Tuesday, 1 March 2016

‘Project Fear’ or Project Reality?

It’s curious how, in the last few weeks, a certain type of Brexit supporter has started to sound an awful lot like a certain type of SNP supporter. Not in every respect of course. They aren’t making repeated claims to ‘our oil’, or attacking Wastemonster (an oh so clever play on ‘Westminster’) and I doubt they will do much to mark the anniversary of Bannockburn. That being said, they’re mimicking them so convincingly I wouldn’t rule any of these things out. Both groups, if you challenge any of the assertions they make in support of their cherished dream, have a habit of accusing you of being part of ‘Project Fear’. For some SNP supporters this means challenging the SNP’s projections of an independent Scotland’s oil revenues, doubting that the remainder of the UK would agree to the formation of a currency union and questioning whether an independent Scotland could enjoy EU membership on anything like the UK’s terms (with Schengen and Euro opt outs and a sizable rebate).

For Brexit supporters this means challenging the notion that the UK, outside the EU, could continue to access the single market (including in financial services) without accepting free movement of labour, or making a substantial financial contribution, or implementing a substantial body of EU regulations. Many are also convinced that the UK would swiftly agree free trade agreements with a large number of other countries, that we could restrict access to UK benefits and healthcare for EU nationals whilst British ex-pats would continue to receive decent treatment, and that our influence on the world wouldn’t be reduced. This, I’m afraid, is the Brexit campaign’s Project Fantasy.

Brexit supporters, including the official ‘Vote Leave’ campaign, have gone further than just sounding a bit like SNP supporters. They are directly imitating and copying their terminology. Most significantly they are using the term ‘Project Fear’, beloved by the SNP’s online warriors and used by Alex Salmond to taunt Alistair Darling in one of the independence referendum’s TV debates, to describe their opponent’s campaign. In an article published in The Telegraph on 28 February Boris Johnson, the most prominent and popular politician supporting the ‘out’ campaign, attacked ‘The agents of Project fear’. This line has also been adopted by Vote Leave, the most mainstream of the two main ‘Out’ campaign’s, which published an article on it’s website on 1 March attacking ‘the IN campaign focus on running Project Fear’.

Brexit supporters are also responding to reasonable concerns, like their Scottish nationalist counterparts, by accusing their opponents of ‘scaremongering’. This is the charge which Vote Leave levelled at Peter Mandelson, also in an article published on 1 March. Mandelson raised serious concerns about the impact of Brexit on the UK’s trading relationship not only with the EU, but with other markets as well. Vote Leave didn't even bother to attempt to refute these. Instead they described Mandelson as like a ‘man wearing a sign saying the “end is nigh”’, and described his comments as scaremongering. The British people deserve better. They’re unlikely to get it any time soon.

The reason both Brexit and Scottish independence supporters have been so quick to describe concerns raised by their opponents as part of ‘Project Fear’ and ‘scaremongering’, is because otherwise they would have to address and refute the concerns. And this, alas, they would struggle to do. Let’s start with the SNP Government. They claimed Scotland could force the rest of the UK into a currency union in the event of independence, by threatening to take their share of the national debt. They argued that Scotland would continue to remain an EU member on the UK’s generous terms, and they greatly overestimated how much income an independent Scotland could expect to derive from oil. They couldn't prove any of these assertions, and all three were probably mistaken. So rather than deal with legitimate arguments they attack their opponents.

Similarly Brexit supporters are claiming that the UK could negotiate a deal to access EU markets, including in financial services, tariff free in the event of Brexit. Many are even claiming that we could do so without accepting free movement of labour, paying into the EU budget or implementing a good deal of EU regulation. No matter that Norway, which is not an EU member, does all three. The UK will be different, for some reason. Presumably EU member states will be crying out to give the UK an excellent deal following Brexit. It’s not like they would feel offended by our departure, nor wish to make sure that other EU member states weren't tempted to leave. In short it’s time the leave campaigns start responding to reasonable criticism with argument and analysis, nor wild accusations of ‘Project Fear’. If not, they should reasonably be dismissed as promoting Project Fantasy.  

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