While the economic case for Scottish independence once centred on oil, people like company director Niall McLean now argue that trade is the way to ensure their country’s future prosperity – and avoid the damage of the United Kingdom leaving the EU.

Turning Scotland, which sells two thirds of its exports to the rest of Britain, into a heavyweight international trader would be tough. This is especially so because a dive in global oil prices since Scots voted on – and rejected – independence in 2014 has hit its economy hard.

With the Scottish National Party (SNP) which runs the devolved government pushing for a new referendum, opponents of dismantling the 300-year-old union say the economy can ill-afford another divisive campaign and its inherent uncertainty.

But McLean says uncertainty is a given anyway as the government in London prepares to negotiate Britain’s departure from the European Union after 44 years in the trading bloc.

“At the end of the uncertainty you have to think of where you want to be,” said McLean, who sits on the advisory board of Business for Scotland, a pro-independence group.

“Independence gives us a route where the EU market is still open to us and there is a way forward for trade. Brexit is the opposite.”

His firm, Geo-Rope, provides civil engineering services across Britain and continental Europe. And just as McLean needs the bloc as a market, he also needs it as recruitment pool: his 200 staff include many citizens of other EU countries whose future right to work in Britain remains uncertain after Brexit.

Last June’s vote by Britons to quit the EU has altered the political landscape; England, the United Kingdom’s most populous nation, opted along with Wales to leave; the Scots and Northern Irish wanted to keep their EU membership.

At the end of the uncertainty you have to think of where you want to be

Scotland’s First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon says Brexit has dissolved the certainty that the United Kingdom once offered; faced with being taken out of the EU against the will of the majority, Scots must have a new choice, she argues. Independence offers them an opportunity to stay in the bloc, or at least its single market, after Britain exits.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, who would have to sign off on any binding referendum, has said now is “not the time” for one but Sturgeon is raising the pressure for a vote between the autumn of next year and spring of 2019.

Campaigning for succession in 2014, the SNP argued that tax revenues from North Sea oil production which go to the UK exchequer should belong to an independent Scotland, providing a cushion of prosperity for its five million citizens.

In the end a majority did not see the sense of breaking with Scotland’s biggest trading partner and its currency, the pound.

Since then, oil prices have dived from $100 a barrel to half that, leading to a collapse in North Sea tax revenues and hurting Scottish regions that service the offshore energy industry, notably around the east coast city of Aberdeen.

With eight per cent of the UK population and annual economic output of £150 billion, Scotland sells £50 billion in goods and services to the rest of Britain. In 2015, that amounted to 63 per cent of Scottish exports, compared with just 16 per cent to other EU member states, Scottish government figures show.

“If everyone in Scotland agrees that free trade with Europe is important – and we do – it is literally impossible to deny that trade with the rest of the UK matters four times as much,” Ruth Davidson, who leads May’s Conservatives in Scotland, said earlier this year.

This opinion is shared by many in the divided business community. Oil no longer dominates Scotland’s trade. In 2015, petroleum and chemicals were only the third biggest international export industry, earning £2.8 billion. By contrast food and drink, including Scotch whisky exports, brought in £4.8 billion.

If another referendum were held, SNP projections will assume oil produces no tax revenues, its economic strategist has said.

As in most developed economies, services are by far the biggest sector, accounting for 75 per cent of Scottish gross domestic product. Among these are tourism, a large financial industry centred on Edinburgh and firms like Geo-Rope.

The SNP denies independence would mean business turning its back on neighbouring British markets. Scottish Economy Secretary Keith Brown has cited Canada, which sells 75 per cent of its exports to the United States.

“Are our opponents really saying that Canada cannot be independent because their largest trading partner is America?” he asked. “Of course not, because their argument is illogical nonsense.”

Economists are divided over the long-term consequences of Brexit but Simon Wren-Lewis, Professor of Economic Policy at Oxford University, estimates it could cut average income by 10 per cent by 2030.

“If Scotland, by becoming independent, can avoid that fate then you have a clear long-term economic gain right there.  If Scotland can remain in the (EU) single market it could be the destination of the foreign investment that once came to the UK as a gateway into the EU,” he said.

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