Project Fear: How an Unlikely Alliance Left a Kingdom United but a Country Divided
By Joe Pike
Biteback, pp. 320
Joe Pike is the last person you’d expect to write a scandalous account of the campaign against independence.
Polemicists like Kevin McKenna or Brian Wilson, perhaps. David Torrance, maybe; he has a new book to go with every jumper. Stuart Campbell, that Bath-based IF Stone – sure.
But not nice, polite, well-spoken TV correspondent Joe Pike. And it is his reputation as a fair and reliable observer of the political scene that makes Project Fear all the more remarkable. (“Astonishing” some might say.)
This is not the story of why No won and Yes lost; shifting political allegiances are not examined in depth and nor are social and demographic upheavals. Instead, we are taken behind the scenes of Better Together, the cross-party campaign to save the Union during the independence referendum. Later the focus shifts to Scottish Labour’s calamitous general election campaign.
Pike is a well-connected journalist and spoke to the key players in Scottish Labour and No Thanks during his research. We are sneaked into strategy meetings, usually in time for a right old rammy. We find out how the top brass was hired, what they were paid, and how much they all hated one other. We learn of attempts by Number 10 to replace chairman Alistair Darling midway through the campaign.
The blame is spread far and wide but concentrates particularly on Rob Shorthouse, Better Together’s head of communications. Regarded as a political lightweight, he had an impressive CV – working for First Minister Jack McConnell and Sir Stephen House back when he was the golden boy of policing in Scotland. It soon became clear, however, that he lacked the strategic nous for a battle of this scale.
Appraisals from his colleagues are scathing: “I don’t know how he slept at night,” one told Pike, with another calling the PR man a “lightning conductor for internal bollocks”. Shorthouse and campaign director Blair McDougall were saved from dismissal by Alistair Darling’s reluctance to fire people with young families.
The nickname “Project Fear”, which Pike borrows for his title, was coined by Shorthouse to capture the importance of raising risks about separation. Eventually, however, the term made its way into the Sunday Herald. “Is this going to be a thing?” concerned colleagues asked Shorthouse. “Nah. Don’t worry,” he assured them.
We have to factor in a bit of axe-grinding here. Those staffers I’ve spoken to were full of praise for McDougall’s skills as a leader and motivator and while no one will ever confuse Shorthouse for a political maven, Better Together’s primary problem was not how it got its message across but what that message was.
The so-called “Patronising Better Together Lady” advert provoked comment and criticism at the time but it was tame compared to one broadcast that never saw the light of day. Designed to be used only in an emergency, the video was “scare tactics on steroids” and featured girders breaking, oil running out and children standing at the edge of a cliff as the country was torn asunder around them. “It’s like Nightmare on Sauchiehall Street,” Maggie Darling despaired, and convinced her husband to ditch it.
It was one of many harebrained schemes from a campaign that seems to have been conducted from the Dr Strangelove war room. At one point, strategists wanted to put copies of the White Paper inside fake fairytale covers and leave them in bookshops and libraries. Proposed titles included “Alex in Wonderland” and “The Lying, the Which and the Holyrood”. Gordon Banks and James Kelly were put in charge of Labour’s own pro-Union effort – which isn’t even the funny part – and were only narrowly prevented from a photo-op of them handing out fake passports on the England/Scotland border.
And pity the local activists who pleaded with Glasgow HQ that, actually, no, they couldn’t leaflet the train station that evening on account of Orkney not having any trains.
There’s a lot that politicos and journalists will recognise, from tales that were out there but never fully stood up to the tics and idiosyncrasies of Better Together personnel. David Ross, the campaign’s pint-sized press officer, dismissed every damaging story as “pish”, even if you had three sources, CCTV footage, and a papal bull from the Vatican. Labour MSP Jackie Baillie would bring cakes into the office to cheer everyone up while the party’s general secretary Brian Roy would deal with bad news by retreating to a corner and eating bars of Galaxy. After September 18, some Better Together staffers boosted the computers and TVs from their desks. “It was like after Hurricane Katrina,” one source wryly observes. “Looting!”
Next came the Smith Commission to devolve extra powers. While the cross-party task force was cordial, some commissioners were more capable than others. “Linda Fabiani was absolutely f—ing bonkers,” an insider said of the SNP MSP. “Wittering on inanely with incomprehensible nonsense. Everyone was looking at each other. Swinney was visibly embarrassed.”
The Nationalists quickly dropped their demands for the state pension and oil revenue to be devolved and the commission wrapped after 36 days with an agreed set of recommendations. Ruth Davidson, fearful that the government might renege on its promises to Scotland, told Downing Street to “suck it up” and agree to the report.
If the mood of the referendum chapters is tragicomic farce, things take a turn for the funereal soon after as Labour is thrust into a general election. The SNP, having lost the divisive Alex Salmond and gained Nicola Sturgeon, is riding high in the polls and lambasting their rivals as “Red Tories”. Jim Murphy is chosen to replace Johann Lamont as leader in the hopes he can turn things around.
Spoiler alert: He doesn’t.
Against a toxic whirlwind of nationalism, populism, and disenchantment with Labour, Murphy doesn’t have a hope and it becomes clear Sturgeon is the better politician. “If she was discovered drowning kittens,” a Labour insider notes sourly, “they would either blame it on MI5 or argue drowning is the most progressive way of looking after them.”
Team Murphy was comedically dysfunctional, bringing together seasoned strategists and people you wouldn’t trust to run a self-scan checkout at Tesco. There was one member of Murphy’s media team that I didn’t receive a single phone call, email or press release from during the entirety of his leadership. To be honest, I was thankful. Others come out of it better. Murphy’s chief of staff John McTernan is often caricatured as a manipulative brute but he is in fact an intellectual in combat – a hard, brilliant bastard – and it comes across in Project Fear.
The final weeks read like an account of Death Row. There is denial: Coatbridge MP Tom Clarke assured colleagues: “It’s 1997 again. We’ll sweep the board.” There is gallows humour: Margaret Curran joked that after losing her seat she would move to Tenerife and open a gay bar called “Margarita’s”. Then the gut-thumping terror as the sentence is carried out: Brian Roy fled to the toilets to throw up as defeat after defeat rolled in.
The scale of the wipeout brought Murphy’s political career to a premature end, the most talented Scottish Labour figure of his generation tossed out in East Renfrewshire. “This is really bad,” he exclaimed to advisers on election night. “I thought I could fix it and I can’t. What have I done?”
Project Fear is a political Popbitch that will delight, enrage, offend and scandalise those involved. Nationalists will enjoy the ineptitude of their opponents – the book would sell out at the SNP conference faster than foam fingers and Nick Robinson voodoo dolls – but even Unionists will find this a compelling narrative. It is extensively researched (Pike managed to find the only critical quote I ever wrote about Jim Murphy) and benefits from a crisp style. A pacy account of the night a poll put Yes ahead climaxes in the White House: “What’s the contingency if they vote Yes?” an Obama adviser asks, and another replies bluntly: “There is no contingency.”
There is little in the way of analysis but as a piece of gossip it is wickedly indiscreet and all the more entertaining for its light touch and breezy style.