By Belinda Goldsmith
EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Scottish separatists may feel their goal of an independent state built on national pride and commercial acumen heaving into view; but a poll published on Wednesday suggested nearly a half of Scots fear a break with London would damage their economy.
With exactly a year to go until Scotland votes on independence, campaigners were out in force on the streets of Edinburgh, flying the Scottish flag - diagonal white cross on blue background - posing with children and arguing the case for ending a 300-year-old union with England.
"This is going to be a very exciting year and the pace is picking up," Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond told Reuters after spending 30 minutes with a group of children at an Edinburgh childcare center.
Salmond, a popular and shrewd politician, won a landslide victory in 2011 giving the SNP a majority in the Edinburgh parliament and putting a vote on independence on the agenda. He acknowledged he has his work cut over the next year. Opinion polls consistently show a clear majority against independence.
"Now it is a question of getting the message across that Scotland has a viable, strong future as an independent country. This is the biggest opportunity Scotland has ever had - a once in a generation event - and we must not waste it."
The end of the union would have dramatic consequences for both Scotland and England, raising questions about Britain's Scottish-based nuclear deterrent and its place in world diplomacy as well as trade, debt and finance.
The Herald Scotland newspaper published a poll carried out by the TNS BRMB organization showing 45 percent of Scots believe independence would harm their economy. Twenty-three percent accepted the nationalists' argument it would improve.
Opinion polls on the broader question of independence have not budged since the vote was declared 18 months ago, showing a 60/40 split against secession among those with a view but with a large number of Scots, up to 28 percent by one poll, undecided.
"I don't think we can survive alone," said Dave Stalker, 68, a tourist guide clad in a tartan kilt on Edinburgh's main street as nearby a bagpiper played to tourists.
"We may have oil and gas resources now but how long will they last and, although I am as patriotic as they come, this really is all about money."
Scotland's 150 billion pound ($200 billion) economy is about the size of New Zealand's and makes up about 8 percent of the British economy. But falls in Britain's oil production in the North Sea off Scotland, in decline since 1999, have held it back.
Salmond argues an independent Scotland can make better use of North Sea revenue to fund issues important for Scotland's 5 million population. He points to smaller countries such as Denmark that have enjoyed great economic success.
Some pro-independence Scots were keen for Edinburgh to run its own foreign policy.
"We are involved in two illegal wars that we should not be part of. It is time Scotland made its own decisions," said Lewis Watts, 24, a retail worker.
Separatists in other parts of Europe, notably Catalonia in Spain, are making similar arguments that their economy could flourish if freed from constraints of a bigger state. They will be watching the Scottish campaign with interest.
Scotland currently has a system of devolved government which gives the Scottish parliament control of policies such as health and education while leaving defense, foreign policy, and welfare in the hands of the British parliament in London.
Pro-unionists, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, campaign heavily on the economic risks of a solo Scotland. But the anti-independence campaign must avoid the danger of presenting itself as weary 'nay-sayers' or lacking confidence in Scotland's innate abilities.
Alistair Darling, leading the "Better Together" campaign, said the debate must not become a crude contest of Scotland versus England but focus on the economic realities.
"Scottish businesses and jobs would suffer if we put a barrier between ourselves and what the rest of our market is," Darling said on Wednesday.
"When you get borders, you get barriers to trade."
(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith; editing by Ralph Boulton)