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Punctuations and Turning Points in British Politics: The Policy Agenda of the Queen’s Speech, 1940–2005

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 April 2010


This article explores the politics of attention in Britain from 1940 to 2005. It uses the Speech from the Throne (the King’s or Queen’s Speech) at the state opening of each session of parliament as a measure of the government’s priorities, which is coded according to topic as categorized by the Policy Agendas framework. The article aims to advance understanding of a core aspect of the political agenda in Britain, offering empirical insights on established theories, claims and narratives about post-war British politics and policy making. The analysis uses both distributional and time-series tests that reveal the punctuated character of the political agenda in Britain and its increasing fragmentation over time, with turning points observed in 1964 and 1991.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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51 The UK Policy Agendas Project codebook retains the US categories but uses examples specific to Britainn to aid the user. See UK Policy Agendas Codebook v.1.0,

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56 These stochastic process methods examine the overall distribution of agenda change, and as a result are concerned with the general pattern of stability and change.

57 I.e., the introduction of a major topic code with no empirical relevance to national policy-making, either because policy change is rare or policy decisions are taken at a subnational or supranational level (e.g., refuse collection), would otherwise create a cluster of change scores equal to zero as the level of attention remained constant at zero over time.

58 However, truncation of the distribution on its left tail, with a spike at −100 per cent, is quite unlike other distributions of political attention. These distribution properties are mathematical in origin, but empirical in magnitude. By mathematical construction, decreases in percentage share cannot exceed 100 per cent while any decrease from x to 0 is equal to −100 per cent. As a result, the skewness of the distribution is positive and equal to 2.71, with the mean equal to 7.80, whereas the median is equal to −11.80. Thus, while the policy agenda seems to be punctuated in the United Kingdom, constraints on the available agenda space (i.e., percentage share of the Queen’s Speech) mean that the active agenda does not appear to cumulate in the way that budgets or even congressional hearings are found to cumulate in other studies (e.g., Jones, Baumgartner and True, ‘Policy Punctuations’; Jones, Sulkin and Larsen, ‘Policy Punctuations in American Political Institutions’; Baumgartner, Foucault and François, ‘Punctuated Equilibrium in French Budgeting Processes’; Breunig, ‘The More Things Change, the More Things Stay the Same’). For those cases, the distribution of change scores tends to tail off before it reaches the −100 per cent bound. At the same time, a comparative lack of ‘true zeroes’ in budget data means that there are few decreases of −100 per cent, whereas attention to topics in the Queen’s Speech can, in an instant, drop off the political agenda (going from hero to zero).

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61 The kurtosis score for Britain (19.21) is less than that estimated for percentage change in the policy content of the ‘State of the Union Address’ in the United States (40.10) for the period between 1946 and 2005 (see www.policyagendas.orgfor the US dataset), although both are punctuated.

62 The theory is to consider the relationship between the sample distribution and the theoretical class of probability distribution with the greatest likelihood of generating the same empirical data. As such, it is possible to recognize the Paretian or exponential distributions. For semi-log plots the midpoint values are presented on a logged scale, but the frequencies are not. For log-log plots, both midpoint values and frequencies are logged. Figures 4 and 5 present both the negative and positive tails on the same scale (with negative midpoints multiplied by −1 in order to present them on the same scale as positive midpoints). The frequencies are each cumulated from their extreme tail to the centre of the distribution in order to stabilize ‘chatter’ in the tails of the distribution. Note that there are a large number of observations for the zero midpoint, which here cannot be approximated with a power law function because of its singularity at x = 0.

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66 This concentrates upon positive changes (i.e. increases in political attention), because of the mathematical limit of −100 per cent for negative changes (which prevents differentiation between 133 observations of −100 per cent).

67 It is also possible to identify the significance of punctuations in the political agenda through estimation of their effect as step or pulse inputs for Box–Tiao intervention models. However, these would tend to be significant in most instances because of the nature of model construction and would not assist inferences about the underlying cause of change.

68 The results of additional tests confirm that there are significant differences in the kurtosis of the distribution of attention change for the 1940–78 and 1979–2005 periods. For the earlier period (of stagnation and club government), the kurtosis score is positive and equal to 23.214, whereas for the latter period it is positive and equal to 7.442. This suggests that the political agenda was far more punctuated in the earlier period (of the traditional Westminster/Whitehall model) than the latter modern evolution of British government. Also, to confirm these results the Kolmogorov–Smirnov test generates a D statistic of 0.146 for 1940–78 and 0.141 for 1979–2005, significant at the 99 per cent confidence level for each, rejecting the null that the sample is drawn from a normal distribution. Likewise, the more powerful Shapiro–Wilk test generates a W statistic of 0.792 for 1940–78 and 0.884 for 1979–2005, significant at the 99 per cent confidence level, again rejecting the null that this is a random sample drawn from a normal distribution.

69 E.g., Gray, and Lowery, , ‘State Interest Group System Diversity’; Gray and Lowery, The Population Ecology of Interest Representation; Gray and Lowery, ‘To Lobby Alone or in a Flock’; Baumgartner, Jones and MacLeod, ‘The Evolution of Legislative Jurisdictions’.Google Scholar

70 This probabilistic measure of the spread of objects/observations across a given number of (discrete) nominal categories has been adapted from information theory for estimating the diversity or concentration of government attention (see Jones and Baumgartner, The Politics of Attention). It can be expressed in the form: . That is where the entropy score is estimated as the sum for all topics of the likelihood, p(x), that an object x (in this instance a policy statement in the monarch’s speech) falls within a particular topic i, multiplied by the natural log of that likelihood, multiplied by minus one.

71 Since logs of zero cannot be calculated, it is assumed that 0 x ln(0) = 0 for those topics where there was no attention in a given year. The maximum possible entropy score for the twenty-one major topic codes (here inclusive of the regional/local government and arts, culture and entertainment topics) is equal to the natural log of 21 (i.e. 3.04).

72 The first peak in the polynomial regression is a year before the peak in the actual entropy series in 1965 (2.704).

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80 Other venues feature as part of the research project, Legislative Policy Agendas in the UK, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC Reference RES-062-23-0872) as part of a European Science Foundation (ESF) EUROCORES European Collaborative Research Project, ‘The Politics of Attention: West European Politics and Agenda-setting in Times of Change’.