Scotland’s constitutional battle has reached the “sharp end”, with both sides embarked on a whirlwind of activity to mark the 100-day referendum countdown.
Pro-independence chiefs urged Scots to seize the “opportunity of the century” as they revealed more than 780,000 voters had signed up to their declaration.
On the pro-Union side, a new slogan was unveiled by Better Together simply stating “No Thanks” to independence. It came as former prime minister Gordon Brown said David Cameron should submit to Alex Salmond’s demands for a face-to-face TV debate.
Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon staged a women-only Scottish Cabinet event aimed at addressing the shortfall in support for independence among women.
Yesterday marked the start of the last 100 days of campaigning. On 18 September, voters will decide if Scotland should stay part of the UK or become independent. Despite most polls leaving the Yes campaign significantly behind – some put it up to 20 points behind – pro-independence chiefs insist they can still close the gap.
Mr Salmond said he would “love to be hugely ahead” but added said: “There are advantages in being that bit behind. We’re trying harder, we’re campaigning harder.
“We know we’ve got the right argument, we know we’ve got a receptive audience among the people. If we get that case across, we win the referendum. If you win the arguments, you win the referendum and certainly we’re within touching distance.
“People say this is the first big decision, or the greatest decision, for 300 years. This is the first time that the people of Scotland have had a democratic opportunity to vote themselves into independence. It’s an opportunity not just of a lifetime, it’s the opportunity of a century, and I believe in my heart people will grasp that opportunity.”
The Better Together campaign’s “No Thanks” slogan is aimed providing a politer edge to its message, amid criticism it has been too negative. Campaign leader Alistair Darling addressed a Glasgow rally yesterday and pledged to use the next 100 days to bring the country together around a Scottish Parliament with beefed-up powers.
Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have all signed up to this – in varying degrees – with proposals to be contained in their manifestos for the 2015 UK general election.
This means the alternative to a Yes vote on the referendum ballot paper will be real change for Holyrood, according to Mr Darling. “If people vote No, it will be a vote for change. It’s not the status quo,” he insisted.
“All three parties have come up with proposals – and they’re not that very different, actually – and I hope, in the next period, they will come together, so we’ll have a proposal that can be put to people.
“People will know all three party leaders have said there will be a commitment to legislate after the next general election, so there’s a clear choice, a choice for change within the United Kingdom or simply breaking away and leaving the UK.”
Mr Darling said the referendum campaign must not be seen as “an auction of patriotism, in which Nationalists are the highest bidders”.
He said the “emotional argument” for the Union “isn’t about waving flags – it’s about the emotion people feel for their country”.
He said the remaining 100 days would “decide much about our future and, more importantly, our children’s future”.
The former chancellor went on: “Whatever our problems and challenges in Scotland, breaking up our small island into separate states is not the answer. The differences which exist within our society are not defined by a border that separates Scotland and England.”
Mr Darling said it was “because we want the best for Scotland that we reject the option of dividing our small island into separate states”.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said a No vote in September would be the “patriotic choice” to deliver the best of both worlds in Scotland.
“A No vote ensures more powers for the Scottish Parliament, but still guarantees we can keep the pound,” she said.
“I will be spending every day of the next 14 weeks arguing passionately for Scotland’s place in the UK. It’s a future which ensures greater power and responsibility at home, along with greater opportunity and security in the world at large.”
Blair Jenkins, chief executive of the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign, said both sides were reaching the “sharp end of the campaign”.
He said his group had gathered 789,191 declarations from people who say they will back independence. He said: “I know there are many people who remain to be convinced, and it is by talking with them in millions of conversations that we will win them over to Yes.
“Over the next 100 days, I appeal to every single person who believes in Yes to make it their business to talk with and persuade those who remain undecided to come our way.
“The final part of the campaign is going to be about who gets the tone and the mood of the campaign right.
“A lot of this will come down to who people trust. Why would people trust David Cameron and George Osborne going forward any more than they have up until now?”
He dismissed claims the unionist parties’ promises of more Holyrood powers would boost the No campaign. “What people have to be realistic about is what will the appetite be at Westminster seriously to push through further constitutional changes for Scotland after this referendum, and when you’ve got a very full agenda,” he said.
Meanwhile, Scottish Labour MP Jim Murphy will today launch his “Barrhead to Barra” tour, taking in 100 Scottish towns before the vote. He said he would not be “sitting in a campaign HQ or refreshing Twitter every few minutes”, adding: “I know organising so many open-air meetings isn’t without its dangers – not from hecklers or Nationalists but mostly from Scotland’s weather.”