EDINBURGH/LONDON - Prime Minister David Cameron begged Scots on Wednesday not to rip apart Britain's "family of nations", visiting Scotland in an attempt to stem a steep last minute rise in secessionist support ahead of a Sept. 18 referendum on independence.
In a sign of new panic in the British ruling elite over the fate of the 307-year-old union, Cameron and opposition leader Ed Miliband scrapped their weekly question-and-answer session in parliament to speak at separate events in Scotland.
"We do not want this family of nations to be ripped apart," Cameron, 47, said in an opinion piece published in the Daily Mail newspaper. "The United Kingdom is a precious and special country."
The prime minister, whose job may be on the line if he loses Scotland, tempered the emotion with a clear warning: "If the UK breaks apart, it breaks apart forever."
Cameron has until now been largely absent from the debate after conceding that his privileged background and centre-right politics mean he is not the best person to win over Scots, who returned just one Conservative lawmaker out of 59 in 2010.
Given the unpopularity of the Conservatives in Scotland, Cameron's trip is fraught with danger: if Scots vote for independence, Cameron will be blamed just as Britain prepares for a national election planned for May 2015.
Cameron, Miliband and third party Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg - all English born - raced up to Scotland.
They spoke at rallies in major cities surrounded by supporters bearing "No" posters. But nationalist leader Alex Salmond said the visits were a sign of panic that would only help the secessionist "Yes" cause.
"If I thought they were coming by bus I'd send the bus fare," Salmond said, describing Cameron as the most unpopular Conservative leader ever among Scots and Miliband as the most distrusted Labour leader.
In Edinburgh, independence supporter James Curry, 33, said he found the visits by politicians from London "insulting and patronising".
"They should've been up here ages ago. Instead, they're having a wee day trip, paid for by expenses," he said. "There's so much at stake, and it seems so real already, I just hope we make it."
Sterling hit a fresh 10-month low against the dollar and a three-month low against the euro, with traders citing an unverified web poll conducted by an independent blogger which gave the "Yes" camp a strong lead.