U.K. Vows New Powers for Scotland as Independence Campaign Gains

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Survey Comes Less Than Two Weeks Before Referendum

The British government promised new powers for Scotland in areas including taxes, spending and welfare if it votes to remain in the U.K. after a weekend opinion poll showed a surprising surge in support for Scottish independence.

A poll released late Saturday showed pro-independence voters in the lead for the first time since the Scottish referendum campaign began. The shift in sentiment ahead of the Sept. 18 vote raised the prospect that a split that seemed unlikely a few weeks ago is now thinkable. The increase in support also put the spotlight on an array of thorny problems that breaking away would bring, from currency questions and banking-regulation issues to potentially sweeping political consequences.

“It is clear that Scotland wants more control over the decisions that affect Scotland,” Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said on Sunday. “You will see in the next few days a plan of action to give more powers to Scotland.”

Mr. Osborne said these powers would be put into effect the moment there is a “no” vote in the referendum. “The clock will be ticking for delivering those powers, and then Scotland will have the best of both worlds,” he said.

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond dismissed Mr. Osborne’s offer, saying it was a sign of panic from the pro-union camp. “The momentum is decisively with the ‘yes’ campaign,” Mr. Salmond said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.

The Yes Scotland campaign is spearheading the independence drive, while Better Together, backed by all three main political parties in London, is pushing for the union. Nationalists need a simple majority in the Sept. 18 ballot to end Scotland’s more than 300-year-old union with England and Wales. The modern U.K. also includes Northern Ireland.

Less than two weeks before Scots head to the polls to vote on whether to secede from the U.K., 47% of those surveyed said “yes” to independence, while 45% said “no,” according to the survey by pollster YouGov. The rest of the 1,084 voters polled Sept. 2-5 said they were undecided or wouldn’t vote.

By another count, which doesn’t include nonvoters and the undecided, 51% of those surveyed supported independence, compared with 49% who are against it, according to the YouGov survey.

“A two-point gap is too small for us to call the outcome,” said Peter Kellner, the president of YouGov. “But the fact that the contest is too close to call is itself remarkable, as Better Together seemed to have victory in the bag.”

The British pound fell against the dollar in early Asian trading Monday on concerns about the poll’s results, sliding to $1.6218 from $1.6325 on Friday.

The survey attributes the rising support for independence to Mr. Salmond’s efforts to calm fears that independence would be too risky for Scotland’s economy. The independence campaign is seen as more energetic and optimistic, rallying young and working-class voters, compared with Better Together, which is seen as more negative, according to YouGov.

YouGov is one of several pollsters tracking Scots’ voting intentions. Other polls have shown a stronger lead for the pro-union “no” camp, but the gap has been narrowing as the referendum draws closer.

Newspapers in London on Sunday bannered news of the Scottish poll, which spurred worries among some residents. “We’re all on the same island, we’re all part of the same country, so I don’t see why they feel the need to separate,” said Brian Allsopp, a 45-year-old from north London. “We should all try to stick together and work through this.”

The U.K. government is stepping up its campaigning. Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to speak in Scotland early next week. Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, and Gordon Brown, former U.K. Prime Minister, will also be in Scotland making the case for union this week. Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott will ride around Scotland in the “Battle Bus,” a red coach bus with “Vote No” written across it, according to the Scottish Labour Party press office.

Scotland’s nationalist party proposed the independence referendum when it came to power in 2011 after years as a fringe party. Ministers in Scotland’s semiautonomous Parliament in Edinburgh control spending and policies in areas including health, education and transport and have limited tax-raising powers. The U.K. Parliament at Westminster determines foreign and defense policy for the U.K. as a whole and retains control of most taxes and big chunks of spending, including on welfare.

Pro-independence Scots see the U.K. government in London as aloof and deaf to Scottish voters’ wishes. For them, independence holds the promise that taxes raised in Scotland would be spent in Scotland on benefits such as a better safety net for the poor.

On the political front, a vote for independence would be a major blow for Mr. Cameron. At the same time, the U.K.’s opposition Labour Party relies heavily on Scottish votes for its success and, without a support base there, would struggle to win elections once Scotland formally secedes.

In the event of secession, among the biggest uncertainties would be which currency an independent Scotland would use. Scotland’s nationalist party says Scotland would continue using sterling, but all three main political parties in London and treasury officials oppose this, saying it would expose British taxpayers to financial risks from a country over which they have no control. Some analysts say a vote for secession would send currency markets into turmoil.

Scotland’s membership in the European Union would also come under question, as it now belongs as part of the U.K.

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