Forget “post-truth”: A compelling vision drove Brexit and Trump triumphs

The buzz-phrase of the moment in political discussion is “post-truth”. Shell-shocked metropolitan liberals are astonished by both Brexit and Donald Trump’s success. How could their own rational analysis not find favour with the electorate? People in the internet age must be no longer capable of recognising the truth.

Both the Brexiteers and Trump certainly created narratives about the future which appealed to people in a positive, exciting way. “Make America Great Again!”

But narratives about the future have always been important, not just in politics but in central banking too. During one of the recurring crises in the Eurozone, in 2012, European Central Bank president Mario Draghi proclaimed he would do “whatever it takes to save the euro”. Quite what he would have done if financial markets had continued to attack the currency is not at all clear. It was, in today’s terminology, a post-truth statement. But it worked. His narrative convinced traders and speculators to back off, and the euro lived to fight another day.

Of course, most elections aren’t fought on sweeping narratives about the future but on rather more mundane issues. Who can now remember, for example, what were the themes in the British general election of 2005, just over a decade ago? Even last year’s election was decided on pretty humdrum everyday stuff. Everyone knew things had been rather grim since the financial crisis, but could Labour be trusted to make them any better? In the marginal seats, the answer to this bread-and-butter question was a resounding “no”.

Memorable elections have been ones in which narratives about the future were important, when voters were asked to believe in a vision rather than dwell on the facts. At the end of the Second World War, Attlee’s Labour Party won a huge victory with its picture of a universal welfare state. In 1964, Harold Wilson overturned a massive Conservative majority with his portrayal of science and technology as the future, which Labour technocrats owned. The example of Mrs Thatcher needs no further description. And in 1997, Tony Blair projected a vision of peace and happiness in “Cool Britannia” – a post-truth concept if ever there was one!

The internet and social media certainly enable narratives so that they spread more rapidly and their noise levels are amplified. But the technology does not of itself create “post-truth”. There are far more dramatic and older historical examples of post-truth politics than the British examples above. Under Lenin and Stalin, the entire population of the Soviet Union lived “post-truth”. The reality of everyday existence diverged spectacularly from the narratives which the Communist Party worked so hard to create, and which so many people really believed.

The Brexiteers and the Trump camp knew how to use the networked society of social media. It is not just the message, but the maths which matters now. They understood which sites and tweeters to target, they grasped how to manipulate Google’s page rank algorithms. Despite their veneer of stupidity and supposed distrust of experts, they were actually much smarter than their liberal opponents.

Paul Ormerod

As published in CITY AM on Wednesday 14th December 2016

Image: Donald Trump in Reno, Nevada by Darron Birgenheier is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

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Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.