Ahead of any second independence referendum, Project Fear will march again—with good reason. Image: iweta0077 / Alamy Stock Photo

We will soon see another outing for Project Fear. Good

Warning of catastrophe has helped swing important votes in the past and it may do so again
May 1, 2021

“Project Fear” gets a bad rap for two main reasons. One is that it is the photo-negative of a phrase which, when described as the “precautionary principle” or “look before you leap,” comes across as eminently sensible.

The other reason it is routinely maligned is that in its most dramatic outing, it didn’t work. Its repeated success in campaigns round the world—from John Major’s victory in 1992 to Australia’s thumbs down to republicanism in 1999, and indeed Scotland’s “no thanks” to independence in 2014—are all forgotten, because in the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign the things people were told to be frightened of didn’t dissuade them from voting leave.

“The strongest unionist case is one that raises honest fears about Scotland decoupling”

That, however, is more a criticism of what people were told to fear than the principle itself. When the then Bank of England governor Mark Carney warned that Brexit would bring house prices crashing down, this did not sound like Armageddon to all those struggling to find deposits. And in other ways, the remain campaign overreached in its warnings. But it was not wrong to warn of problems with borders, not least regarding Northern Ireland’s status. That was always going to be troublesome to fix and even now remains unresolved.

Anyway, to fear is human, and so Project Fear is an inevitable concomitant of big political choices. Keine Experimente (No Experiments) was Adenauer’s dour but effective election-winning slogan in post-war Germany. Aversion to change is all we have to counter the promise of anything that sounds new and fresh, however mad, bad or dangerous it may be.

As we look to the next great clash of nationalism and economics in a prospective second independence referendum in Scotland, the Project will march again—and with good reason. Nationalists can make their case that devolution is unsatisfactory, leaving Scotland too tethered to a neighbour whose voting patterns are diverging from those north of the border. Opponents will warn, rightly, that if Scots wish to keep the higher public spending they currently enjoy, they will need to find a path to much higher growth—and the route to that looks mysterious at present.

The strongest unionist case is one that raises honest fears—namely that the impacts of decoupling Scotland from the UK would be overwhelmingly negative. Warnings of a hard land border between Scotland and England are daunting enough to give pause for thought. An LSE report into the trade implications of separation concludes that “independence would leave Scotland considerably poorer than staying in the United Kingdom.” Determined pro-indy voters will naturally perceive this as an early strike from Project Fear and tune out. The undecided might simply reckon there is something to be scared of.