LONDON — Marking the formal beginning of the British government’s campaign to preserve the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron urged Scots to vote in September to remain in the union, saying Friday that without Scotland, Britain would be “deeply diminished.”
“We want you to stay,” said Cameron, an entreaty that signaled a shift from the current pro-union campaign, which has featured dark warnings about financial and legal difficulties for Scotland should the Scots vote for independence. With seven months to go until the vote, he said, the outcome remains up in the air.
Cameron does not want to be the prime minister who lost Scotland and began the breakup of the United Kingdom, even as he has promised Britons a similar referendum during the next Parliament on remaining in the European Union. Without Scotland, Great Britain would be considerably less great, he argued, and would be faced with new problems about borders and income, even about where to base its nuclear submarines.
Cameron chose the velodrome at the Olympic Park in east London for his first major intervention in the Scottish referendum campaign, trying to appeal to the national pride that surrounded the highly successful Summer Olympics in London 18 months ago. Then, Scots were prominent in what was known as “Team G.B.,” and one of the local heroes of the Games, Scottish tennis player Andy Murray, is known to favor remaining in the union.
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“For me, the best thing about the Olympics wasn’t the winning,” Cameron said. “It was the red, the white, the blue. It was the summer that patriotism came out of the shadows and into the sun, everyone cheering as one for Team G.B.”
He focused on the importance of the “powerful” United Kingdom brand and how much it mattered in the world, and how it could be damaged. Scottish independence would “rip the rug from under our own reputation,” Cameron said, adding: “We matter more in the world together,” the same argument used by Britons who want Britain to remain in the European Union.
Cameron said that while the decision was up to the Scots, “all 63 million of us” — in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — “are profoundly affected.”
“We would be deeply diminished without Scotland,” he said.
He pulled out all the Scottish stops, citing the Scottish Olympian Chris Hoy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his own West Highland heritage. He also mentioned Scotch whisky, saying it “adds 135 pounds to the U.K.’s balance of payments every single second,” which in another context might be an incentive for Scots to vote for independence.
However, with Britons anxious about making ends meet, Cameron did not mention Adam Smith, the Scot famous for the “invisible hand” of the free market.
About 4 million people older than 16 and living in Scotland will be able to take part in the referendum, promised by the ruling Scottish National Party, on Sept. 18. Scots living outside Scotland cannot vote.
Early opinion polls have shown a large plurality of Scots intending to vote to remain in the union, but the numbers are soft. In some recent polls, greater numbers have said they intend to vote for independence.
Given the unpopularity of Cameron and his Conservative Party in Scotland, which is dominated by the Scottish National Party and the opposition Labour Party, Cameron has been wary of intervening too much in the debate, fearing a counterproductive effect. The pro-union campaign, which is meant to be nonpartisan, is led by Alistair Darling, a Labour member of Parliament from Scotland and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had a Cabinet post during the entire Labour reign from 1997 to 2010.
Darling and his team have been emphasizing questions about whether an independent Scotland would have to reapply to join the European Union; whether it could continue to use the pound or adopt the euro; whether it would have a truly independent central bank; and whether oil and gas revenues from declining production in the North Sea would be enough to fund Scotland’s budget.
The immediate response from the Scottish National Party to the excerpts — the “preaction,” as one BBC radio announcer put it — was predictably critical, accusing Cameron of being afraid to come to Scotland and debate the party leader, Alex Salmond.
Salmond called Cameron “a big feartie,” or coward, for refusing a debate.