Project fear is a fascinating insight into the characters and thought processes of those at the heart of the Better Together campaign against Scottish independence during the referendum and the fallout in the 2015 Westminster elections.
The book is based on interviews with over 60 sources and filled with candid anecdotes showing the factionalism and egos of the three parties involved in the No campaign. Its very readable prose style races along and recaptures the frantic energy of the last days of the referendum campaign.
We are taken through the setup of Better Together by campaign director Blair McDougall and shown Alastair Darling’s reluctance to take the lead role. The funding crisis and money mismanagement are revealed. The book focuses on the upper echelons of the Better Together campaign, their media manipulation and fixation on polling. This unwittingly reveals glimpses of the strategical failings of the team and the complete misunderstanding and underestimation of the seismic changes taking place in Scottish politics.
A board member tells us, “We spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on polling, with no money to do anything with what we’d discovered.” Their six focus groups were bizarrely segmented in order of commitment to the union — Mature Status Quo, Hard-pressed Unionists, Comfortable Pragmatists, Uncommitted Security Seekers, Blue Collar Bravehearts and Scottish Exceptionalists — suggesting little understanding of the class nature of the issue.
Pike tells us in great detail about the behind the scenes incidents of all the major turning points of the long campaign, such as the interventions from Bank of England governor Mark Carney and Osborne’s famous speech ruling out currency union. He also recalls the sometimes hilarious gaffes and missteps, from the heckling of Ed Miliband and 104 Labour MPs and MEPs by a protester in a rickshaw playing the Star Wars Imperial march theme — “Say hello to your imperial masters...” — to #PatronisingBTLady trending on Twitter after the sexist political broadcast telling us, “It’s too early to be discussing politics. Eat your cereal.”
There is as much to be learned from what is not discussed. There is only one quick mention of social media — in a campaign that saw a flourishing of Yes activists expressing opinions on Twitter and Facebook as the role of the state broadcaster BBC became clear.
Discussion of the radical left’s role is entirely missing except for a mention of Rupert Murdoch’s fact-finding trip to Glasgow where he “arrived with a preconceived vision of a Celtic low-tax tiger, then he saw Trots on the street”. There is no mention of the explosion of grassroots activity from the Radical Independence Campaign or the resurgence of packed town hall meetings and Tommy Sheridan’s Hope over Fear tour, showing Better Together’s complete lack of focus on these areas of campaigning.
After the referendum result, the book leads on to the campaign and earthquake result of the 2015 Westminster election. Again there are fascinating revelations of Labour’s complete misunderstanding of the devastating damage their role in the referendum had caused them. Panic took over for older Labour MPs whose majorities had been so large that they had never needed to campaign before.
Joe Pike makes little attempt to analyse the historical processes that led to the rise of the SNP and the collapse of Scottish Labour. He states that his goal is to allow those at the centre of events to provide their own contrasting interpretations. The timely reissue of the updated book in the run-up to the European referendum lends itself to comparisons with the Remain campaign’s strategies. In the wake of predictions of everything from war in Europe to economic Armageddon we can see that politics of Project Fear are alive and well.