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The Man Who Created The Phrase “Project Fear” Says He Has No Regrets

The "proud owner" of the phrase, created during Scotland's independence referendum, is not surprised it's now dominating the EU debate.

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The man who helped create the phrase "project fear" has no regrets over bringing it into the world and said he's not surprised it's become so dominant during the EU referendum campaign.

Rob Shorthouse, who worked as director of communications for the Better Together campaign during the Scottish referendum, was responsible for what he said was an office in-joke that got out of hand and is now being used to criticise the Remain campaign.

The phrase was coined in the Better Together office in May 2013 when the campaign team was growing tired of everything they said being instantly dismissed as "scaremongering" by the pro-independence side.

One researcher suggested the Yes side could call Better Together "project fear" – a bit of "office nonsense" that Shorthouse later regaled to journalists at a conference after a few pints. That weekend, it was printed in the Sunday Herald and the rest is history.

Alex Salmond (right), the then first minister of Scotland, slammed Alistair Darling's Better Together campaign for labelling itself "project fear".
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Alex Salmond (right), the then first minister of Scotland, slammed Alistair Darling's Better Together campaign for labelling itself "project fear".

"It appeared in the Sunday Herald and we knew straight away it would be a thing," Shorthouse told BuzzFeed News. "I had this brainfart moment in the office on Monday when I tried to convince people it wouldn't be a thing, then spent 18 months being torn apart by other people on the campaign."

Ahead of the 23 June referendum on EU membership, the "project fear" label has been given to both sides of the debate but most commonly it's used for the Remain side, particularly after David Cameron's announcement earlier this week that leaving the EU would cost over 800,000 jobs.

The phrase has been adopted by Leave figurehead Boris Johnson, who said those opposing Brexit were "agents of project fear" and Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, has criticised the Remain campaign for running a "fear-based campaign" that risks "insulting people's intelligence".

However, Shorthouse said he's not particularly shocked that the phrase has gripped the EU referendum, just as it did with the Scottish referendum in 2014, because there's been so much overlap between the two debates.

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"It was so widely used during the Scottish referendum that there's no surprise it's getting another airing in this campaign," said Shorthouse. "It's a colourful phrase so you can understand, and there are so many things from the Scottish referendum which are getting played out in this referendum. Every time one side makes a claim it's scaremongering.

"It's like 2014 all over again."

Despite the phrase taking on a life of its own and following Shorthouse around wherever he goes, he said he has "no regrets" over bringing it to prominence and that he doesn't see it fading away any time soon.

He joked: "I am the proud owner of one of the most celebrated phrases in modern British political history."

Jamie Ross is a Scotland reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Edinburgh.

Contact Jamie Ross at

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