Who won the Scottish independence referendum? To paraphrase the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, in 1972 when he was asked about the impact of the French Revolution: “It is too early to say.”
Of course, that Zhou Enlai witticism was based on a misunderstanding. He had misheard and thought he was being asked about the events of 1968 in France, four years earlier, rather than the revolution of 1789. This is a shame, because as political gags go it is a great gag. For Unionists, what has happened in Scotland since the referendum has been far from amusing, however.
The Better Together campaign may have won on the day in September 2014 – 55 to 45 – but since then the Nationalists have rampaged as the Unionists slide into disarray. Now the SNP looks set to win a majority in the Scottish Parliament elections next year under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon and the once dominant Scottish Labour has been left with only one Westminster seat.
The referendum and election exposed Scottish Labour as a shell party, with many MPs in “safe seats” who had not had to campaign for decades. They just weighed the vote. In the face of such complacency, the well-funded SNP machine was so good at campaigning that it chewed up these people and spat them out. In this way, a Scottish Labour party that twenty years ago was so arrogant it is difficult to overstate how much it swaggered has been all but destroyed. Its devolution project in the 1990s turned out to be an act of political self-harm that allowed the Nationalists to win power and gave Alex Salmond, in his day a great strategist, the referendum he had worked, patiently, gradually to secure. Disaster for Scotland, as the football commentator says. Or disaster for Scotland’s Unionists.
It is great, horrible tale and Joe Pike, a Scottish journalist, has produced a thrilling book on the referendum and its aftermath. Project Fear was the stupid name given, privately, to the No campaign by one of its own strategists to describe how they planned to scare Scots into voting to stay in the UK. When it became public knowledge, the Nationalists wielded the name like a baseball bat. Following their referendum victory, it is the Unionists who are terrified of what happens next.
Pike’s concentration is on the Better Together side of the campaign, before the second part of his narrative zeroes in on Labour’s meltdown in the subsequent Westminster elections. All of the cliches about political thrillers apply to Project Fear. It is gripping. It is a page-turner. It is unputdownable. Even better, it is extremely well-sourced and very, very funny.
I spent a stretch as a political journalist in Scotland (my homeland) from the early 1990s until the early 2000s and this book captures perfectly the particularly intense and deeply weird atmosphere of Scottish politics. In my day, there was a tribalism to Scottish Labour that made English politics look tame. Perhaps this was because the trade unions in Scotland had such power and provided a route up and out for bright – and sometimes not so bright – individuals who could talk or plot. There was the richness of the swearing and insults and the personality feuds within the party that stretch so far back that even the participants have forgotten why they started hating each other. As a young hack I couldn’t get enough of it. Yes, the Scottish Tories were at war with each other too. But for the most part they were amateurs compared to Labour, who controlled much of Scottish life and were disproportionately powerful in a UK party headed back to power under Blair and Brown.
Pike chronicles the death throes of that peculiar world. Many Labour people – some of them my friends – in the referendum campaign fought like mad. Unfortunately they fought each other like mad, rather than the Nationalists. Actually, that is slightly unfair. The Better Together campaign was always going to be tricky to run. Against the Unionists – a rag tag bunch of three parties (Labour, Tories and Scottish Lib Dems) not used to cooperating – the Nationalists had a clear mission and a control freak leadership that relies on total, iron discipline. Creepily, barely a word has emerged about what went on inside the Yes campaign.
In the final chapters I would have liked more on why this constitutional smash happened and what it all means, but that is a quibble and Pike is a television reporter rather than a commentator. Clearly he did not want to be drawn into making polemical judgments.
For those of us who were highly sceptical in the 1990s about the unbalanced devolution settlement, or who warned that it would let the Nationalists through the door in Scotland, there might be thought to be some pleasure in reading about the collapse of Scottish Labour. Not a bit of it. Scottish Labour was the largest pro-Union party and now it seems that it is no longer even for the Union. Their new leader says that next time there is a referendum Labour members of the Scottish parliament can campaign for either side. With the Lib Dems wrecked, that leaves the Scottish Tories under the impressive Ruth Davidson as the last bastion of Scottish Unionism. They are worth watching.
What of Scottish Labour’s chance of revival? It will be very lucky to partially recover or even survive. The tidal wave against the party in May was so strong that even Jim Murphy, who many Unionists (me included) thought might rescue the situation or mitigate the damage, lost his seat, along with Douglas Alexander, one of his party’s most thoughtful senior figures. By the end of the book, Murphy is in despair. He thought he could fix the mess, he says: “What have I done?”
Ironically, it is not Murphy’s fault. He had turned up too late and he was always a strong sceptic on devolution in the 1990s when Gordon Brown would not hear a word of complaint on the subject. Gordon knew best and still he chunters on about what everyone else should be doing and what to devolve next, never pausing to admit the role he played in causing this catastrophe.
In that respect, Murphy’s scepticism echoed the concerns of Tony Blair, who seems to have never been convinced that a Scottish parliament – or at least that a parliament without a balancing settlement for England – was a good idea. Scottish Labour’s high heid yins led by Brown would not listen. And on that basis, the UK Labour party introduced Scottish devolution and blew itself to smithereens. What a story.
Project Fear, by Joe Pike is published by Biteback. (Price £8.99)