Research Seminars

Research seminars

The beginning of ‘the Age of Austerity’: A critical stylistics analysis of Cameron’s 2009 spring conference speech.


Austerity has strong connections with 1940s and 1950s Britain, when the consumption of food and clothing and other goods was regulated and reduced via rationing and controls on pricing. Seventy years on from the end of war, the sense that everyone was suffering together and that it was for a ‘greater good’ (i.e. winning the war against Hitler, and then rebuilding Britain) remains strong in the cultural memory of UK citizens over 50. Cameron attempted to evoke those days of national unity by using, and reusing, the word austerity during the build-up to the 2009 general election.

Significant power can be wielded in political discourse by word-forms, which may connote a whole complex of meaning subtly different from the everyday usage of the same word and work as a kind of shorthand for a whole ideological stance. Cameron’s use of austerity as a vague evocation of 1940s/50s Britain with everyone pulling together meant that those trying to discredit public spending cuts as a solution to the financial crisis found they had to argue against an essentially unclear idea of what it is that is being discredited (i.e. austerity).

This paper presents a critical stylistic analysis the first of Cameron’s speeches to mention austerity, given April 26, 2009 at the Conservative Party spring conference, and discusses Cameron’s presentation of the UK economic landscape and his proposal for ‘balancing the books’, which in fact meant the permanent shrinking of public services. The paper will outline the methodology for the systematic analysis of this fairly large text, report on linguistic patterns in the data, and finish by drawing conclusions about the status of austerity as a socio-political keyword.