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UK Leaders Head for Scotland in Last Ditch Effort to Prevent Union Break-up

Polls show independence referendum on a knife edge as Scottish first minister mocks 'panicked pledges' from Westminster.

by Hannah Strange
Sep 10 2014, 10:45am

Image via Reuters

Britain's leaders flew into Scotland on Wednesday in a last ditch effort to win back voters as the Yes campaign gathers momentum ahead of next week's referendum on Scottish independence.

Alarmed by a Monday poll putting the Yes camp in the lead for the first time, Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour opposition, abandoned their traditional weekly parliamentary debate and headed north in an attempt to pull the 300-year-old union back from the brink of collapse.

The move was mocked by Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, the leader of the pro-independence movement, who described the trio as "the most distrusted Westminster leaders ever." He predicted the arrival of the men would only boost support for the Yes campaign, which on Monday scored 51 per cent in a survey by YouGov.

The visit came as Cameron delivered an impassioned appeal to Scotland not to "rip apart" the United Kingdom.

In an unusually personal article in the Daily Mail, the prime minister told Scots that the rest of the UK "desperately wants you to stay." A brighter future for Scotland would come from staying in the United Kingdom while having substantial new powers, he said.

All three main Westminster parties have backed a plan of action which would a handover of enhanced powers to Scotland's already devolved parliament on 19 September, the day after the referendum, should it yield a victory for the union.

Cameron also cautioned that there would be no turning back should Scotland vote to leave the union born in 1707.

"If the UK breaks apart, it breaks apart forever," Cameron wrote.

The former home secretary and Labour Party grandee David Blunkett also joined the feverish push from Westminister, appealing to every "right-thinking" person living in the rest of the United Kingdom to call their friends and relatives with votes in Scotland and ask them to vote against independence.

"We are and surely wish to remain equal citizens of the UK. You do not have a vote but you do have a voice," he told The Sun newspaper.

"It is fundamental that those they care about and who care for them understand the lasting implications of a vote which would create the border of a completely separate country," Blunkett said.

Addressing questions of identity in a union where many, if not most, citizens, have heritage from both England and Scotland, he added: "In it, future generations would have a different citizenship and those they call family and friends would live under a different state."

Sir John Major, the former Conservative prime minister, told Britain's Radio 4 that he did not believe all Scots had fully thought through the consequences of a Yes vote.

In comments that risk angering Scots who have debated the issue for years, Major said: "Of course they are a highly intelligent nation the Scots, but there are some people I think who haven't focused and realised all of the implications. What is going to be the implication for Scotland in an unknown number a years, I don't know how many when the oil runs out or becomes a trickle. It is going to happen and it will affect young people who are voting in this election. They should consider that."

But he also became emotional as he discussed the prospect of the end of the union, saying it seemed "incredible" that "Scots who work next to us, live next to us, are our friends, our neighbours, our work mates, suddenly become foreigners."

He said he was praying for Scots not to back a move which would have a "profound" impact on everyone in the UK, and invoked the memory of the Scottish and English fighting side by side in battle.

"This year is the 100th anniversary of the First World War - as we honour those who fought together then would it not be extraordinary if the SNP (Salmond's Scottish National Party) broke up the most successful union and partnership in all history in any part of the world?"

The Westminster trio - the leaders of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties - will travel separately and will not appear together in Scotland.

Salmond insisted their pleas would fall on deaf ears, and challenged the prime minister to a repeat of the previous televised debate, which the Scottish leader admitted he had lost.

"I relish David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg coming to Scotland - collectively, they are the least trusted Westminster leaders ever, and this day trip will galvanise the 'Yes' vote.

"No-one believes their panicked pledges - it is a phoney timetable for measly powers. A 'Yes' vote delivers a real timetable for the full powers that Scotland needs."

He added: "The No side have lost their poll lead, and people are switching directly over to Yes - if David Cameron thinks he is the answer to the No campaign's disintegration disarray, let him put his case to the test in a head-to-head debate."

Follow Hannah Strange on Twitter: @hannahkstrange