Vote Leave or the power of Boris Johnson's cognitive metaphors

 By Reuben Claybourn, University of East Anglia

The 2016 referendum on withdrawal from the European union marked a defining moment in British politics, where 52% voted to leave and 48% voted to remain. Withdrawal formally began in March 2017 and the process is still-ongoing today. This paper contends that language played an important role in persuading the British electorate to vote to leave the EU (Buckledee, 2018: 2). Historically, Britain has held a disagreeable relationship with continental Europe. Britain being either an imperial rival or preventing a homogeneous state from gaining control of the continent such as Nazi Germany or Napoleonic France, to then afterwards accepting trade agreements but rejecting many forms of integration such as a single currency, thus becoming ‘reluctant Europeans’ (Hanhimäki 2016).

Britain’s historical relationship with Europe is important in “the language of leaving”, as it informs a cultural schema by which we understand Britain and its relationship towards Europe (Stratton, 2019: 225). This paper will explore how Britain’s historical relationship with Europe has informed the persuasive powers of Vote Leave, through the lens of cognitive linguistics as introduced by Lakoff & Johnson (1980). The analysis will cover a Vote Leave campaign speech Boris Johnson presented on the 9th of May 2016 titled: The liberal cosmopolitan case to Vote Leave (Johnson, 2016). This text has been chosen for analysis as it unveils how numerous cognitive metaphors resonate with the audience, such as Britain’s spatial relation to Europe, war, occupation and Europe as a building. Importantly, the analysis reveals fears upon our “cultural trauma” of a loss of sovereignty in Britain and how they may be informed by the metaphorical schemas featured within Johnson’s speech (Stratton, 2019: 225).


Cognitive Metaphors

The analysis of this article is set by the theoretical framework of Critical Discourse Analysis (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, 1999; Musolff, 2004). Metaphors, as described by Lakoff & Johnson (1980: 159) are integral to “the construction of social and political reality”. Lakoff has since led the field of cognitive metaphor theory, an epistemological viewpoint which establishes metaphors and similes as foregrounding language users’ understanding of the world’. Lakoff & Johnson (1999: 123) build upon this theory further, stating: “metaphorical thought, in the form of cross-domain mappings is primary; metaphorical language is secondary”.  This gives weight to the notion that politics, being part of our social schemas, can be informed metaphorically (Musolff, 2004: 4). Metaphors in practice function by mapping known source areas into more schematic ones. For instance, kinaesthetic experience for understanding conceptualisation would function by saying “do you see what I mean” (Chilton, 2004: 52). Thus, helping more abstract concepts into an accustomed experience, so long as the metaphors and scenarios are previously understood by their recipients (Musolff, 2006: 36). 




Boris Johnson builds rapport with his audience throughout the speech with repeated use of inclusive language. In English, only “we” has two first-person subject pronouns which are plural, which can either include the addressee or not (Buckledee, 2018: 56). Pronouns alone are utilised to distinguish between difference groups (Hadley, 2013). Its power is testament to the fact that “we” is spoken 94 times within the speech itself, 14 of those times being the phrase “we will” (Johnson 2016). It is an example of personal deixis, which informs the relationship between the speaker and reader (Levinson, 54–96.) For instance, in lines 505 to 506, Johnson states “It is we in the Leave Camp – not they – who stand in the tradition of cosmopolitan European Enlightenment” (Johnson, 2016). Johnson utilises an inclusive “we” to build unity amongst the listeners to denote that Vote Leave is a common cause, whilst “they” is a third person pronoun which spatially distances the remain “camp”. Critical discourse analysis emphasises the social relations between speaker and addressee (Charteris-Black, 2014: 86-87). And so, Johnson, who is from a wealthy, upper-middle class family, manages to create a “classless alliance” with the inclusive “we” (Buckledee, 2018; 56). This is most empathetically seen on line 508 with the clause “we few, we happy few, who have the inestimable advantage of believing strongly in our cause” (Johnson 2016). The beginning of the clause, “we happy few”, is lifted from part of the St Crispin’s Day Speech in William Shakespeare’s Henry V. In Henry V, the speech is made before the Battle of Agincourt, in which the English were vastly outnumbered by the French. It was also repeated by Laurence Olivier to rally spirits during WWII (Fraser, 2015). Allusion to the St Crispin’s Day speech is a reinforcement of the “war” metaphor frame, which is prevalent throughout the entire speech, asspeech choices or grammatical choices are associated with frames which are activated by a certain speaker (Fillmore, 1976: 25). The framing of war represents a culturally shared understanding of Britain; a collective anxiety over invasion, occupation and loss of sovereignty, so a “cultural trauma” has developed (Alexander, 2016:14). Thus, themes of invasion, occupation and loss of sovereignty have been prevalent in British media, popular entertainment, literature and school curriculum since the 19th century, becoming an accustomed experience (Stratton, 2019: 225-226). Therefore, the effectiveness of the inclusive pronoun “we” in “we happy few” creates not just a Vote Leave unity, but one which is united by Britishness against a common cause with innumerable odds. Alongside this a semantic field of subversion is deployed, “campaign”, “subterfuge”, “conceal”, and so the EU is presented as an agent attempting to occupy Britain. Johnson presents an image of the EU as an invader, threatening the sovereignty of the British parliament.

The framing of war is helpful to present political viewpoints into viewpoints which make sense to the reader (Musolff, 2006: 36). Previous literature has demonstrated that sovereignty is a salient issue within British popular discourse (Stratton, 2019). Johnson presents the Vote Leave campaign as holding the high-minded principles of freedom, whilst EU reality is based upon bureaucracy and corruption, concepts tough to defend (Buckledee, 2018: 79). Johnson achieves this by presenting the establishment, which he is a part of, as helping the democratic backsliding of the EU. He realises this by switching to the exclusive “we” from lines 56-50. For instance, “we have got to stop trying to kid the British people” (Johnson, 2016). The exclusive “we” in this instance removes agency from the listener, as they are the ones being deceived by pro-remain elite. ‘We have got to’ is utilised to great effect, it is deontic modality, which implies necessity and anaphora of the phrase emphasises this need, eliciting the emotional response of encouragement in the audience to support Vote Leave (Smyth, 1920: 673). 

Agency is further removed from the listener on line 20, ‘and thanks to the referendum… we find a door has magically opened in our lives. We can see the sunlit meadows beyond. I believe we would be mad not to take this once in a lifetime chance to walk through the door’. (Johnson, 2016: line 20-24).

The “door” metaphor was once closed to Europe, signifying exclusion from closer integration when it was once desired (Malcolm, 1989: 662). Now, the frame has been modified to become an exit strategy to the audience, the adverb “magically” denotes that the door was not present beforehand, and so the sudden appearance of a “door” informs the house-without-doors imagery, provoking fears of entrapment, or a loss of sovereignty in the audience which can now be alleviated with a vote to leave the EU (Malcolm, 1989: 662). Imagery of invasion is deployed on lines 368-389 with the hyperbolic ‘the 12-star flag of the EU is flying all over the place [in London] (Johnson, 2016). Not only are the EU actively pursuing to invade Britain, they already have, therefore the hyperbolic statement “once in a lifetime” may be taken literally by this point, as imagery of the has successfully been portrayed as nebulous and invasive. The ironic simile on line 26 implies that ‘saying the EU is about economics is like saying the Italian Mafia is interested in olive oil and real estate’ (Johnson 2016). The audience’s schema of “Italian Mafia” is likely to be one of corruption and deception, working in a criminal underworld. A schema which connotes deception is supported by the pronoun describing the EU as a “project” on line 14, removing agency from the audience as it is a vague notion, in which we are not included. Thus, the metaphor of “Europe-as-a-house-with-no-doors” is effectively used as Johnson informs the reader of imagery depicting Europe as entrapping or deceitful to the audience. And so, the “door” presented allows Britain as a collective an exit strategy. 

The leave campaign rhetoric utilised sovereignty to appeal to the British electorate, with invasion being one of the most striking frames used in metaphorical critique surrounding the EU (Stratton, 2019). Directional metaphors are also applicable here, a journey scenario has historically been utilised by Eurosceptics, with varying degrees on how much control Britain has on this “journey” (Musolff: 2004, 39-41). Way-Movement-speed metaphors are ubiquitous, and one of the most basic conceptual metaphoric systems to understand (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980: 41-45). It allows for spatial relationships, leading to other mappings such as difficulties are obstacles, or progress is moving forward (Musolff, 2004: 41).

Speed metaphors are utilised in two moves here, firstly speed-as-progress, or in the case of the EU, a lack of. (Musolff, 2004: 49). In line 136 Johnson quotes David Cameron, detailing how the EU is “not keeping pace” with the new powerhouse  economies (Johnson, 2016). The metaphoric mapping here is progress is moving forward and the EU is travelling slow on the path (Musolff, 2004: 48). If “keeping pace” as an idiom is understood in terms of a race and the EU is travelling slowly, then a negative bias informs the audience that the EU is a weaker agent than any “new powerhouse economies” and so as an institution the EU is presented as inefficient (Johnson, 2016). The other metaphoric mapping of speed is speed is rushing, in the case of Johnson’s speech the pace of the EU creates a path in which it would lead to disaster (Musolff, 2004: 48). On lines 178-179, Johnson states ‘we  cannot change the direction. We cannot change the pace’ (Johnson, 2016). The parataxis of ‘we cannot change’ emphasises how yet again, agency is removed from the Audience. Therefore, the cognitive response is uncertainty from the audience; further integration is seen as a future risk, and if the “direction” is unclear, then it would be inadvisable to remain on the path, in this case the path is integration in the EU (Musolff, 2004: 50). Other directional metaphors utilised in the speech highlights a loss of agency for Britain, for instance Britain may be “dragged” into further integration with the EU (Johnson, 2016: Line 171). The verb “dragged” implies a spatial distance between Britain and the EU and “dragged” highlights integration is non-consensual between the two parties. If we are already on a different path then the EU will take away our agency by placing us on the same path and the fear of revoked sovereignty is highlighted by rushing into integration (Stratton, 2019). On the other hand it can be stated we are moving too slowly to justify being on this path in the first place (Musolff, 2004: 48).


Framing of “Take Back Control” & syntactic constructions

In the lead up to the referendum, the vote leave campaign framed Britain as a besieged nation (Khabaz, 2018: 503). Metaphoric mappings of war, speed, movement and building have portrayed the EU as invaders, threatening our sovereignty, as our collective social schema understands Britain as an island nation, threatened by the prospect of invasion (Stratton, 2019; Khabaz, 2018). Such powerful cognitive mapping lead to powerful cognitive responses, Lakoff contends that once a metaphorical frame has been activated, such as that of tax relief, then facts which do not fit this narrative are ignored by the listener (Lakoff & Wehling, 2016: 85). Using the example of tax relief, the frame hides the reality that the most economically successful people can attribute their success being built on tax-supported public infrastructure, but to “lighten a burden” is rarely seen as a negative, so tax relief has more “cognitive pull” (Lakoff & Wehling, 2016: 85-86). For this reason, metaphorical mappings which evokes strong emotions, or “cognitive pull”, are more effective in rhetoric than arguments purely based upon facts and figures (Lakoff & Wehling, 2016: 85-88; Musolff, 2019: 4)

“Take back control” was the dominant slogan deployed by the Vote Leave campaign, prevalent in almost every Vote Leave campaign speech up to the referendum (Richards, 2016). Operating under Lakoff and Wehling’s deduction that voters are “pulled” more by issues of morals and emotion, then Johnson’s claims that a successful Leave Campaign will restore British sovereignty can be supported by the emotive imperative, even when the reality of British sovereignty goes beyond voting to Leave the EU (Lakoff & Wehling, 2016: 85-88). “Take back control” has been cited as an effective slogan due to its appeal to marginalized groups (Richards, 2016). It is a double imperative often used in conjunction with the concept of sovereignty, seen on the final line in Johnson’s speech, ‘vote Leave on 23rd June, and take back control of our democracy’ (Johnson, 2016: line 513; Buckledee, 2018: 49). In this instance it proposes that the illocutionary act is cohortative with an inclusive first-person pronoun subject; it is ‘our’ democracy, which is being threatened by the EU, and so it is imperative to act (Buckledee, 2018: 50). It is proceeded by anaphora from lines 516-530, in which Johnson proposes two outcomes to the referendum, such as ‘it is a choice between taking back our money – or giving a further £100bn pounds to Brussels before the next election” (Johnson, 2016). The sentence construction in the previous units is imperative, as the syntactic construction helps to ensure the success of the Vote Leave rhetoric (Buckledee, 2018: 10-11).

The units from lines 516-530 is an example of subordination (or hypotaxis), which places greater emphasis on the first part of the clause, it is important as uncontentious claims can become the main proposition of a language users’ sentences, whilst claims vulnerable to scrutiny would instead come second (Huddlestone, 1984: 382; Lesley Jeffries, 2010: 86). Thus, Johnson can propose questionable claims at a subordinate level in order to support the Vote Leave argument, whilst avoiding scrutiny. For instance, on lines 526-527 Johnson presents a choice, “between believing in the possibility of hope and change in Europe – or accepting that we have no choice but to knuckle under” (Johnson, 2016). The metaphorical phrase “knuckle under” suggests aggression from the EU, in line with the metaphorical mapping of occupation and a reduction in sovereignty as outlined by Stratton (2019). However, it is subordinate, as the EU does not entirely infringe upon British democracy. (Jeffries, 2010: 86). Britain has historically been a member of international organisations such as the Commonwealth or NATO, and within Europe Britain retained control over public spending, domestic and foreign policy, policing and public spending (Straw and Clarke, 2016). However syntactic construction presents a binary choice to the audience, which is either to “take back control” or acquiescence to the perceived loss of sovereignty presented, with emphasis on acting upon the “common sense” and voting in the interests of Britain (Straw and Clarke, 2016).




The 2016 Brexit referendum changed the political landscape of Britain, leading to two different prime ministers in the span of 3 years (Marr, 2011: 639-643). The Vote Leave campaign deployed language which focussed on the rhetoric of sovereignty in orderto appeal to the audience (Stratton, 2019). Operating under the understanding of  metaphorical mappings, we can deduct how Johnson’s speech appeals to the audience by evoking strong cognitive responses through the use of cognitive metaphors, and how they inform political decisions (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999: 123; Musolff, 2004: 4). An accustomed experience of Britain is the “cultural trauma” of a loss of sovereignty in Britain, further fuelled by imagery of invasion being pervasive in British popular culture (Alexander, 2016: 14; Stratton, 2019). Johnson’s speech is effective as he utilises metaphorical frames which evoke fears of invasion, occupation and loss of sovereignty by metaphorically framing the debate by war, speed and building each mapping supporting the notion that Europe either threatens our sovereignty, or evokes fears of entrapment (Johnson, 2016). Other speech acts or grammatical frames help to support the metaphorical frames themselves (Fillmore, 1976: 25). And so, an inclusive “we” can either build a classless alliance, or an exclusive “we” can create imagery of a nebulous elite withholding information from the public, removing their agency (Buckledee, 2018: 56). Finally, with Johnson successfully framing the EU as invaders, evoking the fears as underlined by Stratton (2019), he presents a choice to the audience, in which syntactic constructions emphasises the imperative need to “take back control” rather than submit to further control by the EU (Buckledee, 2018: 10-11). As people vote morally as understood by Lakoff & Wehling (2016: 85- 88), and hold principles of democracy and freedom to high regard, then a vote for the status quo as presented by Johnson becomes difficult, and so it becomes imperative to “take back control” (Buckledee, 2019: 2-4, 79).



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For the purposes of this article, I have chosen specific sections of the speech which follow below.

Line 16-27

For many of us who are now deeply skeptical, the evolution has been roughly the same: we began decades ago to query the anti-democratic absurdities of the EU. Then we began to campaign for reform, and were excited in 2013 by the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech; and then quietly despaired as no reform was forthcoming. And then thanks to the referendum given to this country by David Cameron we find that a door has magically opened in our lives.

We can see the sunlit meadows beyond. I believe we would be mad not to take this once in a lifetime chance to walk through that door because the truth is it is not we who have changed. It is the EU that has changed out of all recognition; and to keep insisting that the EU is about economics is like saying the Italian Mafia is interested in olive oil and real estate.

Line 47- 53

In recent years Brussels has acquired its own foreign minister, its own series of EU embassies around the world, and is continuing to develop its own defence policy. We have got to stop trying to kid the British people; we have got to stop saying one thing in Brussels, and another thing to the domestic audience; we have got to stop the systematic campaign of subterfuge – to conceal from the public the scale of the constitutional changes involved. We need to look at the legal reality, which is that this is a continuing and accelerating effort to build a country called Europe

Line 135-138

‘More of the same will not see the European Union keeping pace with the new powerhouse economies. More of the same will not bring the European Union any closer to its citizens. More of the same will just produce more of the same - less competitiveness, less growth, fewer jobs.

Line 177-181

We have proved to ourselves time and again that we cannot change the direction. We cannot change the pace. We cannot interrupt the steady erosion of democracy, and given that we do not accept the destination it is time to tell our friends and partners, in a spirit of the utmost cordiality, that we wish to forge a new relationship based on free trade and intergovernmental cooperation.

Line 504-531

It is we in the Leave Camp – not they – who stand in the tradition of the liberal cosmopolitan European enlightenment – not just of Locke and Wilkes, but of Rousseau and Voltaire; and though they are many, and though they are well-funded, and though we know that they can call on unlimited taxpayer funds for their leaflets, it is we few, we happy few who have the inestimable advantage of believing strongly in our cause, and that we will be vindicated by history; and we will win for exactly the same reason that the Greeks beat the Persians at Marathon – because they are fighting for an outdated absolutist ideology, and we are fighting for freedom.

That is the choice on June 23.

It is between taking back control of our money – or giving a further £100bn to Brussels before the next election

Between deciding who we want to come here to live and work – or letting the EU decide between a dynamic liberal cosmopolitan open global free-trading prosperous Britain, or a Britain where we remain subject to a undemocratic system devised in the 1950s that is now actively responsible for low growth and in some cases economic despair between believing in the possibility of hope and change in Europe – or accepting that we have no choice but to knuckle under

It is a choice between getting dragged ever further into a federal superstate, or taking a stand now

Vote Leave on June 23, and take back control of our democracy.   


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