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The debate over Scottish independence has become so bitter that it risks damaging the country in the long term whatever the result of the referendum, Alistair Darling has warned.

Speaking to the Financial Times, the head of the cross-party Better Together group has urged both sides to tone down the rhetoric as the referendum campaign enters its final weeks.

Mr Darling, the former Labour chancellor who took a prominent role in the 2010 election campaign, warned that people were being put off contributing to the independence debate because of the vitriol being levelled by both sides against their opponents. He said: “I have never come across this before, in any other campaign I have been involved in.”

Mr Darling was speaking from the cramped, bustling headquarters of the Better Together campaign above a shopping centre in central Glasgow.

With just over two months until the referendum, both sides are ramping up their efforts, hiring more staff and recruiting more volunteers. Alongside the 40 paid staff packed into the No campaign’s offices sit several volunteers, stuffing envelopes, checking mailing addresses and folding leaflets.

The two campaigns will increasingly focus on the roughly one in five voters who say they do not know how they will cast their ballot. One Better Together strategist said: “We’re about to see a shift from the rhetorical campaign to simply focusing on how to get out the vote.”

But those involved are also worried the public could soon lose patience with the aggressive campaign tactics. One person inside the No campaign said: “People are fed up of politicians at the moment, they don’t want to hear anything more from them for a while.”

Mr Darling said he was worried that as the campaign reached its climax, the hostility between the two sides would increase. He was speaking days after several high-profile businesspeople warned that Scottish ministers were trying to stop them speaking about separation for fear they might help the No campaign.

Others have suffered more personal abuse: JK Rowling, the Harry Potter author, was attacked on Twitter and social media sites after announcing she had donated £1m to the Better Together cause.

Speaking about the allegations of senior businesspeople, Mr Darling said: “More people are speaking out about the fact they have been approached by ministers or civil servants and told to keep out.”

He added: “There should be absolute zero tolerance for any kind of intimidation, of businesspeople or anyone else.”

But he admitted his side had also been guilty of escalating the rhetoric in the debate. Kathy Wiles, a Labour candidate for the Westminster seat of Angus, was forced to stand down after she tweeted a picture making an implicit comparison between children at a rally for Yes Scotland and the Hitler Youth.

Mr Darling said of that incident: “It was a stupid thing to say. We need to think about what we are saying. On the 19th of September [the day after the referendum], we all have to live together.”

Mr Darling’s campaign team has been given a boost over the past six months, collecting £2.4m in registered donations, some of which came from City-based Conservative supporters. Better Together insiders said that while none of the three Westminster parties had donated to the campaign, they had instead gone on a funding drive, asking their regular donors to give instead to the pro-union cause.

Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy first minister, said after the donation figures were released: “Alongside the bankers, the No campaign’s funding comes from the landed gentry and peers of the realm. In contrast, Yes is the biggest grassroots political campaign Scotland has ever seen. We are a campaign that is of the people and for the people.”

But Mr Darling rejected that criticism, hitting back at the SNP: “They are happy to take money from America, or from Sean Connery [who has promised not to return to Scotland until it is independent]. It would be entirely inconsistent with our argument if we said, ‘You cannot donate if you live outside of Scotland’.”

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