David Herdson: Remain are repeating the mistakes of the Scottish No campaign

Written by David Herdson on 19 April 2016 in Opinion

If Project Fear didn’t work in Scotland, why are pro-EU campaigners so keen to wheel out the same tactics?


Project Fear won the Scottish referendum. Negative, defensive and woefully lacking in self-confidence it might have been but the contention that the Scots were too poor, too wee and too stupid to go it alone ultimately did the job. Right? Wrong.

In fact, for all that No won the vote, Yes won the campaign.  From a lead in the polling of about 10% at the start of the official campaign in June, Yes closed the gap to low single figures by the election day in September.

True, as with the general election last year, the pollsters weren’t very accurate – No actually ended up winning by 10.6% – but there’s little evidence that the swing to Yes didn’t happen; it’s much more likely that Yes was overrepresented in the polls throughout.

There is an argument that the discrepancy between polls and outcome is explained by the Fear factor swinging votes only when people were confronted with the reality of the choice before them on a ballot paper but it’s not a convincing one.  It doesn’t explain the movement during the campaign and there’ve been enough other recent polling errors of a similar or larger scale to suggest that this one was out of the same stable.

So if Project Fear didn’t work in Scotland, why is Remain insistent on re-running the same campaign on a bigger scale in the Euro-referendum?  In Scotland, there were at least legitimate questions about the currency and an excessive reliance on oil revenues to answer.  The genuine uncertainties of a Brexit are small beer by comparison.

Which is no doubt why Remain is losing.  Too many scare stories are simply too apocalyptic to be credible.  David Miliband’s comments last week, that “No nation in human peacetime history, never mind Britain, has voluntarily given up as much political power as we are being invited to throw away on 23 June” is a classic of the type.

Leaving aside the debate about just how much influence Britain has within the EU anyway, would a Brexit really result in a diminution of power greater than the end of empire, or that which states like Greece gave up when they joined the Euro, or when Poland chose paralysis as its political system in the eighteenth century, leading to it disappearing from the map altogether for well over a century?  Voters are not stupid and will call out hyperbole for what it is.

The cost for Remain of recruiting Death, Plague, Famine and War to their cause is measured in credibility: that not only will the exaggerated be discounted by the public but so, by taint of association, will the legitimate.

It can be measured in something rather more tangible too: support – and here, unlike in Scotland earlier, the status quo is at something of a disadvantage.  Even by recent polling standards, the figures for the EURef have been unusually varied but current online polling puts the race within a few points either way, while telephone polls suggest a single-figure Remain lead.  With more than two months still to go, there is at best precious little margin for error.

Yet Remain seem intent to plough on with the same predictions of doom rather than (or as well as) promoting a positive vision of Britain as a country which is socially, politically and culturally European and for which the EU is its natural home.  By making Europe ‘them’ rather than ‘us’ it concedes a great swathe of ground to its opponents.

The electorate might yet be browbeaten into Remain but if so, it’d be a grudging and resentful remain, bought out of fear and against emotional instinct, and with an inherent expiry date.  Unless Remain can capture heart as well as head, Leave retains the structural advantage just as the SNP does in Scotland.  To do that, it needs to answer the question which Scottish Labour has so singularly failed to do (and for which it has paid, and continues to pay, a ferociously heavy price): what is it for?

After the Treaty of Versailles, Ferdinand Foch famously observed that “this is not a peace; it is an armistice for twenty years”.  Much the same is true over both Scottish independence and EU membership and for the same reason: a defeated campaign that holds a grievance borne out of perceived unfairness will only regard that loss as a tactical setback and will look to overturn the settlement once the opportunity arises.

If supporters of either status quo – whether unionists in Scotland or proponents of Remain – want to settle the matter for good, they need to inspire.


David Herdson is a political writer and regular contributor to the Political Betting website. He tweets at @davidherdson.

Picture by: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Share this page


Please login to post a comment or register for a free account.