EDINBURGH - Scotland's nationalists drew closer to the Better Together campaign in the latest poll on independence before the referendum, making the run-in to the Sept. 18 vote too close to call.
The poll of 1,000 people for the Guardian newspaper Friday put support for "yes" on 49 percent and "no" on 51 percent after excluding undecided voters. It is the fourth poll in a week to put the "yes" side within the 3 percent error margin of victory. Only one of those has had the pro-independence side ahead.
"Everyone is showing it as very close, but everyone is showing it on the side of 'no,'" Anthony Wells, an analyst for polling company YouGov, said in an interview. "The chances are that 'no' is ahead, but just by a smidgen."
The nationalists led by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond are racing to close the gap in the final six days before the ballot, as Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and the other major British party leaders step up their campaign efforts to avert a "yes" vote.
ICM, which conducted its research between Sept. 9 and Sept. 11, found 17 percent of voters said they had yet to make their minds up. YouGov, in a poll Thursday night for The Sun and The Times that covered a similar period, put the undecideds on 6 percent, and TNS had 23 percent undecided in a Sept. 9 poll.
That variation reflects the difficulty of conducting polling for a referendum, where there isn't a past voting record for calibration. ICM also found 82 percent of 16-24 year-olds, the group least likely to turn out in elections, said they were absolutely certain to vote. Women backed staying in the United Kingdom by 55 percent to 45 percent, while men favored independence by 52 percent to 48 percent.
The tightening of the race in its final fortnight has led to increased volatility in the financial markets, with forecasts the pound could tumble in the event of a "yes" vote. Sterling was down 0.1 percent at $1.6233 at 4:01 p.m. in London after strengthening 0.3 percent Thursday.
Royal Bank of Scotland Group was among lenders to announce contingency plans yesterday to move some operations out of Scotland in the event of a "yes" vote. Salmon demanded a probe into the disclosure, first reported by the BBC citing a Treasury source, accusing the government of deliberate "scaremongering" by briefing sensitive information before the referendum.
British Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood rejected Salmond's allegation in a letter to the Scottish first minister, the BBC reported Friday, saying the Treasury had simply "confirmed its understanding of RBS's contingency planning."
While the government denies it is preparing contingency plans for the referendum outcome, signs of the concern attached to the vote grew Friday. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said he will return early from a gathering of central bankers and finance ministers in Cairns, Australia, so that he can be in London in time for the vote. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne canceled his trip.
"We are setting out the economic risks of separation" and "the Bank of England has confirmed contingency plans are in place," Osborne said at an event in London. "Clearly there are economic risks associated with one outcome of the referendum," and so "it seems sensible not to go."
The YouGov poll Thursday put support for independence at 48 percent versus 52 percent backing for the status quo when excluding undecided voters. That shows a three percentage-point increase for the "no" side and the same decline for the "yes" side compared with the company's last poll on Sept. 7.
Salmond and his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, toured seven Scottish cities Friday as campaigning approached its climax. Salmond, who heads the devolved Scottish government in Edinburgh, said he planned to highlight seven key gains the "yes" campaign sees from independence, including job-creating powers and a pledge to maintain the National Health Service.
"A 'yes' vote is a golden opportunity for people in Scotland â?? to use that wealth and control policy so that many more people benefit," he said in an emailed statement. "With 'yes' we'll always get governments we vote for, we can protect our NHS from Tory cuts and privatization and we can tailor economic and jobs policy to our needs."
That message contrasts with economic analysis and commentary suggesting that an independent Scotland would lose many if not all its banks, the pound, plus jobs in defense and other industries, while experiencing wilting oil revenues, rising prices at supermarkets and higher mobile-phone charges.
Scotland post-independence would probably suffer an economic contraction of between 4 percent and 5 percent and have an initial budget deficit of about 6.3 percent of gross domestic product, economists at UBS wrote in a note Friday.
Salmond sought to fight back by accusing his opponents of colluding with executives on scaremongering over the risks of breaking from Britain. At an event in Edinburgh Thursday, he suggested negative comments by oil company BP and life insurer Standard Life were a "recycling" of older statements with a political timing.
Asked Friday whether Cameron had encouraged business leaders to speak against independence, the Conservative prime minister's spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, told reporters in London that "it's about saying to people in the U.K., across the U.K., if you have views that could inform the debate, people should express them."
Still, one business leader, Tim Martin, the chairman of pub chain JD Wetherspoon, was dismissive of warnings from businesses about the costs of independence. "Most of what has been said has been utter nonsense," he told BBC Radio.
"New Zealand has got a similar population to Scotland, its own currency and it does tremendously well; Singapore â?? fantastic economy, only 2 or 3 million people; Switzerland does very well," he said. "There's obviously no reason why Scotland can't have its own government if that's what the Scots want."
Blair McDougall, campaign head at the pro-Britain Better Together camp led by former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, said via Twitter that it was time to "redouble efforts to win undecided."
Yes Scotland Chief Executive Officer Blair Jenkins said in a statement that it "shows that the barrage of intimidation from the 'no' campaign isn't working."
The leader of the anti-European Union U.K. Independence Party, Nigel Farage, was scheduled to become the latest English politician to campaign against Scottish independence with a speech in Glasgow Friday.