Gordon Brown has warned the pro-union campaign that its “patronising” arguments risk galvanising the nationalist cause and prompting independence for Scotland “by mistake”.
The former Labour prime minister said the repeatedly negative tone of the Better Together campaign was creating a “Britain versus Scotland” debate that could end with an “irreversible” split. “Countries can be lost by mistake,” he said.
In his most forceful intervention in the campaign ahead of September’s independence referendum Mr Brown said that while the rise of Ukip had been described as “seismic”, this was nothing compared to the changes afoot in Scotland given its growing powers.
The idea of a unitary state was “dead and buried”, he said in a speech to journalists in the House of Commons. “There is more to come if Britain does not wake up, there will be home rule for Scotland within the UK as a minimum,” he said.
“We are as close to federalism as you can get where 80 per cent of the population are in one part of the country.”
Better Together has over the last year based its campaign for the union to remain intact on warnings about potential disadvantages to Scotland if it votes “Yes” in September. Whitehall has published research papers suggesting damage to Scotland’s social security, pensions system, economy and defence if it broke away from the UK.
Last week it was mocked after telling Scots they could spend extra money on pies, fish suppers and hot dogs with the £1,400 they could supposedly save by staying in the union. That was a patronising message which should be withdrawn immediately, Mr Brown said.
Rather, he said, the No campaign should focus on the shared benefits of the UK: “The pooling and sharing of resources across the UK, for defence, for security, for the economy, we would be very stupid if we did not talk about the important cements that hold the union together.”
Mr Brown has been an intermittent visitor to Parliament since losing the 2010 general election and some intimates suspect he will step down from his constituency next May.
In remarks likely to be seized upon by the Scottish National party, he called for David Cameron to debate independence with Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party. The prime minister has resisted the idea.
“I think the nationalists want people to think it’s Scotland versus Britain or Scotland versus England. And I think sometimes the government itself has fallen into this trap,” Mr Brown said. “That’s been a problem, you know.”
“People came up to Scotland and said ‘Britain says no to Scotland having its share in the British currency’, or ‘Britain says your defence jobs are going to go if Scotland goes independent’, or ‘Britain says you’re going to be bankrupt’ and it looked like it was Britain versus Scotland,” he said.
Mr Brown said his “patriotic vision” was for a Scotland with its own increasingly devolved parliament, its own strong sense of nationhood and its own institutions: “But we don’t break every link with Britain.”
Alistair Darling, the leader of Better Together – who was chancellor under Mr Brown – argued at a separate event on Monday that the SNP was “running out of time” to convince people ahead of the vote.
In recent weeks the “No” campaign has widened its lead over the SNP, with a poll of polls on June 1 giving the pro-union camp a 16-point lead.