Thursday, 26th September, 9.30-10.30

Tony McEnery

Tony McEnery is Distinguished Professor of English Language and Linguistics at Lancaster University. He is the author of many books and papers on corpus linguistics, including Corpus Linguistics: Method, Theory and Practice (with Andrew Hardie, CUP, 2011). He was founding Director of the ESRC Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS) Centre, which was awarded the Queen's Anniversary Prize for its work on corpus linguistics in 2015.

The UK, Europe and the path to Brexit - the long view: Europe in two centuries of British newspapers.

When the UK voted to exit the European Union in 2016 many tried to understand the event. Opinion polls, the analysis of voting patterns, studies of the press in the run up to the vote, the role of social media and machine learning all came to prominence as people and organizations tried to understand what was an unexpected outcome for many.

In the research presented in this paper, undertaken with Helen Baker and Vaclav Brezina, we approached this question with a different mindset. Much of the work we have done in the past has been focused on exploring the development of attitudes and ideas, as reflected in language, over long stretches of time. We believe that in taking this approach we can start to understand long term trends that give rise to specific, notable, events.

Brexit was not the result of one or two months of campaigning. Brexit needs to be understood in the long term. Only by doing so can we begin to answer questions such as ‘How did the UK vote for Brexit when no major political party in the UK has ever campaigned to leave the EU?’, ‘How and why did attitudes to the EU change in the UK between it voting to stay in the EU in 1975 and voting to leave in 2016?’ and ‘What were the key events over time that led to Brexit?’.

In this talk, we will approach questions such as these in two ways. After a brief review of the history of British engagement with what is now called the EU, we will start by summarising what researchers in academic disciplines such as History and Politics say have been the major arguments for and against staying in the EU over time. We will follow that up by a study of one newspaper, from the 1960s to the present – The Times. We have access to all of the machine readable copies of the newspaper – over three billion words were published by it in this period alone. Using techniques pioneered by linguists to look at and start to comprehend data on this scale using computers, we will explore the totality of this data to look at how attitudes to the EU shifted over time and link those to historical events. By doing this we will start to show, for the first time, on a very large scale how British attitudes to the EU developed over time, as viewed through the prism of one very influential newspaper. In doing so we will also reflect on the claims made by the smaller scale, qualitative research, undertaken by Historians and Political Science researchers while gaining a deeper understanding of the drivers of Brexit.