As an operating politician, David Cameron would do best to keep out of Scotland’s referendum altogether, because any intervention he makes in it risks rebounding on him (such is his own unpopularity and his party’s north of the border).  But as Prime Minister, he simply can’t afford to do so, because the office he holds requires him to pitch in.  Furthermore, his occupancy of Downing Street might well not survive a Yes vote – as Brian Monteith pointed out to readers of this site a fortnight ago.  So he needs both to join and not join Scotland’s debate all at once – and the tensions of this contradiction are sharpened both by a political vulnerability which he dare not admit, and by his friend this September being his enemy next May: Labour.  Polls suggest that the most effective Unionist appeal to Scottish voters is directed to their heads, not their hearts – but, as Prime Minister, Cameron must tell the great family story of the Union in a way stirs passion and feeling.  And while he must sometimes make his stand in Scotland itself – he has spoken for the Union there before, and is due to so again before too long – any visit risks more harm than good to the cause.

The compromise that he found between this bevy of conflicted interests in his speech today was to wrap himself not in the Union Flag, and still less in Scotland’s saltire, but in the flag of the Olympics.  He has gambled on the popularity of the golden summer of 2012 at least gaining him a hearing among the Tory-phobic and Anglo-suspicious younger Scottish voters who may well decide the referendum result.  Summoning up the spirit of Chris Hoy is the best means he has found of conceding that the referendum is Scotland’s business while also claiming England’s, Wales’s and Northern Ireland’s interest in the result.  Beneath the modern patter about a “winning team” and “a brand” was a very traditional speech –  HMS Sheffield, Lord Lovat on the beach at D-Day, the Clyde shipywards, Our Island Story – with a bit of up-to-date garnishing about Sherlock, fashion and Nelson Mandela, plus a nod to his own West Highland ancestry and a cautious reference to the NHS.  “Some people have even advised me to stay out of this issue,” he said.  “But frankly, I care far too much to stay out of it.  This is personal.”  Indeed it is.

Footnote: the Commonwealth Games, with all their emotion-rousing potential, take place this summer.  And in them, of course, England and Scotland will compete separately. There will be no Team GB…