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  By a Newsnet reporter

The SNP have accused Prime Minister David Cameron of "running scared" and of using former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling, head of the Better Together campaign, as a "human shield". 

The accusation came after Downing Street ruled out any prospect of the heads of the UK and Scottish governments participating in a head-to-head debate on Scottish independence.

Although Mr Cameron promised to "campaign to keep our United Kingdom together with every single fibre that I have" after the SNP's 2011 election landslide, senior Conservatives have reportedly dismissed the proposed debate between Mr Cameron and First Minister Alex Salmond as an "SNP wheeze".

Plans for a debate were revived last week after Mr Darling challenged Mr Salmond to a debate when the Scottish Government publishes its White Paper on independence in November.  As head of the Scottish government, Mr Salmond has made no secret of his desire to take on the head of the UK government in a head-to-head debate, but the man who wishes to remain the Prime Minister of Scotland, and whose government directs the No campaign, is proving reluctant to get involved in defending the Union.

The SNP also accused the Conservative-led UK government of being happy to publish anti-independence reports which later prove to be without substance or which are based upon dubious statistics, but that the head of that government is remarkably reticent to make a positive and substantive case for retaining the Union to the Scottish electorate.  

Downing Street sources insist that the head of the Scottish government ought to debate backbench Labour MP Alistair Darling, who chairs the official No campaign. 

Speaking to the Herald newspaper, a Downing Street spokesperson said: "Mr Darling is the leader of the campaign to keep Scotland in the UK and is making that case forcefully.  Mr Darling is setting out the case and it's this case opponents will have to give answers to."

The SNP have retorted that Mr Cameron is using Mr Darling as a "human shield", and point out that in 2010 Mr Darling accused Mr Cameron of hiding behind the Liberal Democrats and using them as "human shields" to further the Westminster government's cuts and austerity agenda.

Commenting, SNP MSP Annabelle Ewing – who sits on the Referendum Bill Committee - said:

“The reality is that the case against independence is being led by the Tory-led government at Westminster - they are publishing the reports which are supposed to amount to the case for a No vote, but the person who leads that government is running scared of debating with the head of the Scottish Government.

"David Cameron said that he would oppose independence 'with every single fibre' he has - but that apparently doesn't extend to debating on TV with Alex Salmond!

"David Cameron is running scared of a head-to-head debate in Scotland because he knows that – as a Tory Prime Minister the people of Scotland didn't vote for – he is the No campaign’s biggest liability.

"The fact that Alistair Darling is willing to act as David Cameron's human shield – which he used to criticise the Lib Dems for – leaves us all wondering exactly what the positive case for Westminster control actually is.

“Alex Salmond has made clear that he will debate with Mr Cameron at any time ahead of the referendum – we have nothing to fear in a debate about the future of Scotland, and the people of Scotland deserve to hear from the First Minister and Prime Minister in such a direct exchange of views.

“Mr Cameron’s refusal to debate Scottish independence speaks volumes about the UK Government’s attitude to Scotland - they are happy to publish anti-independence reports which fail to stand up to scrutiny, but the head of that government isn't even prepared to debate the issues in Scotland."

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