On a visit to Stirling for the event marking the contribution made by UK servicemen and women, Cameron angered Yes supporters by using the occasion to argue for a No vote.
The Prime Minister paid tribute to military personnel and their families, but quoted the Better Together campaigning slogan “Best of both worlds” when he called on Scotland to remain in the UK.
“There is a bigger message I think, perhaps, this year because we can consider what Scotland brings to the UK armed forces and what being part of a bigger entity brings for Scotland as well,” Cameron said.
Crowds gathered in Stirling for Armed Forces Day witnessed parades and an impressive air display during an event which coincided with the nearby festivities held to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.
Despite signals from Downing Street that Cameron would steer clear of constitutional politics in the run-up to the event, the Prime Minister yesterday said: “My message is always that Scotland gets the best of both worlds, and that’s what we want to see. More power through the Scottish Parliament to make its own decisions, but also the benefit of being part of a larger United Kingdom with – one advantage – these armed forces which can help protect our values and keep us safe.”
Last night Cameron’s comments were described as “disappointing” by the SNP’s defence spokesman Angus Robertson, MP for Moray.
“I am delighted that Armed Forces Day has been such a success – it is an important opportunity to show respect and admiration for our brave services,” Robertson said.
“It is disappointing that David Cameron has attempted to politicise the event, which is an error of judgment on his part. I don’t think our service men and women, and veterans who support a Yes vote, will be very impressed, including 101-year-old veteran Jimmy Sinclair – the last surviving Desert Rat – who is backing independence.”
Nelson Gledhill, 52, who served with the Scots Dragoon Guards from 1978 to 2002, said: “Politics should never enter into this day. This is a day to celebrate the Armed Forces, to meet up with your friends, to joke and laugh and remember that you are above ground and others aren’t so lucky.”
More than 35,000 people lined the streets to cheer veterans and serving personnel before gathering to watch an array of military displays.
Cameron joined Princess Anne in taking the salute from a huge parade comprised of serving personal from all three services as well as veterans from military campaigns as far back as the Second World War.
Yet hanging over the event, like the leaden skies that loomed in the morning and returned to herald a heavy thunderstorm in the afternoon, was the prospect that this could be the final Armed Forces Day of a United Kingdom.
During the march-past, an Indian-born veteran of the Parachute Regiment, Sergeant Milton Reilly, seized the opportunity to tell First Minister Alex Salmond, the Princess Royal and the Prime Minister in person what he thought of the referendum and his hopes that the UK would remain united, before he was moved along by the security detail.
Later the First Minister said: “It has been a great day. The first person I met today was Peter McCall, the D-Day veteran and 92-year-old, he told me he has been in the SNP since 1947 and is living for the day on 18 September, so if it is good enough for Peter…
“This is about recognition, about recognising Scotland’s huge military contribution, and what is important to understand is that people are here to show their support. They are a huge cross-section of the population and in particular there are working-class folk who are the backbone of this country.”
Among the crowds that lined the route feelings were passionate on both sides of the forthcoming referendum. A member of the Yes campaign in a blue and white T-shirt was handing out leaflets and Sarah Dawson, 21, was having a friendly argument with her brother Iain Dawson, 24, about Scotland’s future. “Of course we can go it alone,” said Dawson, while her brother said he would be sad if this autumn marked the end of the United Kingdom.
Further down the street Ruth King had decked out her house with red, white and blue bunting and a large Union Flag. “This has been wonderful to see. You’ve got to show your support for the armed forces, but I must say I’m rather panicky about the referendum.”
For a small group the key issue was not the imminent referendum but the military establishment and they wished to protest against what they saw as the glamorisation of war. Martyn Sabell, 69, was standing by a banner for the Glasgow Catholic Workers and said: “We should not be celebrating acts of violence. We are just glamorising the military.”
The parade departed from the esplanade of Stirling Castle, headed through the Old Town and was joined by cadets and serving personnel at the Albert Halls before all made their way to the events ground at the Royal Parklands.
During the afternoon there was a flypast by a Tornado GR4, a Lancaster and two Spitfires from the Battle of Britain display as well as a display by the RAF Typhoon.
Spencer Harron, 80, who served in the Parachute Regiment from 1952 to 1955, found himself in conversation with Princess Anne just as the Red Devils parachute display team were spiralling down from 3,000ft. Other displays included Royal Marines fast-roping from helicopters, pipe bands, an artillery gun salute and troops staging a ground assault complete with casualty evacuations.
Evidence that Armed Forces Day attracts a stoic audience came with a torrential downpour shortly after 3pm. It may have dampened the spirits of some but many held firm.
For Captain Frazer Stark, 25, of The Highlanders 4th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, the day had been a tremendous success. He said: “It has been a great day. It’s been great to see so many people and fantastic to see people come out and support us.”