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David Cameron has sought to boost support for his Conservative party among voters in Scotland by casting himself as the only politician able to offer them a vote on whether to remain in the European Union.
Speaking to BBC Scotland from the small southern village of Ecclefechan during a two-day trip north of the border, Mr Cameron said Scotland’s independence referendum and his promise of a UK referendum on EU membership reflected his view that “you can’t hold people in an organisation against their will”.
The prime minister, who has pledged to transfer more powers to Scotland if it votes to stay in the union in September, said he also hoped to see the UK choose to remain in a reformed EU.
“But it’s time we were given a choice about our European future and I’m the only prime minister and politician who can guarantee that, because we will hold an in-out referendum by the end of 2017 if I’m prime minister after the next election,” he said.
Mr Cameron’s comments come as the Tories face a challenge from the United Kingdom Independence party in this month’s European parliamentary election. The Conservatives currently hold one of Scotland's European seats, but some polls on voting intentions suggest Ukip is only a few points behind.
While support for EU membership is generally stronger in Scotland than in England, Mr Cameron insisted that his desire for both EU reform and an in-out referendum was supported by a majority north of the border.
Scottish National party politicians say the unpopularity of the Conservatives in Scotland means Mr Cameron’s visit is more likely to boost support for independence than for union.
In an editorial, the Scotsman newspaper gave cautious approval to the prime minister’s determinedly positive rhetoric before and during his trip – including telling Scotland that it put the “Great” in Great Britain.
But it said Mr Cameron's presence was problematic for the Better Together campaign against independence: “The No campaign will be happy as long as he doesn’t lose them existing supporters,” said the newspaper in an editorial.
Mr Cameron’s trip has so far focused mainly on media engagements as well as a visit to a Glasgow army reserves barracks where he chatted with troops about recruitment and the forthcoming Commonwealth Games.
UK government officials declined to comment on what the prime minister was doing in Ecclefechan or how many opportunities the prime minister would have to speak to ordinary voters.
The SNP on Friday slammed a report from the House of Lords committee that grappled with the constitutional challenges that would follow a Yes vote.
The committee warned of a period of “constitutional limbo” and argued that the UK government should not feel bound by Scottish government's target date of independence by March 2016.
But Angus MacNeil, SNP member of the UK parliament, said the House of Lords was an “undemocratic anachronism” with no right to lecture on democratic processes.
“It will be elected representatives who will lead Scotland’s transition to independence – not some elite club whose members can still turn up for just half an hour’s work and get a £300 daily allowance,” Mr MacNeil said.
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