What can we learn from the words in the Chancellor’s Budget speech?

480880465Yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the UK, George Osborne, delivered his annual Budget speech. Just as the broadcast had concluded, a radio show a colleague was listening to was discussing the Budget and had spotted that ‘choice’ was a major theme in Osborne’s speech this year.

This got me thinking that we could compare this most recent speech with his five previous ones (between 2010 and 2014) to see if there are any other words or themes that emerge more prominently than before as the next election looms.

A quick keyword analysis reveals that the following words appear significantly more frequently in yesterday’s speech than Osborne’s previous ones combined:

National, debt, choose, truly, we, share, down, savings, falling, standards, statement, autumn, back, five, powerhouse, you, latest, challenges, row, ago.

Let’s discuss some of these in more detail:


As the radio show correctly identified, choose features far more heavily now than it ever has in the past. It occurred ten times in the 2015 speech, and only twice between 2010 and 2014. Choose relates directly to the ‘choice’ UK voters have to make this summer. All but one of these ten instances of choose are preceded by we, as Osborne makes reference to the party we, the Conservative we, and showing how they choose the things voters care about (jobs, security, future, families) which are often followed directly by references to this budget or the budget. This repetition of we choose are all concentrated at the start of the budget speech too.

The implication here is that the Conservative Party are represented as choosing the things that the voters will have a consensus on. The logical ‘choice’, then, must be a Conservative vote….

National debt

The words national and debt are both within the top three keywords which are significantly more frequent in this year’s speech than ever before. National occurs 48 times in the five speeches between 2010 and 2014. In contrast, it occurred 40 times in the 2015 budget speech alone. A first glance might interpret this as Osborne’s attempt to collectivise the nation, creating a sense of ‘togetherness’ (note also the fact we is key this year when compared with others, a typical rhetorical strategy of politicians).

However, although national occurs far more frequently, so too does debt: 32 times in 2015 compared with 5-19 times across 2010 and 2014 (the emergency budget in June 2010 containing 19). Combined, 16 of the 40 instances of national were combined with debt, making national debt a frequent occurrence in this year’s speech.

Osborne makes two distinct kinds of reference to national debt. On the one hand, he refers to the increase in national debt under Labour and before the Conservative Party (strictly the Coalition) were in power. At the same time, he makes regular references to how national debt is currently falling under his control. This legitimises his own party, urging voters to vote for this continuing fall in debt, while delegitimising the alternative in Labour.

Truly national recovery

The next most frequent collocate of national after debt (16) is recovery (7). Six of the seven occurrences of national recovery is premodified by truly, a word which Osborne has not used at all in any of his other Budget speeches.

These all relate to the Conservatives delivering, seeing, seek(ing) and their ambition for not just national recovery, but truly national recovery, while getting the whole of Britain back to work, in the process. There are also two references to a northern powerhouse (note powerhouse was also key in this speech). This relates to his praise of the economic development of the Midlands, Manchester and Yorkshire in his speech.

A critic may interpret this as an appeal to the north of England, where the Conservatives have traditionally performed less favourably than in the south. The reference to this northern powerhouse in the horizon of truly national recovery, may be an attempt to convince northern voters that they are in the Conservatives’ plans should they be successful in May.

Living standards

Standards is a keyword in the 2015 speech, in which it occurs eight times. Osborne has used standards only three times before in his budgets, all in 2011. Every one of these eight instances occurs with living:

Osborne uses living standards in much the same way as national debt, to compare his party as performing better than Labour. He reinforces that living standards are on the rise, that they will be higher than when they came into office, and that they will be higher in 2015 than in 2010. Thus, at least as insofar as a frequency (keyword) analysis finds, the points on which Osborne claims supremacy over Labour is through a lower national debt and higher living standards.

Five years ago

The words five years ago are key in this speech. This indicates that Osborne is making frequent reference to the situation in 2010, just before they were in power and the UK had a Labour government. In every one of these instances, Osborne negatively refers to the situation the UK were in under Labour.

He points out that after five years of Coalition leadership, inequality is lower and that nation is fundamentally stronger. He foregrounds that five years ago, millions of people were out of work, living standards were low, the economy had collapsed, the deficit was out of control and that the country was bailing out the banks. All of these cast Labour’s efforts in a very negative light, and focus on the seemingly good work the Conservatives have managed over the five years.

These references to five years ago, are strategically placed. Most of them are used in the first few seconds of the speech, juxtaposed with comparisons to today.

In summary then, Osborne focuses on choice, but the choice of his Conservative party. That they choose jobs, security, future, families. Therefore, if these are also the things the voters want, the logical choice would be to choose them.

He foregrounds the success of his Conservative Party over the opposition on the basis of lower national debt and higher living standards. He repeatedly refers to the state of the nation five years ago, (strategically placed at the start and the end of the speech) in a direct attack to Labour, to legitimise his party and to undermine Labour’s campaign in the 2015 general election.

David Wright
Lecturer in Linguistics
School of Arts and Humanities
Nottingham Trent University

Read David’s full analysis on his blog https://davidwrightlinguist.wordpress.com/


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