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Scotland is still very much part of the UK, but this week’s overnight trip north of the border by David Cameron was a study in cautious public diplomacy.
Determined not to put a foot wrong amid an increasingly fierce debate over Scottish independence, the UK prime minister focused on charming local media. He limited his public contacts with the electorate on Friday to a session with a dozen newly enfranchised high school pupils – 16-year-olds have been given the vote for the referendum.
The meticulous planning reflected Downing Street’s worry that any confrontation with nationalists would be portrayed in the media as a humiliation.
Mr Cameron did stage one town hall meeting with members of the public on Friday – but only after he was safely south of the border and in Lancashire.
His Conservative party is deeply unpopular among wide sections of the Scottish electorate, and Scottish National party politicians crow that his visits are more likely to boost support for independence.
Challenged in an interview with ITV Border on Friday about his lack of contact with the public and refusal to hold a referendum debate with Alex Salmond, Scotland’s nationalist first minister, Mr Cameron said he was keen to make the case for union directly to Scots.
“I’ve made the same offer to everybody to sit down with undecided voters and have a debate,” he said. But he gave no details of why such an event had so far not been arranged.
Mr Cameron has been mocked by the SNP for his apparent timidity, but Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Tory defence secretary, said his approach was “extremely wise”.
Sir Malcolm, a Scot not seen as a cheerleader for Mr Cameron, said: “He is following the advice [of] a number of his Scottish colleagues. Alex Salmond wants to turn this into a Scotland versus England issue, and particularly an SNP versus the Conservatives issue. There's no reason why the rest of us should play that game."
In Scotland, Mr Cameron sought to strengthen support for union by promising that a No vote in September's referendum would open the way for the transfer of more powers to Edinburgh.
With his party under pressure in next week’s European elections, he has also cast himself as the only politician able to offer a vote on whether to remain in the EU.
He is planning to visit Scotland several more times before the September 18 vote – and may be unable to avoid hostile elements of public opinion.
If he attends the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer, as expected, he will hope to avoid the fate of George Osborne, the chancellor, who was booed at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.
Mr Cameron also tried during his visit to Scotland to present himself as a bipartisan figure, paying tribute to the former Labour leader John Smith, who died 20 years ago, and even to recent speeches about Scotland by Gordon Brown, his Labour predecessor in Downing Street.
He confirmed that he had no plans to resign as prime minister if Scotland voted for independence. "My future will be decided in about 360 days when the country goes to the polls for a general election," he said.
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