Less than three years ago, Boris Johnson led the Conservatives to their biggest election victory since 1987. Fast-forward, however, and Boris has had his hand well and truly forced by his government. Following the BBC’s use of a word cloud to unpick resignation letters, we wondered; what were MPs really saying in their political swansongs?
On the 7th July, after a tidal wave of resignations from ministers, the calls for Boris Johnson to resign led the PM to finally announce his exit from Downing Street. With MPs resigning left, right, and centre, the BBC decided a word cloud was the right way to visualise the drama.
There’s something about this format that continues to draw people in. Word clouds can simultaneously leave boardrooms gasping in awe and scratching their heads in confusion. That’s because, beyond showing popular words in pretty formation, they don’t tell us all that much.
The BBC’s word cloud was beautifully colour-coded but ultimately told us very little about the letters. Did ‘party’ refer to the conservatives or party-gate? Was ‘great’ used for brilliance or enormity? What was the sentiment behind the repetition of words like ‘country’ and ‘government’?
Using text analysis to as a word cloud alternative to unlock MPs’ wording
We’ve used our text analysis software to compare the language of 55 resignation letters against standard English language, so we can move beyond the buzzwords and identify the meaning, emotion, context, and influence of the text data.
So, are our politicians mincing their words?
Let’s find out.
The prominence of personal legacy
As the saying goes, when the ship is sinking you need to think of your personal legacy. In comparison to standard English, MPs are 10.7x more likely to express gladness, using words ‘proud’ and ‘grateful’. For example:
“I will always be proud of how during the pandemic we protected people’s jobs”
“I am proud to have helped take the domestic abuse Bill onto the statute book”
“I am grateful for the opportunity to have served”
By expressing gladness and pride in this way, MPs are actively distancing themselves from the less honourable actions of others. It is a self-preservation tactic, essentially saying: bad things may have happened but I’m glad that I managed to do my part well.
This is coming from me
The idea of these resignation letters being a personal statement of intent is apparent in their grammar – particularly in pronouns – with MPs 5.1x more likely to use the first person:
“I had desperately hoped that I could avoid writing this letter”
“…in the department which I believe to be the most important”
It’s natural for resignation letters to feel deeply personal in any business or position – they’re an opportunity to let loose and make it known what you really think. That’s especially the case for these letters, where the MPs have freed themselves from the party line, for once being able to express their own opinions.
Power and personal accountability
It is clear from the self-reflective tone and grammar of the resignation letters that personal reputation is important to these MPs. What makes this clearer is their preoccupation with ownership – MPs are 2.6x more likely to use language that refers to the topic of possession:
“I am grateful to have been given the chance to be part of it”
“we must take the country with us”
“you have to look at your own personal integrity”
This is the language of power and influence. This crucial context is something only text analysis software would uncover – which is why it’s one of the better alternatives to word clouds in understanding these letters. In politics, you are ‘given’ your power, you ‘take’ opportunities, and you have your ‘own’ responsibilities. These letters circulate around personal accountability, because that is part of the game of politics – and in this instance, it is exactly what MPs have viewed to be absent.
The time is right
One of the most striking contrasts between the language of resignation letters and standard English is the prevalence of time-related language. In fact, in their resignation letters, MPs were 223x more likely to refer to the topic of time in their letters:
“over the last few months”
“hard times such as those we are experiencing today”
“sadly in recent months, this has been lost”
The idea of ‘the time being right’ is a thread we can see throughout the resignation letters. This is typical of the way politicians argue – a justification for not acting sooner, and a validation of not waiting any longer. In the case of Boris Johnson, it is clear to see why this language is particularly important: the Prime Minister’s flaws have been known for a long while, so MPs must work hard to justify acting now.
Boris’ linguistic legacy of action
While the majority of the resignation letters are quietly scathing about the outgoing Prime Minister’s actions and behaviours, there is evidence in their language that Boris Johnson’s rhetoric continues to influence them. Notable throughout many of the letters, is the use of infinitives, with MPs 1.5x more likely to use them in comparison to standard English language:
“it has been an incredible honour to serve”
“I shall continue to support the party”
“carry on working to deliver vital reforms”
In this, we can see that Boris Johnson’s linguistic legacy is still apparent – he’s always used the language of action to distract from complexities (e.g. ‘take back control’ or ‘get Brexit done’), and this active language is evidently still part of the Conservative Party’s culture and tone of voice. This is something only alternatives to word clouds can derive.
What does our text analysis software ultimately reveal?
By pushing our text data insights beyond just word clouds and into meaning, emotion, context, and influence, we can see just how ugly and intriguing the details surrounding the world of politics can be. We’ve learnt that this is a self-serving world, where individuals are concerned for their own legacies. And for that reason, they’re committed to justifying their own actions and innocence.
But it’s clear that the main issue MPs have with Boris runs against this core ethos of personal accountability: it is the job of a politician to protect their reputation and legacy, and in this, Boris Johnson has failed.
There are some nuances that only word cloud alternatives can analyse. Hidden in MPs’ language is a suggestion that Boris’ influence – particularly his action-oriented spin – might just continue to live on…