Will the Scottish referendum be the 'elephant in the stadium' at Commonwealth Games?

Leaders must avoid being seen to make political capital, while hoping to do just that

For the next fortnight, leaders on either side of the Scottish independence debate will desperately try to avoid being seen to make political capital out of the sporting spectacle unfolding in Glasgow – while privately hoping that their attendance at the Commonwealth Games will do just that.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg will both travel to Scotland tomorrow and stay for several days, attending the opening ceremony and associated receptions, holding “brush past” meetings with the heads of other Commonwealth nations and supporting the home countries from the stands. But they will steer clear of making any connection between the independence debate and sport, in case any intervention backfires.

“Clearly there’s a big decision facing the people of Scotland come September, but that’s a debate we can continue to have,” said a senior Liberal Democrat source. “I don’t think people, while they’re really enjoying watching the sport, particularly want to have that debate thrust in their face.”

On Thursday, Business Secretary Vince Cable will make a speech at the temporary “British Business House” at Glasgow’s City Chambers, located in George Square in the heart of the city. Billed as “an immersive brand experience of the very best of British excellence and innovation”, its aim is to build on the success of the British Business Embassy at London 2012, nurturing UK trade and investment.

A short walk away, also in the city centre, is Scotland House, which opened today. Described as “a hub to celebrate Scotland’s sporting success, culture and business potential”, it is difficult to view it as anything other than a direct rival to its British counterpart.

Video: Scottish referendum campaign

Publicly, Mr Cable is unlikely to risk directly linking the Games to the referendum debate, but the underlying message of a three-day UK investment event seeking to promote Brand Britain will be difficult to avoid. Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, also plans to attend the Games on Friday.

Asked whether politicians might seek to gain from the Games, Mr Clegg said: “It’s not there to serve any political agenda; it’s not there to serve as some soapbox for people to parade their own campaigns. It’s just about celebrating sporting excellence across the Commonwealth.   

“I’m hugely looking forward to going to the opening ceremony on Wednesday, and the less politics in the opening ceremony – well, having said as a politician I’m going, but you know what I mean, I will remain demurely in the background – but the less politics, particularly politics relating to the referendum campaign, the better. Let’s celebrate the sport, not the politics, at the Commonwealth Games.”

Westminster politicians appear concerned that Alex Salmond – who was criticised for holding the saltire aloft in the Royal Box when Andy Murray won Wimbledon last year – might use the Games to promote the Yes cause. Alistair Carmichael, the Scottish Secretary, warned the First Minister this week that any such attempt would be “exceptionally foolish” and would represent an “enormous mistake and a misjudgement of the mood, especially in Glasgow”.

He added: “People in Scotland will react badly to anybody who tries to make political capital from the endeavour of sportsmen and women.” But asked whether the London Olympics provided a boost to the union, Mr Carmichael replied: “What the Olympics did was to remind people of what it meant to be British.

“It was a very timely reminder to see the likes of Andy Murray, Chris Hoy and Katherine Grainger competing and winning as part of Team GB. Here were people we knew and were proud of as Scots performing as part of Team GB. So it was a reminder that we have got more than one identity and for most of us who are not nationalists, most of us were quite happy having at least two identities.”

The SNP’s Bob Doris criticised the remarks, accusing the Scottish Secretary of making “daft political points in relation to the Olympic Games” in the “same breath” as warning Mr Salmond not to do exactly the same thing with the Commonwealth Games.

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