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David Cameron has made a last-ditch plea to Scots to vote against independence in this week’s referendum, begging them: “Do not break this family apart.”
With just three days to go before the historic vote and polls showing only a narrow lead for the No campaign, the prime minister travelled to Aberdeen for what his aides said was a final appearance in Scotland before ballots are cast.
Mr Cameron used a speech to party activists to warn Scottish voters that a Yes vote would be irreversible and would constitute a “painful divorce”.
“If Scotland votes Yes, the UK will split and we will go our separate ways for ever,” the prime minister said.
He repeated the warning he gave last week not to use the referendum as an opportunity to punish his Conservative-led government. “If you don’t like me, I won’t be here forever,” he said.
And in an emotional plea on behalf of other Britons without a vote, the prime minister said: “I speak for millions of people across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and many in Scotland too, who would be utterly heartbroken by the break-up of our United Kingdom.”
With polls showing guarantees of further devolution could help win over undecided voters, Mr Cameron signed up to a timetable to grant further powers to the Scottish parliament proposed by Gordon Brown, the former prime minister.
He promised to publish draft legislation by next January on “a major, unprecedented programme of devolution” with extra Scottish powers over tax, spending and welfare.
Mr Cameron’s personal intervention in Scotland on the independence debate on Monday stands in contrast to a cross-party campaign to save the union which he has largely delegated to others.
Downing Street justifies this approach by saying its aim is to place the prime minister above the fray of normal politics. “The last thing we wanted was for this to be England versus Scotland; the Tories versus the SNP; Cameron versus Salmond,” said one Number 10 adviser.
But there have also been practical considerations. Aware of his unpopularity in Scotland as a southern English, Eton-educated Conservative, Mr Cameron told the Commons in January: “I humbly accept that while I am sure there are many people in Scotland who would like to hear me talk about this issue, my appeal doesn’t stretch to every single part.”
Given their respective ratings north of the border, Mr Cameron was desperate to stop Alex Salmond turning the referendum into a popularity contest between the two men, and ruled out from the start taking part in a televised debate with the nationalist first minister.
Instead, the prime minister hoped to emphasise the status of his office, making set-piece speeches to invited audiences, such as that he delivered in Edinburgh in February 2012 when he evoked the names Adam Smith, David Hume and Keir Hardie in defence of the union.
That initial speech in Edinburgh set the tone for the prime minister’s subsequent campaigning, which has been occasional, carefully controlled and usually focused on the positive case for the union.
The tougher task of challenging Mr Salmond and giving voters the kind of detailed factual arguments that might persuade them to stay in the union has been left to Labour politician Alistair Darling, the Scot who heads the cross-party Better Together campaign, and Danny Alexander, the Scottish Liberal Democrat Treasury chief secretary.
The prime minister’s strategy looked wise during the months when the No campaign had a big lead in the polls but has been increasingly challenged in recent weeks as the Yes camp closed the gap. Mr Cameron has now found himself facing charges of having done too little, too late to save the union.
In an attempt to counter that criticism, Mr Cameron made a last-minute decision to travel to Scotland last week. During that visit, he urged voters not to vote for independence purely to “give the effing Tories a kick”.
The abrupt change in tone only fed accusations by Alex Salmond that this was a sign of panic, prompted by a surprise poll two days earlier giving the Yes side its first lead.
Despite Mr Salmond’s characterisation of Mr Cameron as first uncaring, and then panicking, aides insist that Thursday’s vote has been the prime minister’s main priority for many months – not least for fear of going down in history as the leader who lost the union.