Project Fear

Peter Geoghegan

Nate Silver told the Scotsman last month that there was ‘virtually no chance’ of a Yes vote in next September’s independence referendum: ‘If you look at the polls, it’s pretty definite really where the No side is at 60-65 per cent and the Yes side is about 40 per cent or so.’ The comments were hardly revelatory, but they were seized on by media on both sides of the border as evidence that the independence campaign should pack up and go home. A few days later, Silver told an audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival that he was less than happy about the way his throwaway remarks had been interpreted. ‘Taking a comment based on a thirty-minute interview that becomes front page news is not the precedent I want to set,’ he said.

With a year to go till the vote, both sides seem more interested in quoting wildly divergent opinion polls than discussing policy. One poll at the beginning of September gave the No side a 30 per cent lead, prompting claims from unionists that the battle was all but over. But then the SNP hailed a survey that showed support for a Yes vote had taken the lead for the first time since 2011.

One reason for the variation in the polls may be that for most Scots it isn’t a straightforward question of in or out. The week before Silver’s appearance in Edinburgh a Panelbase poll commissioned by the pro-independence website Wings Over Scotland found a 2 per cent lead for the No side. More interestingly, it also found a significant hunger for further devolution – and scepticism of unionists’ vague promises of more powers for Holyrood. Sixty per cent of respondents said that welfare benefits should come under the Scottish Parliament’s purview, and more than half said that oil revenues and taxation should be controlled from Holyrood. But few thought any of these powers would be devolved in the event of a No vote in 2014.

The Wings Over Scotland poll received little media attention. (There was a fluff piece in the Scottish Daily Mail about Scots being more scared of a Tory government than space monsters.) More powers for Holyrood – the so-called ‘devo-max’ option that most Scots would prefer to either independence or the status quo – is a conversation few in Scottish politics want to have. Yes Scotland is wary of appearing as defeatist twelve months before a referendum that many have waited a lifetime for; the Better Together campaign encompasses a wide spectrum of unionist opinion, some of it opposed to any devolution at all. ‘The dream consequence of this loss should be a steady erosion of Holyrood’s powers until it can be abolished and the previous efficient unitary form of government restored,’ according to the former Lord Provost of Glasgow Michael Kelly.

Few people would bet on a vote in favour of independence – one Glaswegian punter recently wagered £200,000 on a No in 2014 at odds as short as 1/6 – but unionism is less ascendant than (some) polls suggest. Better Together’s awkward alliance of the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem parties will come under greater pressure as the 2015 general election approaches. Earlier this year, Scottish Labour, anxious to distance itself from the unpopular coalition parties, started a separate campaign for a No vote, United with Labour.

Better Together’s negative campaigning may also backfire. In recent months, they have warned that independence would bring checkpoints at the border, mobile phone roaming charges south of Hadrian’s Wall, and the deportation south of Tian Tian and Yang Guang, the Chinese pandas at Edinburgh Zoo. Privately the official No campaign is said to refer to itself as ‘Project Fear’. ‘Next they’ll be saying there will be seven years of famine in an independent Scotland and that aliens will land here,’ the former Labour first minister Henry McLeish has said. ‘Scots don’t like to be talked to like idiots and there has been a constant haranguing of Scots by Westminster in terms of the type of campaign being run. This could create a backlash as Scots want to know what vision of Scotland within the Union the Unionists are campaigning for. If there’s another year of this people will start to rebel.’


  • 18 September 2013 at 10:04pm
    Amateur Emigrant says:
    I think I am right in saying that in the Panelbase poll that showed a small majority for Yes the question about voting intention was asked at the end of the interview instead of the beginning as is more normal. Thus the No camp was able to dismiss the result as being influenced by 'leading' questions about Scotland's ability to survive as an independent country and other pertinent issues. For me, however, what this showed is that when people are actually allowed to consider the issues they realise that there is less reason to vote No. A studio audience on Newsnight Scotland the other night also plumped for Yes at the end of the debate. Hardly a representative sample, but interesting nevertheless.

    With the Scottish and British media ranged so comprehensively against independence, relentlessly pumping out idiotic scare stories or failing to report on issues with any sense of balance, it is small wonder that when asked cold how they will vote a majority fall back to the 'fear' position. The No camp is smothering reasoned debate.

    Many voters seem to hold contradictory views, expressing an intention to vote No while simultaneously supporting most things that independence would bring and disliking many things about the Union. There seems to be a disconnect between voting Yes or No and what people actually want from their government. If they were given the opportunity to articulate their feelings, free from scaremongering or downright misinformation, I suspect we would see a significant swing in all the polls.

  • 21 September 2013 at 6:32pm
    Stephen says:
    Hmm it's not as if the YES side lack for negative campaigning...the Scottish NHS can't possibly survive the privatisation down south is a recurring trope ( NB the NHS in Scotland is completely devolved)

    There's also a great deal talked about social democracy which flies in the face of the Scottish Government's Finance Minister of the SNP's boast in the Scottish Parliament last week that Scotland has the most generous business tax relief of anywhere in the UK.. that's at the moment and the plan is, come independence, to cut corporation tax below the rates in the remaining uK ( btw the SNP have welcomed every corporation tax cut that n in George Osborne's budgets).

    The SNP also plan to give tax breaks in the form of VAT relief to some sectors of business including tourism..the oil and gas sector have been assured that the overall tax level will not rise and the Finance Minister has said he can see no reason that personal taxation should rise.

    Of course the folly of the City of London is (rightly) a frequent target, less often mentioned is Alex Salmonds complaint that Brown and Blair had too much banking regulation, or that after Scotland has withdrawn from any democratic or elected role in the UK, regulation of the financial sector in Scotland , will be carried out by the UK.

    It's not really a project of fear to either point out what is actually being planned for Independence or indeed to question its potential to deliver for ordinary people (it's potential for Alex Salmond's tax exile economic adviser is more obvious)

    • 22 September 2013 at 9:17pm
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ Stephen
      Social democracy doesn't dictate what the rates of corporation tax should be. Tax is an instrument to direct activity in the economy. If Scotland can support employment through tax incentives to business without imposing unfair burdens on the lower paid then what's the problem? If it can raise sufficient revenue to support public services and equitable social welfare policies without strangling economic growth then what's the problem? Opponents of independence will simply say it can't be done, but supporters would say let's give it a try instead of relying on the failed dogmas of austerity and trickle-down imposed by Westminster which is the only alternative.

  • 25 September 2013 at 3:11pm
    Stephen says:
    Basing your economic strategy on Corporation Tax Cuts IS trickle down economics. Salmond and Swinney are quite upfront about believing in Laffer curves.

    As part of the same announcement in which Mr Swinney boasted of having the "Most generous business rates relief anywhere in the UK" he also announced a pay policy which will mean that most workers delivering public services in Scotland will get poorer next year..

    Incidentally the SNP are not only refusing to use the current revenue raising powers the Scottish Parliament has .. they have also said that they won't use the additional tax raising and borrowing powers that they will get as part of the Scotland Act 2010.

    The idea that Independence represents a break with neo liberalism is simply false.