The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Jonathan Bright: The Dynamics of Parliamentary Discourse in the UK: 1936-2011

Jonathan Bright, European University Institute


Parliamentary discourse is one of the most important mechanisms through which democracy functions in the UK. Speeches made before parliament by its members (MPs) fulfill a wide variety of roles: they allow government ministers to present and defend new legislation; allow opposition MPs to debate the merits of such legislation; and they also allow any member to raise questions about the current functioning of government, or propose new actions and initiatives. As Ilie puts it, “political speech and action are tightly intertwined”.[1]

The public nature of parliamentary discourse is fundamentally about ensuring democratic accountability. But its recorded nature in Hansard, and especially recent digitisations of the Hansard archives, also open up significant possibilities to study the way such discourse takes place on a large scale. While in the field of informatics there is increasing recognition of these possibilities,[2] in the area of political science these vast tranches of data have remained largely unexploited.

This article seeks to remedy this deficit. On the basis of a dataset consisting of around 740 million words spoken in the UK’s House of Commons in the period 1936-2011, I analyze the way in which the dynamics of parliamentary discourse have changed over the past 75 years. Two main lines of investigation are pursued. Firstly, I seek to describe the general dynamics of parliamentary debate, and how they have changed over time, looking at both the quantity of interventions and the types of topic being debated. Then this overall picture is broken down with an analysis of the differences between speakers on the basis of their personal characteristics, in order to assess the extent to which different members are treated differently. Throughout the article, I will also discuss various challenges encountered when coding data on such a large scale, together with some strategies used to try and ameliorate these difficulties.

[1] Ilie, Cornelia. 2010. ‘Analytical perspectives on parliamentary and extra-parliamentary discourses’. In: Journal of Pragmatics, 42(4), 879-1172.

[2] See e.g. Marx, Maarten. 2009. ‘Advanced Information Access to Parliamentary Debates’. In: Journal of Digital Information.

Jonathan Bright