FAR be it from me to pick at old wounds but you may have noticed that the fifth anniversary of the Brexit referendum is coming up this week and that some of the people who were involved in the campaigning have been looking back and analysing what happened but also what they might have done differently.

It’s relevant five years on because Scotland may soon be facing another referendum and the recent past points to what could be an uncomfortable future.

What particularly interested me was what Stuart Rose had to say on the subject. Lord Rose, you may remember, is a former boss of M&S and was the head of Britain Stronger in Europe, the official Remain campaign. He seems like a terribly nice man, which may help explain why he lost to Dominic Cummings, who does not seem like a terribly nice man. The bottom line, according to Lord Rose, is that the Remain side made some key strategic mistakes on the economic arguments and that is why, in the end, they lost.

What Lord Rose is talking about here is “Project Fear” – essentially, the idea that you need to go in hard on the realities of leaving an economic union (the EU or the UK) and spell out what it might mean for wages, living costs, and savings. This was certainly the strategy of George Osborne, the then chancellor, who predicted that, if the UK voted to leave the EU, there would be an instant recession and half a million job losses. We know now of course – although the picture is complicated by the pandemic – that Mr Osborne’s predictions were way over the top.

However, Lord Rose recalls having concerns about the strategy at the time. He told ITV that his advisors believed Remain had to “hit people hard with the financials” but that he concluded voters weren’t taking Project Fear seriously. Furthermore, they were right not to take it seriously. “It wasn’t going to be Armageddon the day we came out,” said Lord Rose. “Everyone wasn’t suddenly going to be out of work. We won’t know for another 10, 15, 20 years what the effect on the UK economy is going to be.”

What's interesting is the lessons there could be in all this for another Scottish referendum. Lord Rose’s assessment of 2016 is that, for many voters, the economy wasn’t as important as immigration. He also believes that some of – let’s use the correct word here – the lies that were told by Leave were effective. “We were fighting a campaign which patently was mendacious,” he says. “I mean, there were big porky pie lies.”

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As far as Scotland is concerned, we can’t know for sure yet how much of this would apply to another referendum on independence – we do not even know (no matter Nicola Sturgeon tells us) if it will happen in this parliament. But the fact that, as Lord Rose says, a referendum campaign that relied heavily on economics lost and a campaign that relied heavily on porky pies and emotive issues won will surely weigh heavily on anyone who is running a future Scottish unionist campaign.

In particular, the question for the unionist campaigners of the future will be how much to again rely on a form of Project Fear. Lord Rose thinks that, on Brexit, the message should have been much softer. “I think it should have been, ‘hold on a second, let’s look at history’,” he says. “‘Let’s look at the wonderful benefits we get’.” But it would be a brave strategist who decided to listen to Lord Rose and ditch Project Fear altogether in a Scottish referendum ¬- for the simple reason that the economic realities haven’t gone away. The trick will be to balance the warm words with cold reality, or to put it another way: a better, subtler version of Project Fear; in the words of Lord Rose, a form of Project Fear that presses the right buttons.

However, any re-rerun of Project Fear, even a softer version, would face problems in Scotland. First, voters know the Brexit Armageddon didn’t happen, so why would they listen to a re-run of Armageddon over independence? The Yes side might also conclude that, if you can win one referendum with a few porky pies, maybe you can win another the same way. Basically (although they’d never admit it) the Yes side would take their lessons from Leave and rely on emotional appeals, a few well-placed porky pies, and a message to voters to ignore the doom-mongers. It would be the opposite of Project Fear. It would be Project Fearless.

Now, some might argue the Yes side has already tried Project Fearless - in 2014, and they lost. But a new Scottish referendum would be happening in a post-Brexit world: the Project Fear of 2016 didn’t work and voters can see Brexit Armageddon did not happen. The trick for the Yes side will be the timing though. As Lord Rose says, we’re already facing problems with fishing and trade with Northern Ireland, but it may take 10-20 years for the effects of Brexit to really emerge. This creates an imperative for the SNP to get a referendum out of the way before Brexit properly begins to bite. Conversely, the longer the unionist side can delay a referendum, the more Brexit may emerge as an asset for them.

The other problem for the SNP trying a Leave-style Project Fearless is image. Everyone realises, in their darker moments, that the Leave campaign could offer a winning template for a Scottish Yes campaign, but how could the SNP go there without sounding more and more like Brexiters? We’ve already had the extraordinary sight of Nicola Sturgeon using the Brexit-style argument that Scotland’s EU market is seven times the size of the UK’s. She also appeared to suggest that the disastrous Northern Ireland protocol might offer a template for the English/Scotland border. How far down this road could she go?

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The answer – I think and hope – is not very far without alienating Middle Scotland which, as Ms Sturgeon herself often points out, is staunchly Remain. This is the tricky balance that any future Yes campaign has to strike: Project Fearless worked for Leave and it could work for Yes, but the closer you get to Brexit, the more you look like a Scottish version of a Brexiter. For some voters, that won’t be a problem. For others, it will have them scurrying for No.

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