How the In Campaign Can Avoid Being Project Fear #2

12/02/2016 20:01 GMT | Updated 11/02/2017 10:12 GMT

There was a sense of déjà vu to the launch of Scotland Stronger In Europe, the Scottish campaign for a "remain" vote in the upcoming EU referendum. This ought not to have been the case. The first that non-political people will have seen of the Scottish part (for goodness sake don't call it a "branch") of the In campaign was when a photograph of a smiling academic was splashed over the newspapers. The smile belonged to Professor Mona Siddiqui, of the University of Edinburgh, who has been appointed to lead the In campaign efforts north of the border and is, by all accounts, an excellent choice.

However, it was not her voice that required the closest listening but that of her spokesman John Edward who said that the campaign would be "Project Cheer".

The reference was deliberate and sensible, to an extent. In making the statement, Mr Edward made it clear that Britain Stronger In Europe is aware of its biggest potential hazard in Scotland - being compared to the Better Together campaign that narrowly failed to throw away its entire initial lead in the Scottish independence referendum. The reference itself is to an idiotic comment that slipped out from Better Together HQ saying that the campaign was internally dubbing itself "Project Fear". Naturally, the Nationalists seized upon this suicidal nom de guerre and used it to deflate their unionist opponents until it stopped being funny to them; which it did not.

Regardless, there was still, as noted above, a gnawing sensation of déjà vu to the launch of Scotland Stronger In Europe. There was, as the term implies, a feeling of having heard (although the literal translation is seen) it all before.

This is exactly how Better Together started.

In the halcyon days of June 2012, when Better Together was founded, the Scottish public were promised a "positive" cross-party and non-party campaign for a No vote. The opening events radiated positivity. It was all smiles and jokes and all sorts of other political tomfoolery; it was shaping up rather nicely.

Then the decay started.

The gap in poll numbers started narrowing and the rhetoric began to be about what would be lost by leaving the UK rather than the advantages of being part of it. It was not until the final 100 days of the campaign - when things were getting rather desperate - that Better Together finally found fifth gear and injected some of its long lost joviality and passion back into its nearly necrotic veins. It wheeled out Gordon Brown, still overwhelming popular in Scotland, who delivered a game-changing speech in which he talked up the positives of being in rather than the losses incurred by being out of the UK. It, and the slogan "No Thanks", ought to have been deployed earlier... much, much earlier.

These are the mistakes that loom large for the Scotland Stronger In Europe campaign. Ahead of it are accusations of negativity, of talking Scotland and Britain down and generally being seen as grouchy, snarky and unambitious. The Stronger In campaign needs to be prepared to go in to the referendum fighting and remember that while they have a commanding lead at the moment, so did Better Together at the beginning of that referendum. Surely Professor Siddiqui et al do not want to have as close a call on this constitutional question as her spiritual predecessor Alistair Darling had on the previous one?

What is needed is as simple as framing the arguments in a complimentary way. While the temptation of expediency might pull some pro-EU campaigners to decry the potential loss of the single market, of international clout and other aspects of continental cooperation as reasons to vote to remain, for their own sake, they need to resist this urge. It would be far better for the campaign to take these exact same principles and phrase them in terms of retaining the proceeds of hard work rather than as valuable family trinkets that the eurosceptics are trying to steal away from them.

There may be some within politics who think this is irrelevant or that the tone does not matter and that other factors will prevail; these individuals are hopelessly deluded if they do not recognise that emotional responses, like it or not, have a major part to play in democratic decisions.

One of the best traits attributable to Scotsmen, whether we be born here or have chosen to live here, is our hard-headed, blunt, "I'm not going to take that from the likes of you" mentality. We have a habit of resisting authority, of being the rebel, the gadfly and essentially sticking our fingers up at anyone who tries to intimidate or frighten us. Even as someone who played a small part in the Better Together campaign myself (I guess I just like people who never used to get on - getting on, and doing it rather well) I, and many other No voters, acknowledge the top-level tone was wrong and that negativity almost cost us dearly. It nearly lost the No vote last time and it is still possible that it could lose the Remain vote this time.

The Scotland Stronger In campaign has, after all that, started on the right lines. The glib comments about being "Project Cheer" are exactly the kind of thing that will warm the Scottish people to it. The story of the last referendum may have carried the headline of a No victory but the story itself reads about how the No campaign didn't quite manage to throw it all away.

Should Stronger In repeat this same mistake then things will probably turn out differently, I'm not sure the Gordon Brown magic would work quite so well this time. The Scotland Stronger In Europe campaign has the right rhetoric, let's see if it can do what Better Together did not, and live up to it.