Sunday, October 11, 2015

Project Fear - lessons from a referendum

Iain Dale's Biteback publishing group brought out two books shortly before Conservative Conference which have received significant attention.

One in particular made me sick to my stomach - but you should read it anyway, especially if you are planning to take part in the EU referendum campaign.

"Project Fear" by Joe Pike is about a referendum campaign which went wrong. I knew before I read this book that both sides had messed up during the Scottish Referendum battle but until I read this book I did not realise how badly.

Ironically we find out from the book where the expression "Project Fear" came from - it was coined within "Better together" not as a description of the campaign they wanted to fight but as how they thought the "Yes" campaign would try to paint them. The irony is that the term leaked and of course the SNP were delighted at the chance to do exactly that.

The first thing which horrified me about this book was how the divisive nature of the campaign, the lies told by the Nationalists and over-concentration on negative arguments by the unionists, have left a legacy of distrust and anger which will scar Scotland for years.

The second thing which horrified me was the dawning realisation of how easy it would be for each side in the forthcoming European referendum to repeat the mistakes of one or both sides.

One side failed to do the heavy lifting of working out exactly how an Independent Scotland would work - the SNP's 650 page manifesto for a Scottish nation contained just one page of costings and their proposal that an Independent Scotland could keep the pound was, as Labour's Scottish leader rightly described it, like someone initiating a divorce but wanting to keep the joint bank account.

The other side failed - until, arguably,  shortly before the end of the campaign - to come up with a compelling positive vision for Scotland within Britain and made far too much use of negative warnings about what could go wrong with Independence - many of which were, admittedly, entirely justified but of course some could be (and were) easily made by the SNP to look extremely petty.

The campaign was also disfigured by highly abusive campaigning from some quarters: there were people on both sides who rose above this but others on both sides who did not and the manner in which the worst offenders on both sides, particularly some "Cybernats" went out of their way to make life hell for those they disagreed with and regarded as traitors was incredibly harmful and counterproductive: had they succeeded the new nation they created would have come into being in an atmosphere of intolerance and hate.

It is painfully obvious from some of the internecine battles within UKIP about which of the rival "out" campaigns to support that those who wish to leave the EU could all too easily fall into the trap of repeating many of the mistakes that the "Yes Scotland" campaign made.

It is equally obvious that those who want Britain to remain part of the EU will have to raise their game dramatically if they want to avoid becoming Project Fear II - especially as some of their most powerful negative arguments about the economic risks of not being EU members have been weakened when the pro-EU lobby "cried wolf" about the consequences if Britain did not join the Eurozone.

Companies which threatened to stop investing in Britain should the country not join the Euro, and did not carry out the threat when Britain kept the pound instead, are unlikely to be believed if they repeat the threat, this time as an indication of what they will do should we leave the EU. It doesn't matter whether they are telling the truth this time - because they cried wolf before they will not be believed.

If the "Out" campaign is characterised by the sort of wilful failure to spell out what a "leave" vote actually means combined with the sort of narrow and often spiteful nationalism which sadly characterised "Yes Scotland" they will deserve to lose.

If the "In" campaign run a campaign based on scaremongering and lacking a positive vision for the benefits of Europe in Britain they too will deserve to lose,

Britain, however, does not deserve that sort of choice any more than Scotland did last year. 

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