currency analyst at Societe Generale.