A decade (nearly) of British political history, as told through Queen’s speeches

It’s been quite a decade.

The past 10 years have seen the first coalition government in a generation; three referendums with profound constitutional consequences for the United Kingdom; the enduring effects of years of austerity budgets; and an unprecedented period of political gridlock over Brexit.

Now, a new analysis of Queen’s speeches from 2012 to 2019 provides a unique way of looking back at the decade as a whole and the issues that defined it.

The graphic below shows how the words chosen by the government in Queen’s speeches have changed as public concern shifted over the course of time.



2012: The Olympics, and a spirit of optimism.

My analysis starts in 2012 (for the simple reason that an accurate transcript of the Queen’s speech at the beginning of the 2011 parliamentary session isn’t easily available).

The coalition government at this point is near its height. Some reforms are underway, but many others are still in the pipeline. David Cameron is still enjoying the acclaim from the centrist press that greeted his first 100 days. The Olympics are on the horizon, and austerity has yet to bite.

The reforming zeal of the early coalition government can be seen in the words used in the 2012 and 2013 Queen’s speeches, shown graphically below. There is still a heavy emphasis on ‘new’ proposals and pieces of legislation, in contrast to later Queen’s speeches that would increasingly focus on the government ‘continuing’ to act on a pre-existing policy.

wordcloud queen's speech 2012
Word cloud for the 2012 Queen’s speech, under the coalition government.

It’s less visible in the graphic, but the coming festivities are also reflected in some unusual words popping up in the Queen’s speech, such as ‘paralympic’ and ‘olympic’.


2014: An emphasis on Unionism

By around 2014, words such as ‘continuing’ begin to crop up more and more in Queen’s speeches, perhaps indicating that the coalition’s well of ideas was beginning to run dry. More tellingly, however, is a sudden spike in usage of the words ‘united’ and ‘kingdom’. The Scottish independence referendum would take place later that year; the government was already campaigning even as it opened the parliamentary session.

wordcloud queen's speech 2014
‘Continue’ appears more in the 2014 Queen’s speech than ‘legislation’ does – but usage of the words ‘united’ and ‘kingdom’, tellingly, also spike.

The 2014 referendum was, of course, won by the Unionists, but its narrow result continues to reverberate in today’s politics: many now argue that the Labour party will never again be able to achieve majority government due to the SNP’s dominance in Scottish politics.


2015: Austerity begins to bite hard

Around 2015, the word ‘health’ begins to appear more often in Queen’s speeches, tracking with increasing public concern that YouGov was detecting over the NHS as the government’s austerity budgets started to gravely impact service standards.

But the government also starts more and more to emphasise its tough-on-crime stance. With the rise of Islamic State and an upsurge in Islamic-inspired extremism, YouGov polls showed a spike in public concern over the threat from terrorist attacks. Perhaps as a result, 2014 and 2015 show an increased emphasis on ‘security’ in their Queen’s speeches.

The Queen’s speech of this session acknowledges the effects of austerity in other ways, as well (though many would argue that austerity’s legacy remains unaddressed in policy to this day). The speech makes nods towards the idea of a ‘one-nation’ approach, and emphasises things such as community and aspiration.


The Brexit Era

2016-2019 have seen a rebound in heavy use of ‘United’ and ‘Kingdom’ in Queen’s speeches, maybe reflecting a feeling of patriotic fervour that led the country to vote to leave the EU. The Queen’s speeches of this period also see an upswing in the words ‘European’ and ‘international’.

wordcloud Queen's speech 2017


Conclusions from a decade of turmoil

What is perhaps most interesting about this way of looking at the decade is the things it omits. Same-sex marriage equality, one of the most radical social reforms in a generation, is nowhere featured on any of the charts. House of Lords reform is mentioned in several Queen’s speeches, and at one point threatened to tear the coalition government apart, yet the Lords aren’t mentioned enough to make up a significant proportion of any of the speeches in terms of word count.

In the Brexit era, the single issue of the day is only gestured at vaguely. Despite three interminable years of debating soft and hard Brexit, Canda+ or Norway-, none of this shows up in the analysis. Now that Boris Johnson has promised to ‘ban Brexit’ from government communications, presumably we will only see even less of it in Queen’s speeches to come.


Notes on my analysis

In my analysis, I excluded certain words due to their relative unimportance and relative frequency:

  • Any instances of the verb ‘to be’ (in any conjugation)
  • Any pronouns
  • Any prepositions
  • Any instances of the word ‘will’, since all Queen’s speeches are in the future tense.

Methodology

The full text of the Queen’s speeches over the period analysed can be found here:

The frequency of each word in each speech was calculated using this site. This was then converted into spreadsheet format using OpenRefine, and then downloaded as a .csv file. Data for each Queen’s speech was combined into a master spreadsheet using VLOOKUP formulas in Excel. This was then imported into Flourish for the graphic at the top of the article.

Word clouds were generated using this site here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s