Understanding Boris Johnson’s ‘retropian’ appeal to Conservatives

paul david beaumontThe election of Boris Johnson once again highlights the salience of nostalgia to the Brexit debate. This is more than a throwaway attack line, writes Paul David Beaumont (Norwegian University of Life Sciences). Drawing upon social psychology can provide the theoretical basis for why and how Johnson’s “retrotopian” rhetoric appeals to old, wealthy, and nationalist Brexiteers.

The election of Boris Johnson by the Conservative party membership should – but won’t – put to bed the popular hypothesis that Brexit was chiefly a rebellion by the ‘left-behind’ against the establishment. In this account, a combination of unchecked EU immigration and a decade of austerity had left great swathes of the working class, especially those in the North, in dire economic straits and angry at the establishment. The Brexit referendum was a welcome opportunity to take revenge. As a result, the last three years have seen  intrepid reporters voxpopping Wearsiders, with the subtext that these are the turkeys that voted for Christmas.

Yet the ‘left behinder’ thesis is at best partial. Indeed, one will not find many ‘left-behinders’ among the Tory party membership who selected Britain’s new Prime Minister. Johnson stood on the promise to Brexit, come what may. Indeed, the Tory membership offers a snapshot into the relatively wealthy, older, middle-England voter that seldom features on BBC news, yet also voted in high numbers to leave the EU.

The election of Boris Johnson also offers a timely excuse to revisit an article I wrote back in 2017: Brexit Retrotopia, and the Perils of Post-Colonial Delusions. As the title implies, it offers a plausible explanation for some of the reasons why this group voted Leave, and a why they are now doubling down on no-deal Brexit. The work sought to complement a number of quantitative studies that highlight how national identity and values are at least as important in driving Brexit as economic factors. However, I suggested that we needed to unpack the identity ‘variable’. After all, it is not a given that nationalists are Eurosceptic, and Britain has no monopoly on nationalism. Moreover, the EU is similarly bureaucratic, inefficient, and rule-imposing for other members, which begs the question of why Britain –  rather than say, Italy – chose to exit. (To be clear, I am not arguing that voting leave is irrational; there are plenty of good reasons to dislike the EU. Rather, it is an argument for why Euroscepticism has been especially strong in Britain.) Given this, a full explanation of how identity mattered to Brexit requires analysis of the quality of British nationalism: What is it about Britain’s identity narrative that made Brexit appeal to nationalists?

Drawing on social psychology, and a touch of Zygmunt Bauman, my article sought to add empirical and theoretic ballast to the now frequent refrain that nostalgia for Britain’s past informs Brexiteers’ plans for Britain’s future. Indeed, while Brexit baffles economists, social psychologists will not have been surprised to see Brexiteers risk diminished economic wellbeing for seemingly intangible identity reasons. Social identity theory (SIT) suggests that individuals are often willing to forgo economic gain in order to improve their social group’s status, enable positive comparisons with outgroups and thus generate pride and self-esteem. It should be immediately clear how provisionally SIT may relate to Brexit: voting Leave could be understood as a radical strategy for making their national social group more positively distinct from Europe. Yet as intuitively appealing as it appears, there is a snag with the standard SIT model’s applicability to Brexit. It is unclear why nationalists would consider Britain to compare poorly with other EU members in terms of what Brexiteers themselves considered important: ‘sovereignty‘. Britain enjoys bespoke treatment within the EU, unrivalled by other members: it has more opt-outs than any other member, and receives a rebate of approximately 66% of its annual net contribution. Britain, if anything, had privileged status in the EU.

While the standard SIT model founders, introducing a temporal dimension can help illuminate what underpins Brexiteers’ status concerns. An offshoot of the Social Comparison Theory that SIT is based upon, Temporal Comparison Theory (TCT), suggests that individuals do not just compare themselves to their peers but also to their former self’s status: people seek to maintain a coherent narrative of the self that shows self-improvement over time. When one struggles to make favourable comparisons with the past self, it can prompt low self-esteem in the same way that unfavourable comparisons to peers can. Scaling up this argument, Joshua Freedman has argued that China’s status dissatisfaction and subsequent status-seeking activities demands an understanding of how its identity narrative requires China to remedy its “century of humiliation”, and regain its former glory.

It should be clear by now that TCT is well placed to shed light on Brexit. If we assume that individuals often rest their self-esteem upon temporal comparisons with their social group’s former self, then what does this illuminate about Brexit? In short, my article suggested that two key features of Britain’s identity narrative make it particularly susceptible to Eurosceptic arguments. Because Britain’s mainstream national identity narrative relies upon glorifying its former empire (and lamenting its loss) together with fetishising the second world war, devolving power to the EU undermines nationalists’ sense of progression and self-esteem. To a country that once boasted (and still learns) how “the sun never set” on its empire, the EU’s practices of compromise compare poorly. Cooperation is easily presented as subordination.

Indeed, Britain’s present EU relationship – regardless of how much economically better off it may be than before, regardless of how much ‘more’ sovereignty it retains vis-à-vis its fellow members – seemingly turned Britain into a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker. Perhaps most ignominiously, from this perspective, Britain can be presented as having ceded power to the very countries it fought off in the second world war. All this enables Eurosceptic leaders to present a narrative of decline that calls for an urgent halt via Brexit. Indeed, Brexit embodies a vision that Zygmunt Bauman might have diagnosed as retrotopian: a nostalgic vision for the future based upon a lost but undead past. As such, the nature of the UK’s self-narrative – constantly reproduced via popular culture and the media — can thus help explain why arguments pertaining to “sovereignty” resonate so powerfully in the Brexit debate among older, wealthier, and more nationalistic Englishmen, who have certainly not been left behind.

While my article only provided provisional evidence supporting the plausibility of the thesis, two years on the argument appears to be holding up well. A growing body of research has fleshed out and nuanced the nostalgic underpinnings of Brexit and its post-colonial overtones. Meanwhile, second world war references continue to pepper Brexiteer discourse: scarcely a week goes by without a Brexiteer calling for Brits to reawaken the ‘spirit of Dunkirk’, rather than worry about the damage done by a no-deal Brexit. Perhaps most pertinently, Britain’s new PM Boris Johnson has risen to power on the back of almost cartoonish retrotopian appeal. Indeed, campaigning for Brexit, Johnson exhorted voters “to take the chains off the giant, unshackled Britannia and let the lion roar again!”, while his first speech as prime minister concluded with the call for Britain to “recover our natural and historic role”. As Edoardo Campanella put it in Foreign Policy, Johnson is “the ‘quintessentially nostalgic leader’.

It is certainly understandable that Johnson, and any state leader, wants their citizens to feel pride in their history. Indeed, glorifying the past can help solidify national cohesion; after all, if a nation is just a series of stories we tell about ourselves, why not make those stories good ones? The danger is when hubris based upon the past meets with the hard realities of the present. Little of what Johnson has said so far suggests he recognises the challenges that lie ahead either in renegotiating with the EU or in leaving without a deal. Indeed, Johnson’s claims that Brexit merely requires more ‘energy‘ and positive thinking resemble those of a self-help guru rather than a prime minister. It may well be exactly what Brexiteers would like to hear, but I doubt it will change either the EU’s calculus or soften the effects of a no-deal Brexit.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

Paul David Beaumont is currently finalising his PhD dissertation, The Grammar of International Status Competition, at the Department of International Environmental and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He tweets @BeaumontPaul​.

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Brexit behaviourally: which do you think is the bigger figure – £350m a week or £4,300 per household per year?

tessa buchananThe Leave campaign’s ‘£350m a week’ figure cut through to voters in the 2016 referendum, while the Treasury’s ‘£4,300 per household per year’ didn’t. Was the relationship between the two figures intuitively self-evident? One is six times bigger than the other. Tessa Buchanan (University College London) looks at some of the behavioural lessons that can be learned from the campaign.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who picked up the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002, describes himself rather charmingly as “mediocre in math”. It’s fair to say that this is in comparison to university classmates who went on to become world-class mathematicians. However, this all-too-human admission underlines a wider psychological point.

As Kahneman wrote in his 2011 book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, while many people do simple calculations (e.g. 2 + 2) in their head using their automatic ‘System 1’ processes, they shy away from complicated sums (e.g. 17 x 24) that require them to engage the more effortful ‘System 2’ style of thinking. And if people are indeed reluctant to do the maths, then this has important implications for communicators, including those who worked on the 2016 EU referendum.

For example, if you were asked: “Thinking about the UK as a whole, which of these figures do you think is bigger: £350m a week or £4,300 per household per year?” what would your immediate answer be?

Sources: Vote Leave campaign 2016/ Stronger In, citing HM Treasury, 2016

This question was posed as part of a wider piece of research I carried out in September 2017, findings from which were published this June in Mind & Society. Given that pollsters, journalists and academics alike were surprised by the results of the referendum, I wanted to explore what behavioural lessons could be learned from the campaign – not on the basis that behavioural science could fully explain the result, but rather on the assumption that in a close contest, even marginal gains could make a difference.

Over 450 Leave voters took part in a survey designed to test the extent to which individual elements of the MINDSPACE framework (2010) had been at play. This mnemonic was developed by academics including LSE professor Paul Dolan and founder members of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, then working at the Institute for Government, to raise awareness among civil servants of “nine of the most robust (non-coercive) influences on our behaviour”.

“I”, in this instance, represents “Incentives”. As described by Dolan et al.:

“Our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses.”

Loss aversion was an early discovery by Kahneman and his research partner Amos Tversky. They established that people care twice as much about potential losses as gains. In politics, this can be linked to nostalgia (consider the sense of loss in the phrase ‘Make America Great Again’). Certainly, it was deployed by both sides in the referendum campaign. Dominic Cummings (portrayed by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2019 Channel 4 drama ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War’) was the campaign director of the official Vote Leave campaign, and is now a senior advisor to the Prime Minister. In a 2017 blogpost, he said that he amended his initial slogan of ‘Take Control’ to ‘Take Back Control’ as: “‘back’ plays into a strong evolved instinct – we hate losing things, especially control”.

In my study, I asked participants: “In your opinion, which of these slogans worked best?” My expectation was that twice as many would prefer the longer version. In fact, four times as many opted for “Take Back Control” over “Take Control” (67% vs. 16%).

One factor may be that, according to a 2016 British Election Study report, control was a particular issue for Leave voters. Those with an ‘external locus of control’ (who felt they had little control over what happened in their lives) were “much more likely” to vote Leave than those with an ‘internal locus of control’, it said.

Loss-framing was also used to present two of the most important economic arguments used in the campaign: the £350m which the Leave campaign said was being sent to the EU every week, and the £4,300 per household per year which HM Treasury said UK households stood to lose if voters opted for Leave (albeit after 15 years in one of three potential scenarios).

The figure of £350m a week was announced relatively early in the campaign and has since become indelibly associated with the UK’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Research published by Bobby Duffy in autumn 2018 suggested that 42% of the UK public still believe it to be true, despite criticism from the UK Statistics Authority that it was a “clear misuse of official statistics”. And views are split. One in five Remain supporters believe the figure, compared with two-thirds of Leave supporters.

The Treasury figure was linked to George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. Gary Gibbon, political editor of Channel 4 News, describes in his 2016 book ‘Breaking Point’ how he was summoned to HM Treasury for the announcement of their figure. “Fingers in ears, the government fired off its great gun and waited for reaction,” he wrote. “Then they waited some more. And then a bit longer still.” This was in contrast to the Leave campaign’s £350m a week, which Gibbon said “got through to people”.

Why did the Treasury’s figure fall flat? Geoffrey Evans and Anand Menon, in Brexit and British Politics (2017) argued that it had “spurious specificity”, being too precise for what was essentially a forecast. But was the relationship between the figures intuitively self-evident? Putting to one side questions about credibility and any time preference effects, I asked participants to compare the two figures at face value in the present time. Given that there were 27m UK households in 2016 (ONS), the question can be expressed mathematically as follows:

Is £350m × 52 weeks > £4,300 × 27m households?

The left-hand side of the equation amounts to £18.2bn a year, while the right-hand side amounts to £116.1bn a year – a figure six times larger.

When I asked participants in this study if they remembered these figures, £350m a week was recalled by ten times more people (72% vs. 7%). This was unsurprising as it was used prominently and spent longer in the public eye. I then asked participants: “Thinking about the UK as a whole, which of these figures do you think is bigger: £350m a week or £4,300 per household per year?” Only a third (35%) gave the correct answer, as against 39% who thought the Leave figure was greater and 26% who didn’t know.

Finally, I gave the participants the information needed to perform the calculation (the number of UK households) and asked them to choose which of four graphs showed the figures in the correct proportions. The correct graph was the least popular choice, picked by only 15%. The majority (39% + 18% = 57%) chose options showing
£350m a week as the larger figure.

Fig. 1 £350m a week vs. £4,300 per household per year

“If there are 27m households in the UK, which option do you think shows £350m a week (in red) versus £4,300 per household per year (in blue) in the correct proportions?”

It is well known in psychology that many humans find the relationship between smaller numbers easier to grasp intuitively than that between larger figures. For this reason, it is commonly held as best practice in government communications to do as the Treasury did, and reduce big numbers to more human-sized amounts.

In this instance, the folk wisdom failed, and this was not the only surprising finding that emerged from my research. Looking at the other elements of MINDSPACE, as a messenger, an anonymous “local businessman” was seen as more trustworthy on every issue tested than a cabinet secretary; the study threw up clues as to why the status quo bias, seen as the default by many, didn’t prevail; and by deploying affect and other behavioural insights in a narrative, I found that Leave voters’ views on immigration were not necessarily fixed.

However, the main message for communicators is that even experts can benefit from seeking out evidence on which to base their decisions. It’s good advice, as the Behavioural Insights Team suggests, to ‘Test, Learn, Adapt’; and to make it easy for people to understand your message. And it’s clearly rash to assume that voters will do the maths for themselves. After all, as Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler say in ‘Nudge’ (2008), when it comes to politics: “voters… seem to rely primarily on their Automatic System.”

References

Daniel Kahneman’s self-penned biography is published on the Nobel Prize website.

MINDSPACE (2010) was produced by the Cabinet Office and the Institute for Government and co-authored by Paul Dolan, Michael Hallsworth, David Halpern, Dominic King and Ivo Vlaev.

Thanks to Dr Shabnam Mousavi, Dr Severine Toussaert, Dr Lee de-Wit, Dr Alan Renwick and Dr Matteo Galizzi for their advice and support.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. It draws on an article published in the June 2019 edition of Mind & Society (Tessa Buchanan, 2019. “Brexit behaviourally: lessons learned from the 2016 referendum,” Mind & Society: Cognitive Studies in Economics and Social Sciences, Springer; Fondazione Rosselli, vol. 18(1), pages 13-31, June.)

Tessa Buchanan (@UCLTessa) is a doctoral student at University College London. She studied for a master’s degree in Behavioural Science at LSE.

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