Political reporter Joe Pike’s first book looks at how the No campaign won the Scottish independence referendum – and the legacy of how its focus on persuading swing voters that a Yes vote would be too risky (nicknamed ‘Project Fear’) came at a cost with the wider electorate, resulting in the SNP’s landslide win in Scotland at the 2015 general election.
In some ways it is a frustrating book because the numerous highly placed sources from inside the Better Together campaign during its various incarnations means the book is laced with lively anecdotes from that side of the campaign, but that is followed by little analysis. There is some – as with Pike’s insight that Better Together’s focus on putting the potential negatives of independence to swing voters cost the reputation of the unionist parties dearly with the rest of the electorate after the referendum. Though even on this point it would have been good to have had more analysis, as even “just” the 45% the SNP secured in the referendum would have been enough for a landslide in the general election under first past the post. So how much damage was really done by the campaign? There are plenty of people who will say “lots” in answer to that question, but given the space of a book it is a shame not to go into the details of possible answers.
Indeed, the book has very little about why things turned out the way they did or what the other side was doing, being instead mostly a string of individual events in the Better Together campaign – including the way Better Together thought of carving commitments into stone tablets at one point before, more wisely than Ed Miliband subsequently, rejecting it.
So we get plenty of information on how badly organised Better Together was, but nothing much in the way of explanation as to why it was thus – nor whether the SNP dominated Yes campaign was really behind the scenes better organised, and if so why.
Generally the gossipy insights into the numerous organisational failings and personality battles of the Better Together campaign appear to be well sourced, hard though that can be to judge with so many off-the-record quotes, and Pike often goes out of his way to present contrasting, even contradictory, views that different people have of the same colleague or event. The confusion and tension at times was farcical, such as,
When funds were finally found to recruit an extra staff member for the research team, the new employee – recently returned from working in Sierra Leone – became unwell and was put into isolation in hospital until Ebola was ruled out.
Which rather sums up how almost everything that could go wrong for Better Together did, except for one thing. The result. Which highlights that, entertaining as this book is, it isn’t the full story of what happened and why in the referendum.
If you like this, you might also be interested in Following Farage: The Ultimate Political Road Trip.
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Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.