By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON (Reuters) - More Scots would prefer the Scottish parliament to be given greater powers to control their tax and spending than the riskier option of independence from the United Kingdom, according to a survey released on Tuesday.
Social research institute ScotCen found further devolution, or "devo max", was the preferred future for many Scots although this option will not feature when they go to vote on September 18 on whether Scotland should break away from Britain.
But analysts said devolution was likely to become more central to the debate as the vote neared and UK parties offered swaying voters sweeteners if they opposed independence.
Scotland has had its own devolved parliament since 1999; it can legislate on issues such as education, health, the environment, housing, and justice, while devo max would hand over all powers to Scotland except defense and foreign affairs.
When asked about Scotland's future, 32 percent of Scots wanted devo max, 25 percent wanted to retain the status quo, and 31 percent backed full independence.
But when voters were asked to choose between independence and more devolution, 61 percent backed devo max and 39 percent opted for independence and ending the 307-year bond with England.
However analyst John Curtice, consultant at ScotCen Social Research, said the backing for devo max had more to do with concerns over independence than a desire for great autonomy, with mixed views on what devolution would bring.
The survey found 55 percent of people were worried or very worried about Scotland's future under independence while only 28 percent were worried about Scotland under devo max.
"Its popularity seems to rest on the perception that is a safe option that can do little harm rather than a widespread belief that it would do good," Curtice said in an analysis.
"Acceptance of the likely consequences of devolving power and responsibility for taxation and welfare benefits lags behind apparent support for the idea itself."
PENSIONS RISING AS KEY ISSUE
The Social Attitudes survey of 1,497 Scots taken last year but only released on Tuesday found 57 percent support for control over taxation passing to Holyrood, Scotland's parliament, while 22 percent wanted Westminster in London to control tax. But 58 percent agreed the state pension should be the same in Scotland as it is in England.
Future payment of state pensions is emerging as a big issue for Scots with former prime minister Gordon Brown, himself a Scot, warning on Tuesday that independence would mean Scots losing their British state pension. Scotland's ruling Scottish National party (SNP) has said pensions would still be paid.
Devolution has been an issue in Scotland since an initial failed referendum in Scotland in 1979. The SNP had suggested adding devo max as an option to this September's ballot paper for independence but the idea was ruled out by Westminster.
All three main UK parties oppose Scottish independence and have voiced a commitment to handing more powers to Scotland if there is a vote against independence, but exactly what they will offer is not yet clear.
Curtice said Britain's governing Conservatives and opposition Labour must decide at their annual spring conferences in coming weeks on proposals for more devolution which could prompt more of a public debate.
"It is an open secret that those campaigning for independence are hoping that voters who back more devolution might come to doubt that it will actually happen and thus can be persuaded to vote 'Yes' as a result," Curtice said.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)