GLASGOW — The British political establishment descended on Scotland Wednesday to plead for a united United Kingdom, after polls suggested the once-fanciful notion of Scots voting to break from Britain has become a real possibility in next week’s referendum.
The leaders of the three main London-based parties — all of them unpopular in Scotland — wooed skeptical Scottish voters with the fervour of a rejected lover. But some Scots seemed unmoved, and increasingly confident independence leader Alex Salmond accused his opponents of succumbing to panic.
In a rare display of cross-party unity, Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat chief Nick Clegg all pulled out of a weekly House of Commons question session to make a campaign dash to Scotland, as polls indicated the two sides are neck-and-neck ahead of the Sept. 18 referendum.
Cameron said Scottish independence would break his heart, in a personal plea aimed at preserving the 307-year-old Anglo-Scottish union — and preventing himself from going down in history as the last prime minister of Great Britain. He is likely to face pressure from his Conservative Party to step down if Scots vote to secede.
“I would be heartbroken … if this family of nations is torn apart,” Cameron told an invited audience at the Edinburgh headquarters of the Scottish Widows insurance firm.
While Cameron has ordered the blue-and-white Scottish flag to be flown over his office at No. 10 Downing Street until the vote, his critics noted that he did not risk speaking before an uninvited audience of Scots on the street.
Cameron’s Conservatives are deeply unpopular in Scotland, where the welfare cuts, unemployment and privatization of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s time are remembered with bitterness. Many independence supporters cite the Cameron government’s budget-slashing policies as one reason they want to leave the United Kingdom.
Cameron insisted the vote was not about giving “the effing Tories” a kicking.
“This is not a decision about the next five years,” he said. “This is a decision about the next century.”
Like Cameron, Miliband sounded like a lover pleading for his partner not to leave, telling an audience of Labour supporters near Glasgow that he supported Scotland with “head, heart and soul,” and promising change if the union stuck together.
“Please stay with us,” he said. “Stay with us because we are stronger together. Stay with us so we can change Britain together.”
Though many Scots traditionally support Labour, Miliband is widely seen as out of touch. And like Cameron, he faces a predicament in the event of independence. Labour holds two-thirds of Scotland’s seats in the British Parliament, and their removal would make it harder for Labour to become the governing party again.
The politicians’ entreaties did little to impress committed Yes voters.
“If Cameron, Clegg and Miliband really cared, they would have been up here campaigning to save the U.K. weeks ago and not just at the last minute when the polls suggest there’s a chance they could lose,” said Alistair Davidson, a computer programmer from Dunblane in central Scotland.
Salmond said the London-based politicians were only in Scotland because “they are panicking,” and predicted their visit would help his Yes campaign.
“If I thought they were coming by bus, I’d send the bus fare,” he said.
The wave of love from politicians was accompanied by ripples of unease about the economic impact of independence.
Britain’s currency, the pound sterling, and shares in Scotland-based financial institutions have both sagged amid uncertainty over what currency an independent Scotland would use and whether businesses and capital would flee across the border.
Salmond’s administration argues that North Sea oil revenue, much of it in Scottish waters, will underpin the prosperity of an independent Scotland. Others say that view is based on an optimistic assessment of how much oil remains.
The chief of the oil giant BP said Wednesday that remaining reserves are “smaller and more challenging to develop than in the past.”
“Future prospects for the North Sea are best served by maintaining the existing capacity and integrity of the United Kingdom,” BP chief executive Bob Dudley said.
Financial group Standard Life, which employs 5,000 people in Scotland, added to the jitters, announcing it is ready to move parts of its business to England if the Yes voters win.
In a statement to shareholders, the company said it has put in place “precautionary measures,” including transferring pensions, investments and other long-term savings to England, to ensure they remain part of Britain’s currency and tax regime.
Salmond said suggestions that Standard Life would pull jobs from Scotland were “nonsense.”
But Murray Wilson, a mechanic from Livingston, west of Edinburgh, expressed the uncertainty that is driving some voters to reject independence.
“It’s not that I don’t think Scotland could be independent,” he said. “But why take the risk?”