This is a somewhat belated review of ‘Project Fear’, published a few weeks ago, written by a talented young journalist with the noir thriller name of Joe Pike. Deadlines intervened delaying reading it cover to cover, but in all honesty, I lost interest halfway through.
Essentially, it’s a record of the Better Together campaign in its final year up and to Referendum Day. Pike carries out that task impressively.
Dead men barely alive
The first half concentrates on dead men walking – men who scarred their conscience for the rest of their days ensnared by an irrational fear of being thought only Scottish, and in pursuit of a fat salary. They had next to nothing to offer Scotland but a loss of face.
The second half, far less successful, follows the same cowboy outfit’s propaganda antics, more or less a catalogue of lies, scaremongering that gave rise to their infamous legend – Project Fear – used in the run-up to the general election when, to their astonishment and shock, the population comprehensively rejected their politics of doom, dross and derision, the SNP routing Her Majesty’s opposition like a high wind brushfire consumes a hillside.
The Fear team disliked each other intensely, constantly bickering, frequently deriding each other’s contributions, a problem probably issuing from their self-loathing. Why the animus? They knew they were constraining a nation’s democratic ambitions, and they understood they would be shunned when it was all over, but like a sex addict who is certain he will be caught one day they could not stop themselves. All of them were failures one way or another. They had a need to revenge what they saw as their career disappointments – Scotland was to blame.
Evidence of persistent enquiry
Pike subtitles his research “How an unlikely alliance left a kingdom united but a country divided”. It is Alastair Darling, a man of no fixed political party, a Labour disciple of right-wing neo-babble neo-liberalism, who drops the Big Freudian remark. “We nearly lost a country”, he says in smug relief, proving his colonial credentials to the letter, and leaving the book’s subtitle with its meaning reversed. Scotland is now more certain of its democratic future. The United Kingdom is left divided.
Pike bases his record of events and meetings on over fifty interviews, frequently quoting participants without identifying them individually. Some of the conversations and opinions he records are commonplace tittle-tattle, the stuff of pen pushers without a brief, some a revelation. He is honest in relating the faults and faux pas of the main players, and does so without personal comment.
One surprise is the discovery of how badly disorganised and disaffected were Better Together as a team, working in cramped, sweat acrid rooms in Glasgow, bumpin’ gums all hours, their self-appointed leader Alistair Darling, completely detached from his south side mob. At one point he threatened to walk if the team did not stop criticising him. That says a lot about him and them. They had no strategy, no ethics, only a shared acceptance that neo-liberalism as practised by Westminster works.
Knowing that now, it rankles more than ever to realise Better Together swung 5% of the vote in their favour despite their self-inflicted wounds: a torrent of negativity, lack of well-defined goals, public relation howlers – and there were many – donations squandered on crass projects never used, fighting each other over status, a total amateurism. Yet the vote went their way.
Reinstating Scotland’s statehood
For my own intellectual health I have to believe the matter of the pound sterling was the single most significant issue that failed to convince a minority of voters, not a bunch of keystone cops (their description) chasing knighthoods and earldoms.
The mob’s in-house gangsta was Blair ‘Fats’ McDougall, a man Pike nonchalantly declares ‘brilliant’, yet could not get out of bed before ten in the morning, frequently missing meetings and speech writing deadlines, stumbling in television interviews, and yet was at his best at three in the morning, the reason he never got out of bed until ten.
When you get through the ordour of blatant black propaganda you are left wondering if the Yes campaign would still have lost had their been no opposing campaign at all. In the end, the Better Together group were so incompetent they were forced to invite the discredited and loathed Gordon Brown to take the helm. Only among the blue rinse brigade is he considered a politician of substance for he is without credibility in all other corners of Scotland. It was measure of their bankrupt imagination and beliefs that they called on him to do his duty. In the valley of the blind the one-eyed man is king.
A series of sketches
The second half of the book is sketchy. It introduces tired, (and often emotional) familiar political characters with an ear tuned for street politics as keen as a fly has an eye for a Venus Flytrap, led by ‘charismatic’ and cadaverous Jim Murphy, a man whose confidence in his own limited ability evaporated when he took advice to stop dying his hair.
Second-raters who feature as also-rans and coffee fetchers during the Referendum, small fry against the JK Rowlings, President Obama, stand-up comedians, and the like, suddenly find themselves elevated to front of stage, their elders and betters absent, preparing and preening to stand in line outside Buckingham Palace. Pike skims over events. It’s at this point the book’s narrative momentum falls away. Pike’s observations are few and far between, his research taking on all the signs of written to a short deadline.
As I read through the book I became aware of Pike’s quiet admiration of the Better brigade; their time had been one of ‘great sacrifice’, a punishing schedule, they had ‘lost time with their families’ … this is a book about the power elite, the political elite, but not about what motivated them.
Anybody looking for insight can look elsewhere. This is not a discourse of statesman-like wisdom, nor analysis, nor a treatise on the state of a nation prior to making the biggest decision in its 1,000 year history. ‘Project Fear’ is not Norman Mailer’s ‘The Naked and the Dead’, not perceptive or shrewd creative journalism, but rather an old-fashioned, dry, if racy record of the main events.
Above all, what it misses by a mile, is any record of what the voters thought. The whole of Glasgow, for over seventy years Labour’s heartland, the city that hosted Better Together’s propaganda, a city where the SNP had never found an MP, swung to the SNP en masse. What did the population of that great city know that Pike did not? On that he’s silent.
Pike has not a word to say about why that happened, not a single interview with a Glaswegian voter. ‘Project Fear’ is written by a man who thinks the status quo fine and dandy, who has yet to find his writer’s voice or a point of view. It’s written by a backstage Johnny who gets access to the wings and records what he sees and hears spoken by his celebrity heroes.
It is curious Pike draws no parallels with 1707. The similarities in anti-democratic campaigns are striking. What was different this time is the people voted, only some were soured by the inclusion of many non-Scots, unsure if their idea of inclusive ‘togetherness’ secured or lost them the winning total.
That said, it’s worth recommending as a journal of an historical moment in Scotland’s history, if, that is, you can stomach it published by the same company that gave us the illiterate, ‘Salmond – my Part in his Downfall’, remaindered in a bookshop near you.
There’s a book to be written from the peoples’ point of view – ‘Why we decided the one party dedicated to Scotland’s interests was the only party to offer real democracy.’
- ‘Project Fear’
- Written by Joe Pike
- Backbite Publishing
- Priced £12.99 paperback