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Inside Project Fear – Scottish Review of Books
by Alasdair McKillop

Inside Project Fear

November 3, 2015 | by Alasdair McKillop

WHEN Henry McLeish questions the clarity of your position on the constitutional question you are probably in trouble. The former First Minister was responding to the suggestion made by Kezia Dugdale, the recently elected leader of Scottish Labour, that MPs and MSPs would be free to campaign for independence if there is another referendum. This prompted the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Willie Rennie, to announce that he too would allow his colleagues to support independence. Someone viewing these generous offers from the vantage point of the morning of 19 September might assume the two leaders were being safely hypothetical, with victory for the No side having quietened debate about independence.

The ideological contortions and electoral obliteration suffered by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats since the referendum have commonly been attributed to the campaign for a No vote with less attention given to the deeper historical currents pulling the two parties out to sea. The allegedly negative tone of the Better Together campaign was inevitably informed by the referendum question but also its focus on the economic uncertainty associated with independence. If this was a sound strategy based on evidence about the importance of the issue to undecided voters, it was nevertheless one destined to engender little in the way of warmth from even those inclined to oppose independence. If securing the future of the UK was the primary objective, many No voters were also looking for Better Together to imbue it with a sense of purpose.

In Project Fear, the political journalist Joe Pike does little to challenge these popular perceptions of Better Together. If anything his book will fortify them with tales of infighting and incompetence culled from an impressive number of interviews. The charge of negativity is accepted by a senior figure who is quoted as saying ‘we struggled from the start and never really succeeded in creating a positive frame for the campaign’. Pike’s account is gossipy and full of fizz, and many will revel in the recriminations it records. They will serve as confirmation of the corrosive effects of the unholy cross-party alliance on those who sold their souls at the crossroads but got an even worse deal than Robert Johnson. But desensitization occurs quickly, partly because the impact of the comments is blunted by having them attributed to ‘a senior adviser’, ‘someone involved’ or ‘one experienced hand’: too often, the knife being wielded is still covered in the toast crumbs from breakfast.

In hindsight, it seems ominous there was difficulty recruiting a figurehead for the campaign. John Reid was reclining in London, Gordon Brown was considered to be in hiding and neither Jim Murphy nor Douglas Alexander wanted to relinquish their Shadow Cabinet roles. Alistair Darling, erstwhile Chancellor of the Exchequer, out of frustration and a sense of duty, took responsibility. He emerges well from this account, not least because of the effort he committed to a position he was initially reluctant to assume, as do others if not entirely. In the early stages, Blair McDougall, Better Together’s Campaign Director, was running operations from his mother-in-law’s living room and using his own credit cards to cover expenses with no clear idea of when he was likely to be reimbursed. Former Secretary of State Michael Moore choreographed the legislative work required to hold the referendum before being unceremoniously dumped by Nick Clegg. Jackie Baillie, as an extension to her role mediating internal conflicts, would often disappear and return with 60 cakes for hard pressed staff. Taking into account the contents of Pike’s book – the small and hard-pressed core staff, the cross-party egos, financial difficulty, communication failures, and unprecedented media scrutiny – more ought to be made of the fact that Better Together was able to not only keep the show on the road but finish on the winning side.

For a campaign that was often accused of being in league with big business, Better Together was a financial disaster. Contracts signed before the date of the referendum was known were not renegotiated when the date was set so some employees were paid for doing no work between 19 September and the end of 2014. Salaries were increased during the regulated spending period, while Pike suggests there was disquiet among board members that Director of Communications, Rob Shorthouse, was given a starting salary of £100,000. An advert costing £50,000 was commissioned but never used. With Alistair Darling’s wife, Maggie, calling the campaign Nightmare on Sauchiehall Street, £27,000 was spent on the results night party and equipment was taken from its Savoy Centre offices. A further £800,000 was spent on polling from Populus which was established by Andrew Cooper, David Cameron’s Director of Strategy and a Better Together adviser. Three marketing firms were employed over the course of the campaign but, as Pike contends, ‘there was little to show for the vast sums of money spent’. The first company was called Grey London.

Despite this largesse and probably contributing to it, the campaign did not employ a book-keeper or, for a period, a member of staff dedicated to fundraising. When Phil Anderton was recruited to address the latter problem, he was paid £5,000 a month plus expenses but the typical donations he was able to secure were generally not a great deal more than his take-home money. In mitigation, Pike contends significant donations were hard to come by because of the poll lead the No campaign enjoyed. Darling had to ask donors to meet a shortfall of £200,000 when the campaign was over, although it should be said that this looks somewhat better when it is recalled the SNP provided £825,000 in funding to Yes Scotland.

While it is a pacy, readable and politically salacious account, Project Fear’s faults tug at the elbow like an incessant child. As well as the numbing effects of anonymous knifing, some of the detail and anecdotes flirt with frivolity. Pike recounts how Elspeth Campbell, the Coronation Street-loving wife of Sir Menzies, helped overworked staff at the Liberal Democrats headquarters in Edinburgh. Asked by a staff member if she would have a glass of wine or gin when she got home, Elspeth replied, ‘Oh, I’ve got a bottle of champagne I just nip away at.’ It is also revealed that John McTernan, Jim Murphy’s chief of staff, decorates his office with posters of Chelsea players with Tony Blair’s head photo-shopped onto them.

Notwithstanding such diverting anecdotes, Project Fear can also be charged with lacking in historical depth and analysis: it is like a stone skimming over a large body of water. The referendum campaign fails to assume its proper form as a long-brewing crisis of Unionism against which the organizational dysfunction of Better Together appears insignificant. Some enticing ground could have been opened up by analysing comments made about the Orange Order by Murphy and McDougall. Murphy’s position might have been informed by the same sentiment that later led him to claim his Irish Catholic background precluded his identification as a Unionist. This is to invite a view of unionism framed by identity and cultural considerations instead of the utilitarian socio-economic formulation that dominated the No campaign.

The second part of the book covers the period from the referendum to the General Election that was characterized by the seesaw fortunes of Labour and the SNP. Despite playing a role, albeit a minor one, on the winning side, Johann Lamont departed shortly after the referendum, agreeing the wording of her controversial ‘branch office’ resignation statement over dinner at a five-star hotel with the editor of the Daily Record and two of her advisers. Murphy leapt off his Irn Bru crates and into the job, just as many observers predicted. During the leadership campaign he met with advisers and select MSPs so he could who ask ‘who’s good and who isn’t?’

Anyone considering Pike’s treatment of the General Election to be somewhat perfunctory should turn to Five Million Conversations, an account of Labour’s UK campaign by the BBC Political Correspondent Iain Watson. It ostensibly focuses on the period from mid-March to polling day but its sophisticated analysis covers the development of issues over a longer period. Lessons for Jeremy Corbyn are highlighted throughout the text but occasionally these feel like impossible attempts at achieving the immediacy of daily news when the events covered are recent enough to ensure its relevance. Five Million Conversations is comprised of short chapters often taking a single day’s campaigning as their basis before ranging out to provide some background. This diary style is well suited to the relatively short period of time under consideration. Given the length of the chapters, however, having the main points of each summarized in a bulleted list seems redundant. Other issues of presentation serve to take off some of the shine. The images of Corbyn and Ed Miliband used on the front cover are smudged while former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray might feel he has cause for complaint given his surname is misspelled twice on the same page.

Scotland features prominently because Labour had to contend with fears about the influence of a ‘pimped-up fuel injected SNP pantechnicon’ on a future government. Labour was beset by problems of personal conflict and the difficulties of reconciling different views on the handling of the SNP threat. Jim Murphy did not get on well with either Ed Miliband or Douglas Alexander, Labour’s General Election campaigner. One insider remarked in reference to a Labour gathering in Edinburgh that ‘Ed, Douglas and Jim were all in different rooms barely talking to each other’. Murphy attempted to persuade the pair that ruling out a coalition with the SNP would grievously undermine Scottish Labour’s attempts to win back support of Labour Yes voters and ‘soft’ SNP voters who wanted a Labour Government at Westminster. Alexander, as Watson makes clear, favoured rejecting a coalition ‘early’ and ‘hard’. Murphy triumphed in the initial skirmishes but a statement rebuffing a coalition was eventually required to counter the damage being done in England. A confidence and supply arrangement was later explicitly ruled out but at least one member of the Shadow Cabinet questioned whether Labour’s position was believable.

In a move from the referendum playbook – the Edstone, incidentally, was partly inspired by the Vow – Labour emphasized the dangers of full fiscal autonomy but Watson cites one SNP strategist saying this was playing badly in focus groups. Meanwhile, Labour’s own focus groups were saying the warnings were credible but people were willing to pay the financial costs in return for more powers for Scotland. By most measures, the SNP out-fought Labour. Its canvassing was more determined, its information gathering more sophisticated, its use of social media more imaginative and its messaging more compelling. Watson makes clear Labour’s get out the vote system was obsolete in the face of shifting allegiances, while Joe Pike recounts that in Tom Clarke’s Coatbridge constituency only seven people had been canvassed and only then accidentally by a team working for Gregg McClymont, then Labour MP for Cumbernauld. The Labour leadership was compelled to start rationing resources in favour of younger candidates, those who worked hard and big names like Margaret Curran but this was like fortifying a beach shack in the face of a tidal wave. As a mournful footnote to the whole business, Watson claims the Scottish party began to value visits by Miliband because he was seen as less divisive than the leader it had elected only months before.

In Notes of a Newsman, STV News presenter John MacKay presents a personal history of Scotland using a mixture of sources including broadcast and interview transcripts, diary entries and retrospective commentary on events. It covers his career at the Sunday Post, BBC Scotland and STV, where he has established himself as the Cronkite of the Clyde. A division of sort emerges with the diary material and commentary generally far more engaging than the reproduced transcripts which are best considered as narrative framing devices. It’s pleasing to be able to get behind the armour of professional neutrality, with MacKay revealing himself as a man of good judgement, decency and considerable political foresight. Writing in his diary after George Osborne’s set-piece speech in Edinburgh ruling out a currency union, MacKay remarked: ‘Why they think that coming north, making pronouncements and then running off again without explaining themselves is going to be persuasive to the Scottish electorate is beyond me.’ He accuses cybernats of ruining social media with their ‘herd mentality’ and charges BBC Scotland with being ‘shameless’ by copying Scotland Tonight when launching Scotland 2014 as the replacement for the ‘inadequate’ Newsnight Scotland. An academic claiming bias in the coverage of the referendum is dismissed as suffering from the ‘usual lack of insight or understanding of the media they claim to analyze’.

It now seems remarkable that someone  so close to events was unable to detect any sense of historic occasion in the run up to the first elections to the Scottish Parliament. Yet even in the world of politics, subject to much undeniable change, there are continuities to be found. Thus before the 1992 General Election, Alex Salmond was telling people, ‘We’re the Tory busters in Scottish politics because we are going to end Tory rule in Scotland, not just for one election, but we’re going to end Tory rule in Scotland for good.’ Before the Scottish Parliament elections in 2007, Bernard Ponsonby, STV’s political editor,  observed Labour had fought a negative campaign based on the prospect of independence and after 2011 Iain Gray conceded ‘we have fundamental questions about the structures and organisations of the Labour Party in Scotland’. Elsewhere, the seeds of later change are recorded being sown, as when MacKay writes in his diary about the apathy of voters in Drumchapel ahead of the 1997 General Election: ‘it’s clear Tony Blair holds nothing for them’. The Radical Independence Campaign would sweep through places like Drumchapel during the referendum campaign giving such disillusioned people a reason to seize politics by the neck again.

Much used to be made of the sophistication of the Scottish electorate but with stakes in the constitutional game still so high, room for manoeuvre has arguably reduced significantly. Elections now take the form of proxy wars between unionism and nationalism. The SNP has been boosted significantly by the coalescing of Yes sentiment in its favour while unionism fatally divides its favours between three parties. Yet with the pronouncements of Dugdale and Rennie, unionism is becoming untethered from two of these parties. If it is slipping its party political moorings, how might it regather? Scottish Labour had the furthest to fall after the referendum and duly fell most of the way at the General Election. Its strategy at present seems to involve gambling with some of its remaining supporters in the hope of regaining the favour of a number of those who have concluded independence and the SNP are the best means of achieving social democratic objectives. As John MacKay remarked in his diary after the recent General Election, however, it would appear that the SNP has ‘replaced Labour as the party of the left’. With the constitutional waters churning, every day is like Friday for independence supporters. The heart of unionism, in contrast, is in the hands of Anubis awaiting judgement.

Project Fear: How an Unlikely Alliance left a Kingdom United but a Country Divided

Joe Pike

Biteback Publishing, £12.99, ISBN: 9781849549318, PP288

Five Million Conversations: How Labour Lost an Election and Rediscovered its Roots

Iain Watson 

Luath Press, £12.99, ISBN: 9781910745267, PP278

Notes of a Newsman: Witness to a Changing Scotland

John MacKay

Luath Press, £14.99, ISBN: 9781910745045, PP251


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