The nightmare on Sauchiehall Street

Joe Pike’s “Project Fear” is a really interesting book about Better Together and Labour’s subsequent electoral collapse, which must be considered essential reading as we prepare for the next independence campaign.

Joe Pike is the husband of Better Together’s Director of Policy, Gordon Aikman, so he’s been able to speak directly to practically everybody involved in the No campaign:

The majority of the content is based on over fifty interviews with key players, almost all conducted in person, with many speaking for the first time. Every interview — from junior staff to leading politicians — was conducted on the same off-the-record basis. Only a handful of people refused to be involved. […] Many interviewees have kindly provided emails, internal documents, polling information, contemporaneous notes and the content of text messages.

It contains a lot of wonderful wee anecdotes full of inside information, such as the following, which means the book is a fun and informative read:

If [the patronising BT lady] advert had elicited a critical mauling, another — which never saw the light of day — would have been far more controversial. This was scare tactics on steroids: a negative, dark, moody and threatening broadcast. ‘Girders were breaking, oil was spurting out. It was awful,’ said one campaigner. ‘There were kids walking up to the edge of a cliff looking over as the UK was being ripped apart,’ said another. ‘It was an “in emergency, break glass and let’s roll this bad boy out” option.’ The advert was made at a cost of £50,000, but was never deployed.

[…] Yet it was Maggie Darling who ensured voters never saw it. ‘It’s like Nightmare on Sauchiehall Street,’ she told her husband.

The lasting impression is of a campaign that was under-resourced for a long time (because everybody assumed at first they’d win easily) and completely chaotic towards the end as everybody tried to impose their own ideas on the campaign. Also, they spent a lot of money on polling but not very much on actually doing anything.

Will Better Together II be very different from this? I’m sure it will. Firstly, it will get proper funding from the outset; secondly, nobody will think of it as an easy way to get the Nationalists back into their box; thirdly, Labour won’t have an army of MPs and Westminster insiders to rely on; fourthly, the campaign itself might be organised in a way that suits the No side better (a shorter campaign, for instance); and finally, I’m sure a lot of lessons will have been learnt from the way the two campaigns were run.

I just wish somebody would write a similar book about the Yes campaign. In many ways it’d be more difficult, because the campaign was much less centralised — Yes Scotland was just a small part of it. However, it was also a hugely successful campaign that achieved much more than many people imagined was possible at the outset, so there are a lot of lessons to be learnt about what worked and what didn’t.

This is a bit different from Project Fear, which at times comes across as a series of lessons in how not to run a referendum campaign. However, there are also important lessons for the Yes campaign in it. For instance, it’s clear Better Together had expected the Scottish Government’s White Paper to be much more like a budget, and they had spent a lot of time preparing their response, so they were almost disappointed when it was published. Would it have been better if the White Paper had been more like what the No campaign expected?

I must say this is probably the best book about the independence campaign so far — and it’s all the better for including the Westminster election rather than finishing the day after the referendum.

17 thoughts on “The nightmare on Sauchiehall Street”

  1. Good points about bettertogether2 likely being much more organised having learned from the mistakes of the first incarnation. I share your craving for a similar book on Yes (I think just focusing on the Yes Scotland and later takeover by the SNP, rather than the much vaunted grassroots would be interesting in itself.)

    1. It’s an excellent question what to focus on. Perhaps it would be best to interview a lot of grassroots for the book but to use relatively little of their input in order to achieve a good narrative. I don’t think you can describe YS well without including some stuff about their relations to the various grassroots groups, though.

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