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HAWICK, Scotland (AFP) – The people of Scotland will defy the odds and vote to break away from the rest of the United Kingdom in a referendum a year from now, nationalist leader Alex Salmond has told AFP.
Ahead of a speech Wednesday pledging that an independent Scotland would take a vastly more pro-European approach than "grumbling" Britain, Salmond brushed aside respected US pollster Nate Silver's prediction that he had "virtually no chance" of winning.
In an exclusive interview in a knitwear factory in the Scottish border town of Hawick, Salmond said: "Nate Silver doesn't know as much about Scottish politics as he does undoubtedly about American politics.
"And I suppose since we are in a famous knitwear factory here, we should probably tell him to stick to his own knitting," he laughed.
With 13 months to go until the historic vote on September 18, 2014, only a third of Scotland's 5.5 million-strong population are currently planning to vote in favour of independence, according to opinion polls.
But Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and first minister of Scotland's devolved government, insisted he had plenty of time to convince voters that splitting from Britain is in their economic and political interests.
"We'll win the arguments," he insisted.
As Prime Minister David Cameron grapples with Britain's future role in Europe, Salmond contrasted his vision of the role for an independent Scotland in the European Union with London's ambivalent approach.
"Scotland would be a much more outward-looking participant and member of Europe than London has been, certainly recently," Salmond said.
"Yes, there are things to be solved, but let's solve them together as opposed to threatening to stamp your feet all the time."
Salmond insisted that NATO, as well as the EU, would welcome an independent Scotland with open arms, despite his critics' claims that membership of both could run into difficulties.
Anti-nuclear Salmond is engaged in a heated row with London over the future of Britain's Trident nuclear submarine base -- currently located on the River Clyde in western Scotland -- if the union splits.
He denied reports that NATO has told Scotland it would not be allowed to join the military alliance if there was an ongoing dispute over Trident, which Salmond wants to move out of Scotland if he wins independence.
Keeping the base as a British enclave in an independent country would not be an option, he added.
"Nobody seriously thinks that London is going to be allowed to annexe some part of Scotland just because it wants to retain it," he said.
Scottish membership would be in NATO's interests because of its strategic location on the North Atlantic, he argued.
Equally, he dismissed suggestions that Spain and other countries could block Scottish EU membership in a bid to discourage separatist movements in their own countries.
"No one else in Europe will want any other solution than Scotland to be a part of the European Union if it becomes an independent country," he said.
He did, however, accept that Scotland would lose some clout in the United Nations by breaking away from Britain, a permanent member of the Security Council.
"We don't have pretentions to be a superpower," he told AFP, adding dryly: "We're not going to launch invasions of Iraq."
Considered one of Britain's shrewdest political operators, Salmond has pulled off impressive feats for the Scottish nationalist movement.
Bringing the SNP to power as Scotland's devolved regional government, first as a minority administration in 2007 and then winning a sweeping majority in 2011, he has brought them their closest yet to their dream of independence by securing the referendum.
But many Scots -- who enjoy various benefits unavailable south of the border under devolution, including free medical prescriptions and free university tuition -- appear reluctant to risk their current status for an uncertain future.
Salmond insists that staying in Britain would be riskier than going it alone, bringing the 300-year-old union between England and Scotland to an end.
"A 'no' vote in the referendum would result in the London government filing Scotland away in some pigeon-hole and not wanting to come back to the issue," he said.