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Former British prime minister Gordon Brown gestures during his speech in at a No campaign event in Glasgow Sept. 17, 2014.Matt Dunham/The Associated Press

If Scotland votes Thursday to reject independence and remain in the United Kingdom, British Prime Minister David Cameron may want to thank his old rival Gordon Brown for saving his job.

Mr. Brown, who was prime minister for three years before being ousted in 2010 by Mr. Cameron's Conservatives, was left on the sidelines for most of the two-year campaign in Scotland. The Renfrewshire, Scotland, native was seen by the pro-union Better Together campaign – which is led by Mr. Brown's one-time cabinet colleague Alistair Darling – as a spent political force, and too divisive to be helpful.

But as polls tightened in the final weeks – the pro-independence side now appears to be within striking distance of victory – criticism has mounted of the Better Together campaign and Mr. Darling. They are blamed for spending too much time making complex and negative-sounding arguments about why an independent Scotland would suffer economically, all the while losing ground to the sunny optimism offered by the Yes campaign headed by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond.

(Scotland's vote on independence: The Globe's simple primer)

Over the past few weeks, Mr. Brown – who as a former prime minister is a reminder of how much clout Scotland has wielded within the U.K. – has been unleashed. On Tuesday, the former Labour Party leader was credited with negotiating a pact that saw the three main British parties promise to sustain a higher level of per capita public spending in Scotland in the event of a No vote.

By Wednesday, less than 24 hours before the vote, Mr. Brown had unofficially taken over from Mr. Darling as the No side's lead speaker. Prowling the stage at a Glasgow rally, he injected some of the charisma – and heart – that the Better Together campaign has been accused of lacking.

"They do not know what they are doing. They are leading us into a trap," he said of the Yes side before turning to address the cheering No supporters. "Have confidence, and say to our friends, 'For reasons of solidarity, sharing, justice, pride in Scotland – the only answer for Scotland's sake, and for Scotland's future, is vote No.'"

Mr. Brown's intervention could well prove crucial. As the gap has narrowed – three different polls released Tuesday put the No side at 52 per cent of decided voters to 48 per cent for Yes, with 6 to 14 per cent still undecided – polls have shown that it is primarily Labour Party supporters who are switching from the pro-union to pro-independence camps. Mr. Brown reminded the Glasgow rally that it was a Labour Party government in London, not the Scottish National Party, that created the Scottish parliament that now enjoys wide powers.

"Gordon Brown reminds me of Lucien Bouchard and the role he played, even though it's the wrong camp," said Annis May Timpson, director of Canadian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, referring to how Mr. Bouchard's entry into the 1995 Quebec referendum energized the separatist side. "He's very different from the dour Alistair Darling."

Mr. Brown has far outshone the other politicians dispatched from London to try to win Scotland over. Labour's current leader, Ed Miliband, was jeered and jostled at an appearance in Edinburgh on Tuesday, and cancelled plans to appear alongside Mr. Brown in Glasgow on Wednesday.

And while Mr. Cameron has delivered a pair of impassioned speeches over the past 10 days, he and his government are reviled in Scotland because of their austerity policies. If the Scots vote to leave, he will come under immediate pressure to resign.

Even though it's the No side that polls show is likely to win on Thursday, the Yes camp clearly feels that it has the momentum in the last hours before the voting starts. The streets of Glasgow were clogged Wednesday with young Yes side campaigners handing out campaign literature and trying to sway the undecided voters, who, polls suggest, may have the future of Scotland – and the U.K. – in their hands.

In an open letter published on the eve of the referendum, Mr. Salmond urged Scots to "look past the increasingly desperate and absurd scare stories being generated daily from Downing Street."

The No side has emphasized the questions about what currency an independent Scotland would use – the Bank of England has rejected Mr. Salmond's suggestion of a currency union that would allow Scotland to continue using the pound sterling – and the debate over how quickly Scotland would be allowed to join the European Union.

Mr. Salmond has said such issues will be negotiated in the 18 months between a Yes vote and a planned March, 2016, declaration of independence.

"Are there challenges for Scotland to overcome? Undoubtedly. But my question is this: Who better to meet those challenges on behalf of our nation than us? We must trust ourselves," he wrote.

Stuart McDonald, a senior researcher for the Yes side, told The Globe and Mail that he believes that the polling companies were underrepresenting certain key groups, and that he was "quietly confident" that Scots would vote for independence on Thursday.