Leader: In defence of Project Fear

The Leave camp must make its case with a sober assessment of the arguments.

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The aftershocks of the Scottish referendum continue to reverberate. The vote on 18 September 2014 settled nothing in Scotland; rather, nationalism was strengthened, while the campaign converted many young people to the anti-Union cause. It may take the Scottish Labour Party decades to recover from the collapse in support that it has suffered, if it recovers at all. A less noticed but corrosive legacy of the referendum campaign is the phrase “Project Fear”.

That two-word pejorative, jokingly coined by a Better ­Together staffer, has since become a convenient epithet that campaigners attach to their opponents when they disagree with them or are losing the argument. Nowhere is this more evident than in the European Union debate.

Boris Johnson, a man so convinced by the arguments for Brexit that he once argued that the EU should be enlarged to include Turkey, has decried the “agents of Project Fear” in the Remain campaign. The disgraced former defence secretary Liam Fox has filmed a YouTube video entitled Project Fear, in which he stated that fear-mongering tactics were “designed to make the British people afraid of change”. Even Nicola Sturgeon, an ardent supporter of the EU, warned the Prime Minister against pursuing a “miserable, negative, fear-based campaign” – although she claims it was precisely that sort of campaign that defeated the independence campaigners in Scotland. Yet the Scottish case shows that those defending the status quo are quite right to set out what they think the consequences of Brexit would be. The Scottish National Party planned for Scotland to become independent on 24 March, sustained by what Ms Sturgeon labelled a “second oil boom”.  Better Together was derided by nationalists for questioning this dependence on oil. The collapse in the oil price has vindicated those who warned against SNP utopianism.

So far, when they are not complaining, the Leave campaigners have been remorselessly negative. In February, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, told the BBC that Britain would be more vulnerable to Paris-style mass-casualty terror attacks if it remained in the EU. Soon afterwards, in an article in the Daily Mail, he wrote that the case for Remain was made up of “spin, smears and threats” and supported by “desperate and unsubstantiated claims”. The self-described “quiet man” has been spoiling for this fight since the 1990s, if  not earlier – yet this is the best that he has to offer.

He is not the only hypocrite in the Brexit camp. Indeed, for a group professing to be dismayed by a lack of focus on the central arguments, it seems to be spending far more time criticising the antics of its opponents. A fine example is the concocted row over John Longworth, who has resigned as ­director general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC). The case is simple. Mr Longworth made a well-publicised intervention endorsing Brexit. However, the BCC had decided to remain neutral. By expressing a view, Mr Longworth was contravening the wishes of those he was employed to represent. His job was untenable.

After Boris Johnson called Mr Longworth’s initial suspension by the BCC “scandalous”, it transpired that his own deputies and advisers had been issued with instructions either to back Brexit or to keep quiet. When this information was leaked, the Mayor of London reversed the edict, claiming to have had nothing to do with it in the first place and hoping, as ever, to bluff his way through with affected affability.

This will not do. So far, the debate over British membership of the EU has been dismal. There is a case to be made in favour of Brexit but it should be made dispassionately and with a sober assessment of the facts and the arguments. The onus is on the Leave campaigners to prove that Britain would be better off outside the EU, even though Brexit would further destabilise the continent.

The truth is that Leave campaigners have had an easy ride. Brexit enthusiasts in the cabinet have been free to campaign against their Prime Minister and their Chancellor and much of the press detests the EU.

Polling released on Tuesday by the Electoral Reform Society shows that just 16 per cent feel “well informed” or “very well informed” about the referendum. By contrast, 46 per cent say they are “poorly” or “very poorly” informed – and among those who say that they will definitely vote one way or the other, this falls to 38 per cent. If the Leave campaigners want to rally more than a narrow subsection of the public around their flag, they will have to stop bleating about their opponents and instead make their own credible and mature arguments for Brexit.

This article appears in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho