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

  • Peter John and Will Jennings

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.

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1 E.g. Baumgartner, Frank R. and Jones, Bryan D., Agendas and Instability in American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Baumgartner, Frank R., Jones, Bryan D. and MacLeod, Michael, ‘The Evolution of Legislative Jurisdictions’, Journal of Politics, 62 (2000), 221249; Gray, Virginia and Lowery, David, ‘State Interest Group System Diversity’, Political Research Quarterly, 46 (1993), 8197; Gray, Virginia and Lowery, David, The Population Ecology of Interest Representation: Lobbying Communities in the American States (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996); Gray, Virginia and Lowery, David, ‘To Lobby Alone or in a Flock: Foraging Behavior Among Organized Interests’, American Politics Quarterly, 26 (1998), 534; Jones, Bryan D., Sulkin, Tracey and Larsen, Heather, ‘Policy Punctuations in American Political Institutions’, American Political Science Review, 97 (2003), 151169; Jones, Bryan D. and Baumgartner, Frank R., The Politics of Attention: How Government Prioritizes Problems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

2 E.g. Richardson, Jeremy and Jordan, Grant, Governing Under Pressure: The Policy Process in a Post-parliamentary Democracy (Oxford: Martin Robertson, 1979); Rose, Richard and Davies, Phillip, Inheritance in Public Policy (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994).

3 Dunleavy, Patrick, ‘Policy Disasters: Explaining the UK’s Record’, Public Policy and Administration, 10 (1995), 5270; Hood, Christopher,Explaining Economic Policy Reversals (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1994).

4 Finer, Samuel E., ‘Introduction: Adversary Politics and Electoral Reform’, In Samuel E. Finer, ed., Adversary Politics and Electoral Reform (London: Anthony Wigram, 1975), pp. 332.

5 For a recent review, see Hay, Colin, ‘Whatever Happened to Thatcherism?’, Political Studies Review, 5 (2007), 183201.

6 For simplicity, the remainder of this article refers to the Speech from the Throne as the ‘Queen’s Speech’.

7 See for details of the UK Policy Agendas Project and datasets for replication purposes. This article refers to Queen’s Speech dataset v1.0.

8 Kingdon, John, Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), p.3.

9 Soroka, Stuart, Agenda-Setting Dynamics in Canada (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2002); Swanson, David L., ‘Feeling the Elephant: Some Observations on Agenda-Setting Research’, in James Anderson, ed., Communication Yearbook 11 (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1988), pp. 603619.

10 See John, Peter, ‘The Policy Agendas Project: A Review’, Journal of European Public Policy, 13 (2006), 975986.

11 Baumgartner, and Jones, , Agendas and Instability.

12 Lindblom, Charles, ‘The “Science” of Muddling Through’, Public Administration Review, 19 (1959), 7988; Lindblom, Charles, ‘Still Muddling, Not Yet Through’, Public Administration Review, 39 (1979), 517526; Wildavsky, Aaron,The Politics of the Budgetary Process (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, 1964).

13 Baumgartner, and Jones, , Agendas and Instability.

14 Baumgartner, Frank R. and Jones, Bryan D.. ‘Agenda Dynamics and Policy Subsystems’, Journal of Politics, 53 (1991), 10441074; Baumgartner, and Jones, , Agendas and Instability; Baumgartner, Frank R. and Jones, Bryan D., ‘Positive and Negative Feedback in Politics’, in Frank R. Baumgartner and Bryan D. Jones, eds, Policy Dynamics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Baumgartner, and Jones, , Policy Dynamics; Jones, Bryan D., Reconceiving Decision-making in Democratic Politics: Attention, Choice, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); Jones, Bryan D., True, James and Baumgartner, Frank R., ‘Does Incrementalism Stem from Political Consensus or from Institutional Gridlock?’, American Journal of Political Science, 41 (1997), 13191339; Jones, Bryan D., Baumgartner, Frank R. and True, James, ‘Policy Punctuations: U.S. Budget Authority, 1947–1995’, Journal of Politics, 60 (1998), 133; Jones, Bryan D. and Baumgartner, Frank R., ‘A Model of Choice for Public Policy’, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 15 (2005), 325351; Jones, and Baumgartner, , The Politics of Attention.

15 Jones, , Reconceiving Decision-making in Democratic Politics, p. 185.

16 True, James, Jones, Bryan D. and Baumgartner, Frank R., ‘Punctuated-Equilibrium Theory: Explaining Stability and Change in American Policy-making’, in Paul Sabatier, ed., Theories of the Policy Process, 2nd edn (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2007).

17 True, , Jones, and Baumgartner, , ‘Punctuated-Equilibrium Theory’, p. 160.

18 Jones, , Sulkin, and Larsen, , ‘Policy Punctuations in American Political Institutions’; Jones, and Baumgartner, , The Politics of Attention, p. 88.

19 See John, ‘The Policy Agendas Project’ for a review of the original US Policy Agendas Project and the programme of research that it generated.

20 See For technical details about the origins of the US categories and its coding procedures, see Baumgartner, Frank R., Jones, Bryan D. and MacLeod, Michael C., ‘Lessons from the Trenches: Quality, Reliability, and Usability in a New Data Source’, Political Methodologist, 8 (1998), 111.

21 Baumgartner, Frank R., Green-Pedersen, Christoffer and Jones, Bryan D., ‘Comparative Studies of Policy Agendas’, Journal of European Public Policy, 13 (2006), 959974; John, , ‘The Policy Agendas Project’.

22 Heclo, Hugh and Wildavsky, Aaron, The Private Government of Public Money (London: Macmillan, 1974); Richardson, and Jordan, , Governing Under Pressure.

23 Rose, and Davies, , Inheritance in Public Policy.

24 Marquand, David, ‘Club Government: The Crisis of the Labour Party in National Perspective’, Government & Opposition, 16 (1981), 1936; Marquand, David, The Unprincipled Society (London: Cape, 1988); Moran, Michael, ‘Understanding the Regulatory State’, British Journal of Political Science, 32 (2002), 391413; Moran, Michael, The British Regulatory State: High Modernism and Hyper Innovation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

25 Bulpitt, Jim, Territory and Power in the United Kingdom (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983).

26 Heclo, Hugh, A Government of Strangers (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1977).

27 Almond, Gabriel and Verba, Sydney, The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963).

28 Rhodes, R.A.W., Beyond Westminster and Whitehall (London: Routledge, 1988); Marsh, David and Rhodes, R. A. W., Policy Networks in British Government (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

29 King, Anthony, The British Constitution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

30 E.g., a ban on smoking in public and work places was enacted in Scotland in March 2006, prompting the UK Parliament to enact similar legislation, which became active in July 2007.

31 Hogg, Quintin, ‘Elective dictatorship’, The Listener, 21 October 1976, pp. 496500.

32 Finer, , Adversary Politics and Electoral Reform.

33 Lijphart, Arendt, Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999).

34 Tsebelis, George, Veto Players: How Political Institutions Work (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002).

35 Butler, David, Adonis, Andrew and Travers, Tony, Failure in British Government: The Politics of the Poll Tax (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

36 Dunleavy, , ‘Policy Disasters’.

37 Moran, , The British Regulatory State.

38 John, Peter and Margetts, Helen, ‘Policy Punctuations in the UK: Fluctuations and Equilibria in Central Government Expenditure Since 1951’, Public Administration, 81 (2003), 411432.

39 Budge, Ian, Klingemann, Hans-Dieter, Volkens, Andrea, Bara, Judith, Tannenbaum, Eric, Fording, Richard, Hearl, Derek, Kim, Hee Min, McDonald, Michael and Mendes, Silvia. Mapping Policy Preferences: Parties, Electors and Governments: 1945–1998: Estimates for Parties, Electors and Governments 1945–1998 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Budge, Ian, Klingemann, Hans-Dieter, Volkens, Andrea, Bara, Judith and McDonald, Michael, Mapping Policy Preferences II: Estimates for Parties, Electors and Governments in Central and Eastern Europe, European Union and OECD 1990–2003 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); MacDonald, Michael and Budge, Ian, Elections, Parties, Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

40 Castles, Francis G., ed., The Impact of Parties: Politics and Policies in Democratic Capitalist States (London: Sage, 1982).

41 Rose, Richard, Do Parties Make a Difference? (London: Macmillan, 1980).

42 Gamble, Andrew, The Free Economy and the Strong State: The Politics of Thatcherism (Basingstoke, Hants.: Macmillan, 1988); Heffernan, Richard, New Labour and Thatcherism: Political Change in Britain (Basingstoke, Hants.: Macmillan, 2001).

43 Hall, Stuart, ‘Popular Democratic vs. Authoritarian Populism’. in Alan Hunt, ed., Marxism and Democracy (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980).

44 Bulpitt, Jim, ‘The Discipline of the New Democracy: Mrs. Thatcher’s Domestic Statecraft’, Political Studies, 34 (1985), 1939; Marsh, David, ‘Explaining ‘Thatcherite’ Policies: Beyond Uni-dimensional Explanation’, Political Studies, 43 (1995), 595613; Kerr, Peter, Modern British Politics: From Consensus to Conflict (London: Routledge, 2001).

45 See the review of this debate in Hay, ‘Whatever Happened to Thatcherism?’.

46 E.g. Hobolt, Sara B. and Klemmensen, Robert, ‘Responsive Government? Public Opinion and Policy Preferences in Britain and Denmark’, Political Studies, 53 (2005), 379402; Hobolt, Sara B. and Klemmensen, Robert, ‘Government Responsiveness and Political Competition in Comparative Perspective’, Comparative Political Studies, 41 (2008), 309337.

47 Indeed, Namenwirth and Weber’s phase-shifting and cyclical model of political-cultural attention, see Zvi Namenwirth, J. and Weber, Robert P., Dynamics of Culture (London: Allen & Unwin, 1987), resembles the attention-shifting associated with the punctuated equilibrium model of Baumgartner and Jones.

48 Cohen, Jeffrey, ‘Presidential Rhetoric and the Public Agenda’, American Journal of Political Science, 39 1995), 87107; Cohen, Jeffrey, Presidential Responsiveness and Public Policy-Making: The Publics and the Policies that Presidents Choose (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).

49 Bara, Judith, ‘A Question of Trust: Implementing Party Manifestos’, Parliamentary Affairs, 58 (2005), 585599; McDonald, Michael D. and Budge, Ian, Elections, Parties, Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 164.

50 A quasi-sentence (or policy statement) constitutes an expression of a single policy idea or issue. See Volkens, Andrea, Manifesto Coding Instructions. Discussion Paper FS III 02-201 (Berlin: WZB, 2002). Often this unit of analysis is identifiable from the use of punctuation, though it is possible for sentences to include multiple references to policy content (in particular those which address a series of major policy issues).

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,

52 E.g., Jones, , Sulkin, and Larsen, , ‘Policy Punctuations in American Political Institutions’; Jones and Baumgartner, The Politics of Attention; Jones and Baumgartner, ‘A Model of Choice for Public Policy’.

53 Kurtosis is the fourth moment around the mean (where variance and skew are the second and third moments). This is a measure of the relative ‘peakedness’ of a given distribution.

54 E.g., Baumgartner, Frank, Foucault, Martial and François, Abel, ‘Punctuated Equilibrium in French Budgeting Processes’, Journal of European Public Policy, 13 (2006), 10821099; Breunig, Christian, ‘The More Things Change, the More Things Stay the Same: A Comparative Analysis of Budget Punctuations’, Journal of European Public Policy, 13 (2006), 10691085; John, and Margetts, , ‘Policy Punctuations in the UK’; Jones, Baumgartner and True, ‘Policy Punctuations’; Jones, Sulkin and Larsen, ‘Policy Punctuations in American Political Institutions’.

55 Jones, , Sulkin, and Larsen, , ‘Policy Punctuations in American Political Institutions’, p. 166.

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).

59 Chakravarti, Indra M., Laha, Radha G. and Roy, J., Handbook of Methods of Applied Statistics, Volume I (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1967), pp. 392394.

60 Shapiro, Samuel S. and Wilk, Martin B., ‘An Analysis of Variance Test for Normality (Complete Samples)’, Biometrika, 52 (1965), 591611.

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.

63 For the Paretian distribution, ; for the exponential distribution, ; where X is the category midpoint and y represents the frequencies associated with the midpoints.

64 See Jones, and Baumgartner, , The Politics of Attention, p. 184.

65 Jones, and Baumgartner, , ‘A Model of Choice for Public Policy’.

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’.

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).

73 Wlezien, Christopher, ‘On the Salience of Political Issues: The Problem with ‘Most Important Problem’, Electoral Studies, 24 (2005), 555579.

74 This can be tested through estimation of time series regression models of the proportion of attention to each issue i against entropy, ENTROPYt = α 0* + α*1ATTENTIONit + εt. This reveals that for the period between 1979 and 2005, the relationship between attention and entropy is negative and significant at the 95 per cent level for macroeconomics (−1.809), defence (−2.723) and international affairs (−1.700), though with varying degrees of fit for each regression. As attention to each of these topics increased, the level of entropy decreased, while – as attention to the topics decreased – the level of entropy increased.

75 This low point in the polynomial regression is two years before the low point in the actual entropy series in 1993 (1.999).

76 Sanders, David, ‘Conservative Incompetence, Labour Responsibility and the Feelgood Factor: Why the Economy Failed to Save the Conservatives in 1997’, Electoral Studies, 18 (1999), 251270.

77 Box, George E. P. and Tiao, George C., ‘Intervention Analysis with Applications to Economic and Environmental Problems’, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 70 (1975), 7079.

78 This indicates that an intervention is temporary at time tj, such that Xj = 0 if ttj and Xj = 1 if t = tj.

79 E.g., Jones, , Sulkin, and Larsen, , ‘Policy Punctuations in American Political Institutions’.

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’.

* School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester (email: ). An earlier version of this article was presented to the Study of Parliament Group of the United Kingdom, to seminars at the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, and at the universities of Essex and East Anglia. The authors are very grateful for comments made by participants at those seminars. Suggestions from the Journal’s Editor and three anonymous referees were particularly helpful for its improvement. The authors also thank the British Academy for its Small Research Grant, 2005–06 (S5) for The Policy Priorities of UK Governments: A Content Analysis of King’s and Queen’s speeches, 1945–2005, and the UK Policy Agendas Project coders for their diligent work.

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British Journal of Political Science
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