Project Fear (British politics)

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The term "Project Fear" has been used in British politics, first during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, and then later during and after the 2016 UK referendum on EU membership.[1] The phrase has been used to characterise one side of debate's claims of economic and socio-political dangers being just scaremongering and pessimism.[2] The phrase was coined by Rob Shorthouse, who was the "Better Together" campaign's director of communications during the Scottish independence referendum, and was later used by 'remain' supporters in the buildup to the "Britain Stronger In Europe" campaign during the EU membership referendum campaign.[1][3][4][5]

2014 Scottish Independence referendum[edit]

As a phrase relating to the Better Together campaign, “Project Fear” first appeared in Glasgow's Herald newspaper in 2013. According to a report in the same newspaper last year, a volunteer at the campaign's Glasgow headquarters had coined it “as an ironic suggestion for Yes Scotland – a handy name it could use in its constant complaints about Better Together’s alleged Unionist scaremongering”. In others words, it was a way of referring to its own campaign as characterised by its opponents – “a joke phrase”

2016 EU Membership referendum[edit]

The former Mayor of London and key figurehead of the Leave campaign Boris Johnson, re-introduced the term. He put forward claims that the pro-EU campaign in the 2016 EU referendum was guilty of scaremongering, saying that "the agents of Project Fear" were trying to "spook" the British public into voting against British withdrawal from the EU.[6]

The phrase was also used by those who were in favour of Britain remaining within the European Union,[7] Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said that "The EU referendum is about our future relationship with Europe, not who is the next leader of the Tory Party ... the Labour leadership will not go anywhere near the Tories' 'project fear' campaign on both sides of the debate. But instead we will continue to set out the positive case to 'Remain and Reform' the EU to create 'Another Europe' ... Another Europe is not just possible but urgently and vitally needed, which is why we must reject the offer of a Tory Brexit.".[8]

Alistair Darling says that "Project Fear? In fact, it is a reality check. The kind anyone would take before making such an enormous decision in their lives. David Cameron, who resigned as Prime Minister after the E.U. verdict, rejected any allegations of fear-mongering, saying that "The only project I'm interested in is Project Fact. Project Fact is about saying: 'Stay in and you know what you'll get.'"[9] Others, such as the mayor of London Sadiq Khan, have also pointed out that the Leave side were in fact scaremongering with false claims of imminent Turkish accession to the EU[10], the phrase "project fear" was employed for those same goals. When Iain Duncan Smith claimed if we stay in the EU terrorists would find it easier to get into the UK, the hypocrisy is clear."[11][12]


  1. ^ a b Gordon, Tom (21 December 2014). "I admit it: the man who coined Project Fear label". The Herald. Retrieved 15 March 2017.
  2. ^ Eaton, George (15 June 2016). ""Project Fear" is back - and it's still Remain's best hope". New Statesman. Retrieved 2 October 2016.
  3. ^ Ross, Jamie (24 May 2016). "The Man Who Created The Phrase "Project Fear" Says He Has No Regrets". Buzzfeed. Retrieved 15 March 2017.
  4. ^ Jack, Iain (11 March 2016). "'Project Fear' started as a silly private joke during another referendum, but now it won't go away". Guardian. Retrieved 15 March 2017.
  5. ^ Deacon, Michael (25 January 2016). "The EU referendum: Project Fear is already under way". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2 October 2016.
  6. ^ "EU referendum: Final push for votes on last day of campaign". BBC. 22 June 2016. Retrieved 4 February 2019.
  7. ^ Mason, Rowena (31 May 2016). "John McDonnell: sharing EU platform with Tories discredits Labour". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 May 2016.
  8. ^ Cowburn, Ashley (31 May 2016). "Half of Labour voters have no idea what their position is on the EU referendum". The Independent. Retrieved 31 May 2016.
  9. ^ Stewart, Heather; Asthana, Anushka (29 February 2016). "David Cameron says his EU campaign is Project Fact, not Project Fear". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group.
  10. ^ "Khan and Davidson clash with Johnson on immigration in EU debate". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. 22 June 2016.
  11. ^ Stone, Jon (29 February 2016). "The campaign to stay in the EU is 'Project Fear', says Boris Johnson". The Independent. Retrieved 31 May 2016.
  12. ^ Darling, Alistair (28 February 2016). "There's a reason why it's called Project Fear, by Alistair Darling". Mail on Sunday. Daily Mail and General Trust. Retrieved 31 May 2016 – via Mail Online.