David Cameron on Friday launched a personal campaign to save the UK, warning that the country would be “deeply diminished” if Scotland votes to secede in this year’s independence referendum.

In a dramatic intervention the UK prime minister claimed there are just “seven months to save the most extraordinary country in history” and made an impassioned plea to Scots: “We want you to stay.”

The speech at the Olympic Stadium in London marks a change of tack for Mr Cameron, who is planning to take a much more visible approach in the run-up to the September referendum.

He admitted last month that interventions by a southern English Conservative prime minister might antagonise Scots and be counterproductive: “My appeal doesn’t stretch to every part,” he joked to MPs.

But senior Tories have been urging Mr Cameron to get more involved and the prime minister is now planning several visits to Scotland including holding a cabinet meeting there this month.

His move comes amid private Tory criticism last year of the “comatose” pro-union Better Together campaign led by Alistair Darling, the former Labour chancellor, and a realisation in Number 10 that the result could be closer than originally thought.

A poll by TNS-BMRB this month found support for the Yes campaign on 29 per cent – reflecting a gradual creeping up of support for independence – with supporters of the 307-year-old union on 41 per cent.

Mr Darling has shrugged off the criticism, insisting in an interview with the Financial Times that the campaign was a “marathon not a sprint”. He said there was “a lot to play for” with as many as 1m out of 4m voters undecided, but insisted that support for the union remained strong and stable.

“Being attacked by the Tories in Scotland is not exactly a bad thing,” Mr Darling said, but added that he wanted Mr Cameron to campaign in Scotland. “He’s the prime minister of the United Kingdom. All this stuff about him costing us support is nationalist claptrap.”

Mr Cameron’s speech on Friday in the centre of the Olympic velodrome, made an undisguised effort to revive the patriotism inspired by “Team GB” in the 2012 Olympic Games, which saw passionate crowds in London cheering on Scottish athletes such as Sir Chris Hoy, the cyclist, and tennis player Andy Murray.

“For me, the best thing about the Olympics was the red, the white, and the blue . . . it was the summer that patriotism came out of the shadows and into the sunshine,” Mr Cameron said.

“If we lost Scotland – if the UK changed – we would rip the rug from under our own reputation,” Mr Cameron said. “The plain fact is we matter more in the world together. There can be no complacency about the result of this referendum.”

Responding to previews of the speech, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s deputy first minister said: “This is a cowardly speech from a prime minister who uses the Olympic Park in London to give high-handed lectures against Scotland’s independence but hasn’t got the guts to come to Scotland or anywhere else to make his case in a head to head debate.

“David Cameron, as the Tory prime minister, is the very embodiment of the democratic case for a Yes vote for an independent Scotland – and he knows it.

“A Yes vote will put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands, and will mean we will never again have to endure Tory governments, prime ministers and policies we didn’t vote for.”

Ms Sturgeon added: “As for using the Olympic Stadium on the day the Winter Olympics begin and seeking to invoke the successes of London 2012 as an argument against Scotland taking its future into its own hands, it betrays the extent of the jitters now running through the No campaign.”

Mr Cameron, who spoke out against a UK-wide referendum on the issue, pointed pitched his plea at residents of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, arguing that while they might not have a vote in September’s referendum, they do have a voice, and can help persuade friends and family to vote no.

Mr Cameron’s strategy echoes that of Canadian unionists in 1995, who staged a huge rally in Montreal just three days ahead of the Québécois vote on independence to show their support for a united Canada.

That rally – attended by 100,000 Canadians from outside the province – was credited with helping to trigger a late swing towards the pro-union side, which won the poll with only just over 50 per cent of the vote.

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