“Levelling up”—why Boris Johnson can’t stop saying it and what he really means

Careful phrasing can lead people to support particular policies, invest in particular companies or even back foreign wars. What is the PM trying to achieve with his latest slogan?

January 17, 2020
Johnson gives a speech outside No 10. Photo Han Yan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
Johnson gives a speech outside No 10. Photo Han Yan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

In his New Year blog asking for “weirdos and misfits” to work in No 10, Dominic Cummings issued a call for communications professionals familiar with Robert Cialdini’s work on the psychology of persuasion. One of the first slogans he might get them looking at is “levelling up,” the new term for tackling regional disparities. It has appeared in every major speech by the prime minister since he took office but no one knows exactly what it means.

This is unusual for a prime minister and government whose metaphors are usually crystal clear, designed with high precision to strike deep in the national consciousness. Take the imagery deployed in the recent election campaign. Did you notice how often we saw videos of Boris with food during the election? We saw him in a baker’s, a cake shop, a crisp factory, a pie factory, in a kitchen making tea and scoffing jam scones. When we see images of food, our hunger neurons are inescapably activated. This made his offer of an “oven-ready deal” almost irresistible. It’s priming, or what Cialdini calls “pre-suasion.” You create a problem, then offer up the solution. Or, as Bruce Robinson put it in How to Get Ahead in Advertising, you throw a brick through someone’s window, then knock on the door to sell them a burglar alarm.

“Oven ready” is easy to visualise. “Levelling up” is less clear. What is the underlying imagery here? I think there are three possible contenders.

First is water. The Centre for Policy Studies published a report last summer called “A Rising Tide: Levelling Up Left Behind Britain.” The authors said the aim of this report was to put more “flesh on the bones” of the new prime ministerial slogan. By describing it as a rising tide, they had in mind water levels, invoking John F Kennedy’s “A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats”—the idea that when a country gets richer, everyone gains. A rising tide is instantly visual and accessible: we conceptualise money as water anyway, talking about credit flows, liquidity, flotations, bail outs, credit droughts and so on. And a rising tide is also the perfect antidote to trickle-down economics, a theory which Johnson explicitly rejected in one of his early pitches for the Tory leadership. Compare the dynamic qualities of “level up” and “trickle down”—"level up” is instantly more active, substantial and positive than “trickle down.”

The second contender is gaming. Levelling up is a phrase common among aspirational millennials who see life through the metaphor of a platform game, where we move up or down, gaining points like the hero in Super Mario Bros. This is also readily accessible. We all understand that up is good, which is why so many aspirational brand logos point upward—for example Virgin and Nike. And, as Daniel Z Lieberman and Michael E Long write in their fabulous new book, The Molecule of More, just literally looking up activates our sense of aspiration, getting the dopamine flowing, which is why “up” is a magical word for coaches, hypnotists and speechwriters.

But the third contender and perhaps best is the prime minister’s own perspective, as expressed in the launch of his Tory leadership campaign. He introduced the phrase “levelling up” using the metaphor of an internal combustion engine: “We are somehow achieving Grand Prix speeds, but without firing on all cylinders.” So there we are talking about difference performance levels within the cylinders of a car engine.

This metaphor makes sense. We often speak of national economies as cars in which we drive productivity, accelerate reform, change gears. Among management consultants, this is the go-to metaphor for high performance based on the ideas of Gant and Taylor (both of whom were engineers). It’s also inherently aspirational and very British—James Hunt and Brands Hatch. Obviously, it’s a bit macho and 1970s, but that’s never put Johnson off in the past.

If I was Cummings, I would gather together a group of “weirdos and misfits” from across Whitehall to visualise clearly what “levelling up” looks like. It can’t simultaneously be a car, a tide and a game, otherwise we'll be unleashing tidal waves of investment to move up a level and drive reform, the kind of mixed metaphor that would make Jim Hacker blush. The metaphor needs to be settled. This is important: without clarity of metaphor, there won’t be clarity of thought or action. Research has shown how different metaphors can lead people to fundamentally different reactions on questions ranging from whether they’ll support particular policies, invest in particular companies or even back foreign wars.

For example, one 2011 study showed that using the “crime as a beast” metaphor led people to prefer enforcement policy responses (tough on crime) whilst “crime as a virus” brought about a preference for social policy responses (tough on the causes of crime). That’s why Johnson’s statement earlier this week that he wants to ‘cut the head off the snake’ of crime gangs was so significant. It was an active denunciation of the message Theresa May was pushing last year that crime must be treated “like a disease.” Johnson’s actively shifting the metaphor in order to bring about a clear shift in policy towards crime, moving to much tougher enforcement.

Johnson needs similar clarity and purpose with regard to “levelling up,” otherwise it’s likely to suffer the same fate as Theresa May’s “burning injustices” or David Cameron’s “closing the gap.” Like his oven-ready deal, the proof, ultimately, will be in the pudding.