Project Fear the sequel: 5 ways the EU campaigns have learned from Better Together


How much has the Scottish independence referendum influenced the way politicians are conducting their campaigns over the EU vote? We take a look.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON has called his campaign to keep Britain in the EU “Project Fact”, while the Scotland Stronger In Europe campaign has awarded itself the pseudonym “Project Cheer”.

But more and more people are reaching for the original, uncorrupted phrase for to describe the campaigns to remain in or leave the EU on 23 June – ‘Project Fear’.

The phrase was coined by Rob Shorthouse, communications director for Better Together, the official No campaign in the Scottish independence referendum.

It became an indictment of the No campaign and its alleged use of sensational scare stories about what could happen in an independent Scotland.

Critics claim the UK Government is once again deploying Project Fear with abandon, this time through its campaign for an In vote.

Both sides have claimed they are fighting the positive case, and accuse one another of scaremongering. The evidence of the latter is abundant.

CommonSpace compares the fog of hyperbole then and now.


#Indyref: In April 2014, then UK defence minister Phillip Hammond warned that independence would make Scotland and the UK more vulnerable to military attack.

This was true not only of more conventional threats from “sea, from land and…the air”, but also from “space and cyber space, and from non-state protagonists as well as from nation states.”

The claim that Scotland would be vulnerable to invasion from space became one of the iconic examples of ‘Project Fear’, whether Better Together wanted it to or not, and the suggestion became an item of mockery in the hands of Yes campaigners.

#EUref: Prime Minister David Cameron’s claims that British exit from the EU could lead to Europe-wide war have come in for derision from both opponents and supporters of the In campaign.

Outgoing mayor of London Boris Johnson retorted that the EU was already causing war in an example of “EU foreign policy on the hoof, from the EU’s pretensions to running a defence policy that has caused real trouble…in Ukraine”.

The comments drew shocked responses from eastern European leaders urging that the Ukrainian crisis beginning in 2013 was the fault of Russia.

Economic collapse

#Indyref: Probably the most widely proliferated concerns raised about Scottish Independence by Better Together were predictions of economic decline and hardship.

The Better Together campaign began with threats of fewer jobs resulting from business lost with the rest of the UK, before moving onto hardball with claims that pensions would be devalued, mortgage payments hiked and a new weaker currency introduced after independence.

#EUref: Cameron and Osborne have been on hand to deal out almost an identical hand to voters during the EU referendum.

The notable exception is fear mongering over currency, but the In campaign has focused on fears around business lost to Europe and the increasing cost of mortgages more than any other issue so far. A perception that it was this aspect of the Better Together campaign which best helped secure a No vote in the independence referendum has likely made it the spearhead for the Government’s In campaign.

The Out campaign has responded with repeated claims that the EU is a massive expense for the UK, and the UK should do more international trade outside of Europe.

Figures for the net contribution that the UK gives to the EU from Out campaigners have ranged from around PS18bn per year to PS8bn, depending on whether the person pronouncing the figure intends to mention the UK’s sizeable rebate or not.

Bank of England warnings

#Indyref: The Bank of England’s prestige as an institution, and its ability to influence the direction of the UK economy, mean that it is supposed to remain politically neutral and independent.

So when governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney said that the Scottish Government’s proposed currency union with the rest of the UK was “incompatible with sovereignty”, Yes campaigners called foul.

#EUref: Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers, notably quiet when Carney made his comments on independence, were horrified when he turned the same attentions to Brexit in February.

Carney’s claims that Brexit would threaten the UK’s “financial stability” were characterised by Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg as “speculative” and “beneath the dignity of the Bank of England”.


#Indyref: In another Project Fear classic, Lord George Robertson told the Brookings Institute in April 2014 that the “forces of darkness” were eagerly anticipating Scottish independence, including terrorists who were “watching … Scotland with quite undisguised interest”.

Robertson’s remarks were foreshadowed by Home secretary Theresa May’s conclusion that Scotland would be more at risk from terrorism were it independent, and were joined by comments from magnate Steven Forbes that “forces of chaos, terrorism and aggression” around the world would be strengthened by Scottish independence.

#EUref: Though it may be fairly argued that the In campaign has been the progenitor of most of the scaremongering so far in the EU referendum, they were beaten to the punch by figures from the out campaign on terrorism.

Former work and pensions secretary and Brexiter Iain Duncan Smith said in February that EU membership exposed Britain to terrorism due to “lack of any control of our borders” and that the UK needed the ability “to check and control people”.

The UK Government’s In campaign rather predictably hit right back, claiming that Brexit would leave the UK vulnerable to terrorism without co-operation between European intelligence agencies.

American Intervention

#Indyref: President Barack Obama intervened very late in the Scottish independence campaign. In a move that was construed as panic by the British establishment, Obama said he wanted to see the UK “remain strong, robust and united”.

#EUref: When Obama stopped by the UK on his farewell tour he made similar statements relating to the importance of the UK remaining within the EU, and some of the Out campaign’s leading figures out-did themselves by speculating on possible ulterior motives for the US president’s stance.

Ukip leader Nigel Farage said Obama was “the most anti-British president there has ever been”, but even he had to distance himself from outgoing London Mayor Boris Johnson, who said the “part Kenyan” Barack Obama may have an “ancestral dislike” of Britain – the former colonial power in Kenya.

CommonSpace journalism is completely free from the influence of advertisers and is only possible with your continued support. Please contribute a monthly amount towards our costs. Build the Scotland you want to live in – support our new media.

Picture CommonSpace