CDA Congress
Valencia, May 2004




Critical Context Studies


Teun A. van Dijk

Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona






This year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the critical study of language and discourse, which originated in the publication in 1979 of the seminal book Language and Control, by Roger Fowler, Gunther Kress, Tony Trew and Bob Hodge. The authors introduced the term ‘critical linguistics’, initially also adopted by other scholars, but soon extended to Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) because of the obvious discursive nature of the object of study.

I shall henceforth use the term Critical Discourse Studies (CDS), however, so as to emphasize that we are not dealing with a specific method of analysis, but with a much broader cross-disciplinary perspective of critical studies, featuring many methods, and not only analysis but also theory and the study of the social and ethical foundations of critical inquiry.

As its name also suggests, CDS has been focusing on the critical study of discourse, that is, on text, talk and their structures. Thus, Fowler and his associates showed how even syntactic structures, such as the use of active and passive voice or nominalizations may emphasize or de-emphasize the agency and hence the responsibility for certain actions. Such emphasis or mitigation may clearly have political or ideological functions, as indeed it had in the examples they analyzed. For instance by using such structures in the news or political discourse, the authorities may emphasize their accusation of black urban youth for criminal or aggressive behavior, rather than ‘our’ own police.

Since these early studies of the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, thousands of other critical analyses of text and talk have been published, among which hundreds of books, and in many countries and many languages, and using many methods or approaches, ranging from detailed conversation analysis, to analysis of rhetoric, style, narrative, argumentation, topics, pronouns, politeness formula, speech acts, and so on.

However, CDS is not only about the structures of text and talk, but essentially about structures of society, that is, about power, domination, inequality, oppression, marginalization, discrimination, and all other forms of power abuse perpetrated in and by language use, discourse, interaction and communication. Hence, CDS is specifically interested in sexism, racism, ethnicism, anti-Semitism, nationalism, and all other –isms that form the broader ideological and societal frameworks of practices of daily discrimination, marginalization, exclusion, and problematization, if not of assassination and extermination.

The fundamental aims of CDS are not merely to better understand text or talk and their functions, but also or rather to deal with more fundamental, broader social and political issues and problems of which discourse is an expression, a means or a conduit on the one hand, or essentially constitutive, on the other hand. In other words, the focus of CDS is rather on context than on text. Specifically CDS is interested in very specific relations between text and context, for instance in the ways power and power abuse can be reproduced by discourse.

If we realize that CDS is rather about context or about text-context relations than about text or talk alone, then we obviously not only need theories of text, but also theories of context, and theories of text-context relations.

Theories of text and talk abound, from classical rhetoric, to contemporary grammatical, stylistic, conversational, narrative, or argumentative descriptions of discourse. In the last decades we have thus accumulated a vast library of books and articles that study every nook and cranny of the structures and strategies of written and oral discourse. Throughout the 20th century, linguists have extended the study of language use from phonology and morphology to syntax and semantics, from phonemes and words to whole sentences. Philosophers helped us to realize that beyond form and meaning, language use also means act and action, that is, speech acts, and sociologists insisted that such language use is essentially a form of social interaction, most fundamentally in the form of everyday interaction. And many others, also in linguistics, thus emphasized that utterances, language use, is essentially discursive, that is, sequential, macro as well as micro, coherent, complex, and multi-level, and multi-media. Psychologists have shown that such discourses and their meanings can only be produced and understood on the basis of vast amounts of knowledge, and that language use should not only be studied concretely and empirically as abstract structures, as linguists do, nor indeed as actual interaction as conversational analysts do, but also in terms of strategic cognitive processes and mental representations. In other words, discourse analysis has many dimensions and levels, and its structures are accounted for by many theories and concepts, which are increasingly being integrated.

Despite the interest of psychologists and sociologists in discourse, and despite the recognition of the increasing relevance of cognition, interaction, institutions, groups and group relations and their relationships to discourse, what is still lacking is an explicit theory of context. In this paper, I shall summarize my ideas about such a theory, and especially show how such a theory is relevant for critical discourse studies. Indeed, we may call this particular branch of CDS ‘critical context studies’, here abbreviated as CCS.




The commonsense notion of ‘context’, widely used in the media and the social sciences, implies that a phenomenon or problem is focused on, studied or analyzed in relation to some kind of some environment. Often this is a geographical environment, a place, country or region, such as the study of poverty, or AIDS or leadership in the African, Spanish or suburban ‘context’. Context here often takes meanings such as ‘background’, as a set of explanatory factors that may help understand or explain the phenomenon or problem under study. To view problems or issues ‘in their context’ implies an emphasis on the fact that they are not isolated, autonomous or independent, but that their structures or properties are controlled by broader mechanisms, processes or structures. Thus, many thousands of books in the social sciences feature the notion of ‘context’ in their title, so as to show that the study seeks to understand a phenomenon against a broader explanatory environment, surroundings or setting.

In linguistics and discourse analysis, context more specifically deals with surrounding words, sentences, text or talk of a given linguistic structure, on the one hand, or with the social situation, event or encounter in which language is being used, on the other hand. Contrary to most uses in the social sciences, such situational contexts are rather ‘micro’ than ‘macro’, that is, defined in terms of face to face interaction of a few participants at a specific time and place, rather than understood as the broader societal structure defined by organizations, institutions, groups, group relations, cities or countries among other social or geographical structures or dimensions of ‘environments’.

Thus, in discourse studies when we deal with the context of conversation, we intuitively rather think of the participants and their relevant social roles and of how concrete setting aspects, such as properties of place or timing may influence talk. And when we examine the context of news reports in the press, we rather think of the everyday strategies of news gathering of journalists, of interviewing, and actual news writing and its institutional constraints, such as routines or editorial meetings or phone calls with sources, and of such places as the newsroom, and timing constraints such as deadlines.

In a broader perspective we may also focus on broader institutional and organizational constraints, as well as those of group relations, domination and power abuse, for instance on what happens in the courtroom, or what happens when women and men, old and young, or rich and poor are engaged in talk or written about in texts. However, such a broader, institutional, organizational or societal background is taken into account in discourse studies rather indirectly, namely as being related to the local situation, interaction or social practices at the micro-level of description. Hence the relevance of the notions of micro and macro context.

In these and many other examples we study ‘context’ in a more or less intuitive way, that is, as some kind of social environment of text or talk, that is, as a situation. Indeed, we define discourse essentially as situated text or talk.

The fundamental problem, however, is how to put constraints on such a ‘contextual’ or ‘situational’ study. Indeed, how do we know or decide where to begin and where to stop such an analysis, since obviously it may begin with details of the interaction, the properties of speakers or of settings, but may stretch to such vast societal ‘contexts’ as contemporary capitalism, neoliberalism, globalization, patriarchy, postmodernism, and so on. That is, if contextual analysis should be relevant, it is crucial not only to define possible contexts, but especially to limit them.

The standard solution to the problem of the infinity of context has been provided by the crucial notion of relevance. Contexts are only those properties of micro or macro social environments that are relevant for discourse. This is of course fine when we are able to define and describe relevance. One obvious way would be to do this in terms of covariation: A situational factor is relevant when its presence or absence co-varies with changes in the structures or strategies of discourse. Thus, age is often a relevant factor of context, as a property of speakers or recipients, when for instance young or old age associates with different forms of talk, for instance specific politeness forms, pronouns, and maybe even topics of conversation. Indeed, we all know that we talk differently to a child than to an adult, and differently to old people than to younger people. The same is true for gender, class, social position, and other aspects of social structure.

Although a decent relevance theory of contextualization is a step forward, it leaves many problems unsolved. Indeed, age or gender, and a host of other social ‘variables’ often co-vary with some forms of text or talk, but not always and in each situation. Does this mean that they sometimes are part of a context and sometimes not? Does this mean that contexts are not well-defined in the first place, and many vary freely? Are there context features that always influence discourse, and others that do so often or only sometimes? And what is the nature of the ‘influence’ or the covariation in the first place? It is causal, or rather rational, objective or subjective? Being a woman nearly always influences the phonetics of speaking – we usually can distinguish a man’s voice from a woman’ voice – but that is obviously another, a biological, kind of influence than the, social, kind of influence of being a speaker or recipient of female gender, as it may become obvious in sexist talk.

In other words, a theory of context needs to go beyond a mere notion such as relevance, and needs to account for a more complex way to deal with ‘covariation’, conditioning or causation between social situation and discourse structure.


Contexts as Mental Models


Towards a new theory of context


The main argument for a new theory of context is the fact that contexts as they are conceptualized in the humanities and the social sciences do not condition text or talk at all, and hence should not be called con-texts in the first place. Indeed, little argument is needed to show that people’s age, gender, social position, power, group or institution cannot as such directly influence how they speak or write. This point of view is easiest to demonstrate by showing the absurdity of its obvious consequence: If this were the case, all people of the same age, gender, social position, etc. would speak or write in the same way, which they obviously do not. What is missing is a crucial interface that brings in personal variation and avoids the fatal flaw of determinism. In other words, we somehow need to combine the powerful explanatory power of the various social constraints, on the one hand, and the equally unmistaken presence of individual diversity and subjectivity as a component in the explanation of discursive variation.

The obvious way to do this is to introduce a notion that allows us to account for social constraints not in some kind of ‘objective’ or ‘determinist’ way, but in terms of the subjective construction of such social constraints of the participants themselves. This way of formulating context has many very attractive theoretical and analytical properties.

First of all, such a formulation obviously accounts for relevance. That is, relevance is not something abstract or objective, but a subjective construct of participants: something is relevant for someone. Secondly, this way of formulating context is consistent with basic principles of constructionism in modern cognitive and social psychology, ethnomethodology, conversation analysis and ethnography: social categories are not something objectively ‘out there’, but social constructs, shared by groups or communities. Thirdly, such an account also emphasizes the local, situated nature of social phenomena, as contingent practices of social members. Fourthly, the notion is consistent with subjectivist and phenomenological approaches in philosophy, psychology and the social sciences, that emphasize the fact that the phenomena of social reality are relevant for social members only in as far as they are interpreted as such by them: Social reality is real for people if it is defined as real by its consequences.

In other words, a context is a subjective construction or definition of participants of the social situation in which they are discursively interacting. Now this is the crucial definition of context, but it needs more theoretical body, since the notions ‘subjective construction’ and ‘definition’ are still very vague. The obvious solution to the theoretical problem, then, is to use the crucial notion of a mental model, as it has been developed in the last 20 years in psychology.

A mental model is a personal, subjective, interpretation of an event or situation as it is represented in episodic memory. Episodic Memory (EM) is the part of Long Term Memory where people store the (interpretations of their) personal experiences: In that respect, EM is some kind of autobiographical memory store, where we accumulate the myriad of the subjective interpretations (definitions, etc.) of our daily life’s events – most of which are not longer retrievable later, because in isolation they are no longer relevant later. Usually we generalize and abstract from such events, and thus learn from our experiences, as do other people in society, so that such more general knowledge becomes relevant for interaction and discourse. It is thus that we know what breakfasts, going to school or work, shopping, and a host of other activities of our social life are, and how to participate in them as competent social and cultural members. I shall later deal with this kind of general knowledge, as it is socially shared in groups and communities, but need to emphasize that the mental model of a specific, ad hoc, local experience is unique, and the best theoretical notion we at this moment have to account for precisely all the relevant features of the traditional notion of a ‘context’: It is a local, subjective construct of a situation or event and hence accounts for the crucial personal variation that is needed as an interface between social ‘reality’ as socially shared constraint in discourse on the one hand, and personal, ad hoc, locally occasioned interpretations of a situation on the other hand. This is also why I prefer to call this a sociocognitive notion, because it embodies both cognitive and social dimensions. Indeed, the general way we construct such mental models is of course not personal or subjective but much more general and socially constrained, because it is only through interaction, discourse and communication that such models become socially ratified. Purely personal, totally unique an ad hoc models that have no semblance with those of other people would give rise to totally unintelligible conduct and interpretations. That is, mental models may be subjective, ad hoc and unique, but their structures are not, and much of their ‘contents’ are personally variable instantiations of socially shared knowledge. No one need to invent the structure of models from scratch at each moment, nor the categories of which they are constructed, and since we use mental models nearly always in social interaction and experiences, we also learn how to ‘fill’ them with interpretations or ‘meanings’ that are at least similar to those of other people. Thus, age, gender, position, power or ethnicity are socially shared, intelligible categories of social situations, people and interactions which we all know and agree to be relevant in the way we understand the social world. This is not or much less so for, for instance, the size of our toes, the shape of our belly button, or the number of times we have gone to the movies with someone, among an infinite number of other personal or social ‘facts’.  In other words, contexts as mental models are not arbitrary, but socially and culturally constrained by cross-situational relevancies we have acquired since childhood in a given community or culture. This also suggests that at least some categories of contexts as mental models may be culturally variable.

We conclude, thus, that contexts are some kind of mental model, and shall hence also speak of context models in order to distinguish them from other kinds of mental models, such as the mental models we construct of the events we talk or write about, or refer to, which obviously are also socially influenced individual constructs, and which we therefore may call semantic models. Context models in that respect are rather pragmatic: they are not representations of situations or events we talk or write about (although that also happens, for instance in reflexive or deictic expressions), but representations of situations or events we are now talking or writing in.


Cognitive properties of context models


In this paper, I shall not further elaborate on the many cognitive properties of mental models, but only assume that context models have the fundamental role of the overall mental control of the communicative action, that is, of discourse and interaction. Without such control, people are unable to act, interact or speak in a way that is interactionally and socially relevant, adequate or understandable: They would not be able to speak adequate as displaying or taking into account their own or other participants’ age, gender, power, position, profession, ethnicity, etc., nor would they be able to speak with a specific aim or goal, nor would they know what their recipients know and hence unable to manage their implications and presuppositions. In other words, without contexts and mental models participants would not event be able to be ‘participants’ in any kind of interaction or locally situated and adequate talk at all, and would rather appear to be fundamentally autistic, non cooperative. In sum, they would be literally ‘decontextualized’. They would not be able to use deictic expressions, would have no idea of self, and would be unable to refer to themselves and the recipients, to here and now, and would only be able to speak in generalities, and do so at the most inappropriate moments, totally irrelevantly. They would not be able to react to what others say, and show no understanding of what is expected of them. Indeed, people with no context models, or with seriously disturbed context models, would appear very much mentally deranged indeed.

We must assume thus that speaking and writing, as well as listening and reading, and more generally interaction and communication, are ongoingly, on line, controlled by mental representations in episodic memory that manage how we chose what information in mental models about events we think to be relevant to talk and tell a story about, what words to chose to tell the story, and how we take into account what the recipients already know, what they might be interested in, and so on. Thus, pragmatic context models control speech acts and interaction moves, how semantic mental models are transformed in semantic representations, how grammar and the lexicon are activated, and how all other conversational and discursive structures are activated and applied in such a way that they are optimally relevant and appropriate to the current communicative situation as it is subjectively represented by the speech participants in their context models. In other words, theoretically speaking context models also account for such fundamental notions as appropriateness and relevance,  and an account of how they are managed is in fact a theory of contextualization. It is here that cognitive psychology, pragmatics, discourse studies, conversation analysis interactional sociolinguistics and the ethnography of speaking meet. Our specific contribution is to link these various ideas, arguments and disciplines to the fundamental and powerfully explanatory notion of mental models in cognitive psychology, and thus propose an integrated, multidisciplinary theory of context and the many ways such contexts control text and talk.


Experience models


Context models are specific ‘communicative’ cases of much more general, ‘experience models’ that control our everyday lives from the moment we wake up and get up in the morning until we fall asleep or lose consciousness. Throughout the day, thus, we ongoingly construct a ever-changing, dynamic representations of who we are, what we are, what we are doing, with whom, where, why, and so on. To talk with someone in some situation is a specific case of such daily experiences. Hence contexts (context models) are just instantiations of a much more general and more fundamental human property, both of consciousness and self-representation as well as of interaction, namely being able to represent and thus control what we are knowing, understanding and doing in everyday life in general. Thus, people who are unable to build and update context models are probably also unable to do so with other forms of experience and interaction, and such would be a very fundamental disorder. Hence, context models are crucial both for elementary cognitive reasons of making sense of our everyday lives, and for the social reasons of interaction and situationally adequate conduct.


Culture and the Contents of Contexts


In this paper, I also shall not go into the quite complex, and more substantial question what context models are ‘made’ of: what are their socially relevant but culturally variable categories. We have assumed, along quite classical lines, that such categories as age, gender, ethnicity, position, power, knowledge, intention, and so on are very often relevant in everyday life, interaction and hence in discourse, and the same is true for such well-known setting categories as place, time, circumstances, as well as the kind of actions we are being engaged in, among several other categories. We may also assume that some of these categories are quite general, if not universal, such as those of setting, knowledge, and a few social categories, such as age, gender and power, but others may be culturally variable.

Thus, in some cultures more than in others it might be relevant whether speaker and recipients are kin, friends, or of the same village, for instance, or whether they have known each other for just a short time or a long time. Linguistically and discursively interesting, of course, is that such categories as they are subjectively represented as relevant by the participants actually do influence people’s ‘ways of speaking’, including different lexical or syntactic style, pronouns, politeness formula, turn taking rules, rhetorical figures, overall discourse organization, among a host of other discourse structures. And as suggested above, we may be pretty sure that there are properties of events that are socially relevant, but not discursively. This means that they are part of the social situation, but not part of the context as defined here.

Thus, we may notice the state of people’s clothes, the length of their hair, the color of their eyes, the way they walk or shake hands, and a host of other socially relevant aspects of appearance or conduct, but few of those will be systematically relevant for the structures of text and talk: It is fairly predictable that there are no cultures and languages where there are different pronouns or politeness formulas for speakers or recipients of short and long hair or big or small ears, and so on.

In order to be able to form, change and manage the many context models that control our everyday communicative events, these models obviously need to be relatively simple as control structures. People cannot possible, on line, in fraction of second, perceive, interpret and manage the many hundreds of social ‘facts’ of each everyday encounter, and have such a complex construct control how they speak. Many aspects of appearance may thus be combined in more comprehensive and cross-contextually relevant categories such as age, gender, position or power, for instance, and such more simplified schemas will usually do as controls for the most important variable structures of text and talk, such as topics, deictic expressions, pronouns, politeness formulas, presuppositions or argumentation structures.


Critical Context Analysis


Against the background of the theory of context sketched above, we now need to move to the main point of this exposition: How do we deploy such a new theory within a more general, critical framework? Does it make sense to speak of critical context studies in the same way we have been speaking of critical discourse studies? And if so, what exactly does such a new perspective offer, theoretically as well as analytically, and especially also practically – since the main criteria of CDS in my view always will be whether critical studies will be socially relevant, for instance in understanding and resisting power abuse in society?

In other to examine such a special role of the new context theory, we first need to realize what CDS is all about, namely a special focus on the role of discourse in the (re)production of domination in society. This is a very tall order, obviously, and can only be carried out when we attend to the details of both discourse as well as social structure. Thus, we may want to know, more specifically, how discourse is involved in the reproduction of sexism or racism, or how power in organizations is established and maintained, and indeed how the organization is discursively produced and reproduced. Even more specifically, we may ask whether specific words, metaphors, pragmatic markers, arguments or conversational moves may more prominently contribute to everyday sexist or racist discourse, for instance in the press parliamentary debates or textbooks. We thus get down from the general issue of societal domination as a form of power abuse of groups, to the much more specific, more micro questions of how group members actually are ‘doing domination’ by specific properties of text and talk.

Although we are still far from a moderately complete theory of discourse or conversation structures, the many thousands of studies in these areas during the last 35 years or so, have contributed much to our insights in such structures, from the classical ones of phonology and syntax, through those of semantics and narrative or argumentation schemas, to the pragmatic ones of speech acts or politeness, all the way to those of interaction and cognition. But although many contemporary theories of language and discourse are functional in intention if not in actual practice, we know much less about the text-context interface. Thus, we might speak of gender, ethnicity, age, class or position in more or less intuitive ways, and take these as (constructed) elements of context models, but this of course does not yet mean that we thus capture the profound ways such social constructs interact with the complex ways people manage text and talk. In other words, a theory of context is still in its infancy, especially where the social relevance of its notions is concerned.

Yet, despite this fundamental incompleteness of the theory of context as well as a meta-theory of critical discourse studies, we have some pretty sound idea that critical discourse studies precisely is about the kind of text-context relationships that are important in a theory of context. Thus, ‘gender’ will be a crucial notion both in a theory of context and in a meta-theory of CDS because not only gender is also construed and reproduced discursively, but also because gender inequality, and hence domination, is so reproduced. The same is true for age, race and class, among other fundamental categories. So, whereas a context theory of gender may contribute to our insight of how gender is actually ‘done’ by women and men, how concepts of men and women may control pronouns, politeness forms, storytelling and rhetorical moves, among others, and vice versa, how ways of speaking may locally contribute to ‘being’ feminine or masculine, a critical context analysis would need to focus specifically on those aspects of context that have to do with forms of domination and their resulting inequality. Thus, whereas general discourse studies may be interested in gender or race and their reproduction in text and talk, CDS is interested in sexism and racism. And critical context study (CCS) would in that case focus not only on sexist or racist language use, but examine in more detail how such language use relates to sexist or racist situations or whole communicative events. Indeed, most uses of languages are not sexist or racist in isolation, but only ‘in context’: it depends who is speaking, as what, to whom, with what intention, and so on. Well-known is the use of ‘nigger’ as a form of address among black youths, and in most of such cases obviously not a racist term. Women among themselves may say things that if men would say the same things in specific situations and addressed to women this would no doubt be interpreted as sexist. These few examples suggest that a sound critical study of discourse of course cannot be limited to a study of the structures of text and talk, and necessarily needs to relate these to relevant aspects of the social situation as it is represented by participants in their context models.


The relevant question is: How? Indeed, contexts as mental models cannot be observed directly, as is the case for any cognitive notion. And in the same way as in psychology and other sciences, many phenomena and structures are studied that are not directly observable, but only through their manifestations, expressions or consequences, we also can study context models only through the ways they are expressed explicitly, commented upon, referred to – indeed as ways of understanding the social situation – and through their consequences for talk and text, that is, through the ‘contextual’ analysis of structures. And since analysts are also language users, and also daily participate in social situations, they have of course social as well as cognitive experiences about what kind of things their interpretations of social situation are. In other words, methodologically speaking contexts are no less ‘hidden’ or ‘unobservable’ than current notions in linguistics, conversation analysis and discourse analysis as ‘meaning’, ‘interpretation’, and in fact any kind of abstract structure or strategy (syntax, narrative, argumentation, metaphor, turn taking) studied through its concrete, ad hoc, manifestations. Indeed, from a cognitive point of view, these are all mental representations -- just as from a social point of view these are all (parts of) social practices.


Critical context studies thus specifically focus on the ways not only text structures are indirectly controlled by domination, and not only on how such control needs to be accounted for in typical contextual terms (such as those of gender, age or race), but also how contexts themselves may be constrained as a consequence of domination, and thus contribute to the reproduction of domination. For instance, men not only may discriminate against women by the ways they talk about them, but also by their ways of constraining the very participation of women, and in what roles and relationships, in the communicative situation. Such marginalization or exclusion may be actually enacted through interruptions, not allowing turns, and many other ways, but also needs to be described in terms of the very context structures themselves, as they are represented in the mental models of the participants, that is, in their context models. Thus, a critical context analysis in CDS also needs to focus on must, or who is allowed to speak, as what, to whom, when, and under what conditions. More specifically, thus, it needs to account for various kinds and details of marginalization and exclusion in discourse. Thus, one may have access to the media by participating in a talk show, but much of such access will be depending on the kind of control the program leaders or the host will exercise on topics, timing, style and many other aspects of interaction. One may be recognized and ratified as a competent participant because of one’s academic titles and position, but actually being constrained and marginalized when one’s critical knowledge is ridiculed or not being taken seriously, as is the case for many critical scholars in the mass media. In other words, a critical context analysis focuses on the ways power abuse, domination and inequality are specifically expressed, enacted and reproduced in the contexts of texts and talk – that is, the way participants represent, understand, project or plan communicative events.


An Example of Critical Context Analysis


In order to detail such a kind of critical study, I shall examine some examples from a parliamentary debate in the British House of Commons, namely the debate on the Hutton report issued in the well-known Kelley affair. Kelley was the expert of the British Ministry of Defense whose critical opinion about the (non existent) weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, as expressed in an interview with a BBC radio journalist, seriously questioned the veracity of Tony Blair and his collaborators when they claimed not to have exaggerated the reports of the secret services so as to legitimate going to war in Iraq. An independent judge, Lord Hutton, was asked to investigate the matter and concluded that not Blair & Co, but the BBC was to blame for its careless claims, thus exonerating Blair. In the current debate, Blair answers questions about the Hutton report and on the Kelley affair more generally.

In order to be able to describe and critically analyze fragments of this debate and its context, we need to be spell out the hypothetical context models of the participants, such as that of Tony Blair himself, as well as of the MPs that are present as recipients and/or speakers in the debate. Note that such a context description is not simply a description of parliamentary procedure or British politics, but a construction of relevant fragments of such political situations as they control production and understanding. Since we obviously have no direct access to understanding, we can only infer properties of such understanding as presuppositions of what the participants actually say – or do not say, but would ‘normally’ be expected to say. In other words, contexts are construed, both by analysts and participants, by processes of inference based on a combination of (interpretations of) discourse and beliefs about the current political situation.

Rather uncontroversial, then, is to assume that all participants in this debate actually construe their context models with at least the following categories and relevant contents:


·         Setting

o        Location: House of Parliament

o        Time/Date: February 4, 2004, 12:40 PM.

·         Participants

o        Speaker of the House

o        Prime Minister: Tony Blair

§         Party: Labour

o        MPs

§         Labour, Conservative, Liberal, etc.

·         Action: Parliamentary debate

·         Cognition

o        Intentions:

§         Opposition: Criticize Tony Blair

§         Government: Defense against criticism, legitimate policy, etc.

o        Shared Knowledge: British foreign policy, War in Iraq, Alleged WMD, death of Dr. Kelly, Hutton Inquiry, Hutton report (BBC blamed, Government exonerated, etc.).


All these categories as well as their contents are somehow indexed, signaled or presupposed in the debate, for instance (the fragments in bold are speaker identifications of Hansard):



(1)       Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that there is an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

(2)       The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This is a debate on the Hutton report, but I know that the House will want to range wider than the report itself. I intend to cover four issues: the report itself and its findings; the inquiry into the issue of intelligence announced yesterday; the threat of weapons of mass destruction more generally; and the current situation in Iraq. I shall try to take as many interventions as possible, to allow questions on those issues.

(3)       Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It has been necessary to have a suspension, which has lost about 15 minutes from today's business. You will be aware of the large number of Members on both sides of the House who wish to speak in the debate

(4)       Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Is the Prime Minister able to say whether all the correspondence that passed between the BBC, its chairman and director general was made available in its entirety to Lord Hutton?

(5)       The Prime Minister: I did read that article. I think there is a debate that can be held -- in, I hope, in a reasonably calm and reflective atmosphere -- about the relationship between politics and the media. Who knows, that might benefit not just Labour Members but those in all parts of the House.

(6)       Mr. Howard: My hon. Friend, as ever, makes his point to perfection. I mentioned the consistency of the Conservative position on the inquiry.

(7)       Mr. George Osborne: The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the political decisions taken in the Government that led to the war. Was not the political decision ultimately taken by this House in March in a vote, after a very important debate? Surely, that decision cannot now be subcontracted to a committee of inquiry. Are not such matters what we are sent here by our electorates to decide upon?

(8)       Peter Bradley (The Wrekin) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mackay: I cannot because I have only two minutes left.

(9)       Mr. Foulkes : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a Member of this House to make a sustained personal attack on a civil servant who is unable to defend himself?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) is referring specifically to something in the Hutton report, which is before the House today. What he says about names is, then, a matter for his judgment.


These examples show, among many other things, that the speakers are aware of the suggested aspects of the current communicative situation, that is, represent these in their context models. These models actually do control part of their interventions: Thus, there is explicit address and reference to the speakers, such as MPs (referred to as ‘members’), to Tony Blair and his function as Prime Minister, to different parties and positions (Labour and Conservative), to intentions on what speakers want to say/do, the ongoing act (a debate), the deictic reference to (this) House, to the time frame being observed, and so on. The shared knowledge of the speakers is of course by definition presupposed, but sometimes also made explicit, for instance when Tony Blair in example (2), which opens the debate, announces the possible ‘topics’ of the debate, and thus presupposes that the MPs know about these topics.

So far, the contextual analysis barely goes beyond a description of context markers – which as such is a relevant analytical enterprise in discourse studies, so as to learn about the kind of context structures that are part of context models, and hence relevant for the speakers, and how they control discourse structures. Thus, positions of participants may be expressed or enacted in forms of address, as in example 4, Setting may be expressed by explicit deictic expressions such as ‘this House’ or simply be a pronoun of location, ‘here’, as in example (7). Shared knowledge, as suggested, is seldom explicitly displayed, precisely because it is usually presupposed, and only indirectly signaled what reference is made to what the debate is about, as in example 2, the opening turn of Tony Blair.

What however is not generally explicit of course, are the hidden or indirect intentions of the speakers. Thus, if we assume that one of Tony Blair’s obvious intentions in this debate is to (further) exonerate from blame, incurred during the Kelley affair, and to legitimate his policies, and more generally to engage in positive self-presentation, then such is an analytical inference from the kinds of things he says and how: Speakers will seldom express their strategic intentions. However, it does make sense to assume that the other participants perfectly well understand or infer such intentions, and that again can be inferred from their own interventions. But first listen to Tony Blair as he legitimates his joining the USA in the war in Iraq:


(10) We should be proud that, in Iraq today, we have a process under way that will allow the Iraqi people to achieve the freedom, democracy and the rule of the law that we take for granted.


Yes, we will get protests, as we saw earlier today. However, we in this House of Commons are very lucky: we can say what we want about the policy issues of the day, and we can debate them properly and come to decisions about them. In the end, the people of this country elect their Government. That is a fantastic thing, and it is an opportunity that is available for people in Iraq today.


I know that people -- some of them Labour Members -- are worried about our alliance with the United States of America. However, I think that America now understands and believes that the best and ultimate guarantee of its security is the spread of the values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. If America no longer takes an isolationist view of the world but considers that part of its job is to spread those values around the world, I for one am proud to be its friend and ally.



Apart from the knowledge, beliefs, norms and values that are expressed in this passage, what is especially relevant are those fragments that legitimate past military action (“we should be proud…”, “I for one am proud to be its friend and ally”), and especially the emphasis on the claim that “we” have brought democracy to Iraq. That is, by attributing positive things (“that is a fantastic thing”) to past controversial action, someone legitimates such action. This is not only a question of a general principle, but also contextually anchored to the present situation, e.g., when Blair deictically refers to “today”, “this house”, “we should be proud”, “we in this house are very lucky”, and so on. Indeed, some of the values presupposed by this self-congratulatory and legitimating rhetoric are also explicitly named:


(11) The values that I have described are important: they are, ultimately, the best guarantee of security. We can have everything that we want in terms of security services and military action, but the best guarantee of our security is that people everywhere in the world are allowed to live their lives in decency and freedom.


The implied forms of legitimation become particularly obvious at the moment when opposition members, and also some dissident Labour MPs, criticize Tony Blair:


(12) Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): When Alastair Campbell requested and was granted a change in the language about the 45-minute claim, so as to drop the word "may", was that because he had some superior knowledge about the state of readiness of weapons in Iraq, or was it, rather, that he was seeking to embellish or, as Gilligan put it, to "sex up" the dossier?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman simply will not accept the verdict of the Hutton inquiry. He is entitled to do that, but I disagree with him (….).


(13) Clare Short : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Surely the crucial point for the world here is that the dossier exaggerated how immediate the threat was, and that was the justification to rush to war by a preordained date, which divided the world, divided the United Nations and has caused a bitter and dangerous situation in Iraq and the Middle East. That exaggeration was the great fault, and it has led to dreadful consequences.



The Prime Minister: First, I do not accept my right hon. Friend's point about the exaggeration, for the reasons given by Lord Hutton and by the Intelligence and Security Committee before him. Secondly -- I shall say more about this in a moment -- the reason we went to war was that we believed there was a failure by Saddam Hussein to abide by the terms of United Nations resolution 1441. In a moment I shall come to what that failure was.

Thirdly, my right hon. Friend says that there is a bitter situation in Iraq today. There was a bitter situation in Iraq for a long time, and it was caused by a ruthless tyrant who killed literally hundreds of thousands of his people. I know that whatever disagreement my right hon. Friend has with me over the war, she would accept that Iraq is a better place without him.


Thus, the critical question by the Conservative MP Boris Johnson implies that if Tony Blair’s assistant Campbell subtly changed the report in the way suggested he would have had to know more, and there was a point to the general impression, as implied also by the BBC program, that the intelligence reports were “sexed up” so as to legitimate the war. That this remark is not only meant to be critical – something which can be inferred from its wording plus political about the affair and contextual knowledge about the position of the Conservative Party and its members – may also be inferred from Tony Blair’s reaction, using words such as “simply will not accept”, implying a negative opinion about the stubbornness of the conservative MP when he does not accept the Hutton report’s verdict. The interactional category of the speech act “disagreement” in this case is explicitly expressed by Blair. When his own party member and minister Clare Short intervenes critically with the same general accusation about the exaggerated dossier, Blair similarly expresses his disagreement, now formulated as “I do not accept”. These examples show how part of the context, as represented in the models of the participants, we not only find information about setting, participants and their roles, but also implied intentions as well as ongoing aspects of interaction, such as accusations, disagreements and various forms of legitimation.





Context and Domination


After this first round of observations on the ways contexts of political debates in British parliament are represented and discursively indexed by speaker, we finally need to turn to the more ‘critical’ aspects of such an analysis. That is, we need to show how contexts as represented and as controlling interaction and discourse also need a description and an account in terms of power and power abuse. That is, not only discourses express, enact or legitimate power and domination, but also the ways participants construe the very communicative situation, as suggested above. For instance, who is allowed to speak in Parliament, as a member of which party, and for how long, are all aspects which also have to do, not only with participant roles (Prime Ministers, MPs, Speaker of the House) and their associated rights and duties, but also with questions of access, control and power. For instance, Tony Blair, both as leading speaker in this debate, and as Prime Minister, may not only take advantage of his speaking rights and position to answer critical questions the way he wants to, and not only may thus legitimate his action and policies in the Iraq war and the Kelly affair, but also may manipulate, hide, lie, evade critical questions, and so on. Since his position in this affair (that the government was not to blame for having “sexed up” the intelligence dossier) was vindicated by independent judge Lord Hutton gives him the official backing and authority that his interventions, despite the doubts of many, are truthful. Let us examine these ‘critical’ aspects of the debate and its context somewhat more closely.

We shall not further analyze those aspects of contextually defined power that are within the boundaries of parliamentary rules, such as the interventions of the Speaker about who may speak, for how long, and whether some remark is “in order” or not – e.g., on the topic of the debate, or not --  among other ways to exercise his power. Nor shall we further analyze the obvious aspects of power implied by the access of MPs to this debate – that they can interpellate Tony Blair, and not other citizens. And finally, we shall not examine either the questions of party power that are involved in the decisions who of which party will be able to intervene in the debate – as also the initial decision of the Speaker of the House about the time allocation for speeches of backbenchers suggests.

One aspect of parliamentary rules and norms that is relevant however is the fact that Tony Blair, as Prime Minister, is first speaker, and thus able to define the current action, and explain what he will (not) do:


(14) The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This is a debate on the Hutton report, but I know that the House will want to range wider than the report itself. I intend to cover four issues: the report itself and its findings; the inquiry into the issue of intelligence announced yesterday; the threat of weapons of mass destruction more generally; and the current situation in Iraq. I shall try to take as many interventions as possible, to allow questions on those issues.


The privilege of being first speaker and thus to define the situation, the speech event (a debate), its topics, and what speech acts (questions) that will be allowed is of course based on the considerable power of the Prime Minister. Note, again, that this is not just a question of political knowledge of the analyst, but a relevant and hence contextually represented knowledge of the participants, both Tony Blair and the MPs as well. It is also because of this shared knowledge that no MP (or the Speaker of the House) challenges Blair’s right to speak first, and to decide that he shall “allow” questions on the issues he mentions. The use of “allow” presupposes this contextually relevant political power of the Prime Minister.

But let us consider some other aspects of power and domination in this debate, and how context analysis may explain specific features of the speeches of the participants.

Perhaps the main point of this long debate is Tony Blair’s claim that the Hutton Report had totally vindicated the governments position that it had not doctored the intelligence reports on Iraq so as to legitimate the war. He does so in many ways throughout the debate, and most explicitly at the beginning, in the following way, which I shall cite at length:


(15) The report itself -- clear, forensic and utterly comprehensive in its analysis of the evidence -- is the best defence to the charges of Government whitewash, often from the same people who just over a week ago were describing Lord Hutton as a model of impartiality, wisdom and insight. I simply make two points to those who cannot accept that Lord Hutton could acquit the Government of dishonesty. On the principal point, Lord Hutton confirmed the conclusion that the Intelligence and Security Committee had found before him, and the Foreign Affairs Committee before it, and the Government published responses to their reports yesterday. It would have been impossible from the evidence, frankly, to find otherwise.


I read that there are some who still say that the broadcast by Mr. Gilligan was 90 per cent. right. Actually, it was 100 per cent. wrong. The claim by Mr. Gilligan was that, a) the intelligence about Saddam using some weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of an order to do so was inserted into the dossier {768} not by the Joint Intelligence Committee, as I told Parliament, but by Downing street; b) that this was done against the express wishes of the intelligence community; c) that it was done by Downing street,


"probably knowing that it was wrong";


and, furthermore, d) that the source of this unprecedented charge was


"a senior official in charge of drawing up the dossier".


In fact, every single one of those claims was wrong -- not a little wrong, 100 per cent. wrong. The reason why Lord Hutton found as much was that not a single shred of evidence was presented to his inquiry that would have justified an alternative finding. The same is true for the Intelligence and Security Committee and for the Foreign Affairs Committee.


Blair says and does many things here, and most interesting for us are of course the political things he does, and the political vindication he claims the Hutton report implies for his government. Against the opinion of most citizens, even of his own party, Blair used is parliamentary majority, that is, his political power to go to war, and it would not be exaggerated to say that such was an abuse of power. Secondly, as appeared later, the main argument to go to war were the alleged WMD of Saddam Hussein, which later turned out to be a figment of the imagination. In other words, for many Blair’s policy was based on faulty intelligence, if not on a lie. Third, the government used all its power to denounce the BBC and its journalist, Gilligan – who had interviewed arms expert Kelly – for having made a wrong accusation of the government. Fourth, the government had the power to appoint an independent judge.

In the current communicative situation of the parliamentary debate these various forms of power also transpire, first of all, as we have noted, by the fact that Blair as Prime Minister may speak first, and hence define at length the main topics and issues for the debate. Thus, obviously, a main topic is the Hutton report itself. However, note that in this passage, Blair is not simply referring to or describing the report, but doing so primarily for pragmatic reasons, that is, as a function for his own strategy of defense and vindication. Since there apparently are still people who doubt the government, as Tony Blair also says in his intervention, he still needs to defend himself. The best way to do so is through the independent Hutton report, that is, using the authority of an independent judge and his inquiry. This argument is backed up, first of all, by praising the report (“clear, forensic, and utterly comprehensive”), as well as Judge Hutton. The latter praise is however even more credible when Blair formulates it in the attributed words of his very opponents: “a model of impartiality, wisdom and insight”. Note that this is not, so to speak, a “semantic” argument, for instance merely about something being true or false, but a pragmatic argument, that is an argument supporting Blair’s speech act of defending himself (he explicitly uses the term of the speech act: “the best defence”). Strictly speaking, the defense is a fallacy, namely of authority, if Blair claims that something is true (and that he was right) just because Lord Hutton says so, which would be a fallacy of authority. However, since there is consensus about the authority of Hutton, the argument is of course valid, and hence also that support for his defense. In fact, the authority argument is triple here, because apart from Hutton, Blair also cites the Intelligence and Security Committee, and the Foreign Affairs Committee.

But Blair does more. Not only he is defending himself, but also attacks his opponents, described as “those who cannot accept that Lord Hutton could acquit the Government of dishonesty”, by matching their opinions directly with those of Hutton, and since by consensus Hutton must be right, the opinions of the opposition must be misguided. And Blair not only claims that his opponents wrong from the start, but that they remain incredulous despite the Hutton findings and those of two other committees. That is, not only were they wrong, but also they are obstinate or stupid. He then specifies that accusation by showing that his opponents, just like Mr. Gilligan were not a bit right, but not right at all, and hence totally (100%) wrong, after repeating the claims of Gilligan and rejecting each of them. In other words, Blair does not merely defend himself by praising the Hutton report and its findings and saying his opponents were wrong, but also emphasizes the accusation by pointing out that every claim of his opponents proved to be wrong. He summarizes this very point (“every single  one of these claims was wrong”), and emphasizes this again with the Hutton findings as described by Blair (“not a single shred of evidence”) as well as those of the committees. In other words, we find the usual rhetorical emphasis (by repeated arguments, hyperboles, repetition, and so on) on what the opponents did wrongly. If we examine these arguments and this rhetoric beyond what its actually said by Blair, and interpret it in light of the participants’ knowledge and beliefs, also about the current communicative situation, we first find that what Blair does, pragmatically speaking, is defending and vindicating himself, and secondly that he uses his own power and the authority of others to attack his opponents by totally discrediting them. Apart from his vindication, this is of course the main political act in the current situation – to discredit the political opposition, also in his party, not only in the Kelly affair, but also with respect to the war in Iraq. I shall call this a political implicature, because in the present communicative event the participants may infer this from their general political knowledge as well as the specific knowledge about the current communicative situation (who is speaking, to whom, with what intentions, etc.).

One of the other aspects of this intervention that should thus be analyzed critically is that by aligning Hutton and the committees to his defense in the Kelly case, and by rhetorically emphasizing the innocence of himself and his government as to the accusation of having doctored of the intelligence dossier, he makes himself generally more credible, that is, also for having decided to go to war. In other words, he uses a victory on a much smaller case in order to political garner more credit in the major case: whether or not he had lied, or acted wrongly when going to war. Again, given the knowledge of the participants, this would be another valid political implicature, but this time not based on the local context (as when he is attacking his opponents in the House of Commons), but in a more global political context. In other words, at all levels of analysis of this debate, we are able to make inferences about local as well as global political implicatures. And these implicatures can only be derived from both text and context, that is, taking into account shared knowledge of the participants about who is speaking, as what, to whom, and with what intentions and knowledge. And since one of the main strategies being accomplished here is one of legitimatization, and a defense against his credibility and hence against his power as the leader, all this is part and parcel of the power play Tony Blair engages in. In this case he badly needs to emphasize not only why he is ‘right’ and ‘good’ (or at least not ‘bad’, e.g. when he had lied), and not only that his opponents are ‘wrong’, but at the same time legitimates his power, and hence deserves to remain the leader. This is a classical case of attack and defense of political leadership, and all those present know this, and act and speak accordingly. And since large part of the debate also is a legitimation of the war, Blair will later also add further arguments to show why the war is ‘just’. In that case he will of course emphasize the sufferings of the Iraqi population and the bad nature of Saddam Hussein, and not focus on the misguided western intelligence about WMD, the lies and other fundamental errors of the USA and its allies. In other words, by making a big case out of being ‘right’ in a local affair (the Kelly affair and the role of the BBC), Blair is able to set up a smokescreen that will take away the attention from where he was possibly ‘wrong’ in global affair, namely the war in Iraq.

Again, such a political interpretation of what is going on in the House, that is, the specification of some political implicatures, is not just speculation, but need to be backed up by both the discourse structures – what is actually said by the participants – and the obvious structures of the current communicative event as represented by the participants in their context models. That Blair needs a lot of arguing and convincing to do to persuade his opponents also of the main point, namely, his going to war in Iraq, is also explicitly expressed in this debate by himself in the following passage:


(16). The Prime Minister: I think that overall we gave a balanced picture to people. Those who have looked into the whole question of whether the dossier was altered in any improper way have found that we did not do so. I will come to what was being said in September 2002, not only by myself, but by everyone else. Issues arise now, because of the evidence that has been given by David Kay, who headed the Iraq survey group. The whole reason for the inquiry that was announced yesterday is that we accept that some things may have been got wrong. We cannot have a situation?[Interruption.] I somehow feel that I am not being entirely persuasive in {771} certain quarters. We cannot have a situation in which we end up translating what we know today back into the context of what was known and thought in September 2002, and then reaching a judgment. I shall come to that point in a moment.


As is the case also in this example, Blair continuously repeats that his government did not act improperly, but now adds a qualification: that the government did not act improperly given what it knew then. He then admits, of course in the usual mitigated, euphemistic way “that some things may have been got wrong”. This obviously provokes a lot of interruptions in the House, so that Blair needs to resort to the pragmatic meta-comment “I somehow feel that I am not being entirely persuasive in certain quarters”. We also see that in the last part of this passage, he again argues why an admission that some things might have “gotten wrong” does not imply that the government was wrong then, because we did not know then what we know now (such as the evidence of U.S. expert Mr. Kay). He actually uses the word ‘context’ to argue that ‘being wrong’ or ‘right’ depends on context, that is, the kind of knowledge one has at a specific moment. Again, the political implicature here is to defend his government, and to justify the decision to go to war because of what we knew in early 2003. A related implicature is then spelled out by Blair himself:


(17) The Prime Minister : I have made it clear throughout that not merely do I take full responsibility for the {772} decision to go to war, but that our security services -- I shall come to this later -- do a magnificent job for this country. I hope that nobody in the House doubts their worth to the security of our people, or that they are immensely dedicated public servants.


Thus, once the condition is satisfied that at the moment Blair acted upon what he (claims) he knew, he cannot draw the conclusion that he was then justified for going to war, and hence now entitled to take the responsibility. That the intelligence services, however, did get it wrong on the particular issue of the WMD, is in this case obscured by making a general positive evaluation of the security services. We thus have another example of emphasizing our good things, and deemphasizing our bad things. One of the interactional moves to enact the latter part of the strategy is to use a positive generalization in order to mitigate the effect of a specific negative act, as when one excuses an occasional error of someone by saying that he is (generally) a good man or woman. The added value of this strategy is that it is hard to reply to, because obviously no one in parliament will stand up and say that the security services and civil servants are in general doing a terrible job.

Note that the evidence of political implicatures is obviously not in the text itself. Indeed, they would not follow from the discourse when someone else, on another occasion would say the same things. Rather, the implicatures can be inferred only for the current communicative situation, in which the Prime Minister is speaking and addressing the House of Commons, and given the specific intentions and knowledge of the participants about the Kelly affair and Iraq.

The critical part of this and many of his other interventions in this debate is what Blair does not say, namely that there actually never was a proof of WMD in Iraq also in early 2003, and that there were serious doubts about U.S. and other intelligence that claimed that Saddam Hussein had such weapons, such as among the very UN inspectors led by Hans Blix. As we also saw in his strategic reply to the critical question posed by Clare Short, examined above, he does not insist on the WMD, but on the fact that Saddam Hussein had broken U.N. resolution 1441 and that he was a terrible tyrant. In other words, as we also have seen in the discourses by Bush and his administrators, the allegation of the WMD are increasingly being replaced by the (then) invalid argument to go to war, namely that Saddam Hussein was a dictator who had repeatedly violated resolution 1441 and that the Iraqis suffered. Here is another fragment of Blair’s speech in which he combined minor and duly mitigated concessions about the intelligence that might have been wrong with positive self-presentation, and a familiar change in the arguments for the war, namely that the world is better and safer without Saddam Hussein:


(18) Therefore, if any part of the intelligence turns out to be wrong -- and we know that much of it was right -- or if the threat from Saddam turns out to be different or to have changed from what we thought, I will accept that, as I should. However, others should accept that ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein has made the world not just better, but safer. It has hugely strengthened us in our fight against the proliferation of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Although the responsibility for going to war is mine, as it should be, it would also have been my responsibility if, having received the intelligence, I had refused to act on it. I know which course lies more easily on my conscience.




Democracy is on its way in Iraq. The people are free, and Iraq -- a nation of immense history and deepest culture -- is no longer a pariah, with its people enslaved. It is now a country with some hope for the future in its heart. That is a gain worth having.


Again, the critical analysis of such passages should be carried out in parallel for both the text and the context. Thus, semantically the first passage is a disclaimer (‘Intelligence might not have been totally right, but….’), combining an apparent concession with positive self-presentation. But pragmatically and contextually, the speaker referring to himself as ‘I’ is the Prime Minister of the UK, and addressing MPs in the House, so the implicatures are of course political, and part of the global political strategy of legitimating his decision to go to war by assuming responsibility and showing that he did the right thing – if only because the alternative (not to have acted) would have been wrong, while allegedly too dangerous. We also see that the strategy is duly interactive, while presupposing previous critique, both in the House, as well as in the media (often referred to in the debate), and this contextual presupposition about what has been said before, leads to the (apparent or mitigated) concession that is the first part of the disclaimer that some part of the intelligence might have been wrong.

We also see that Tony Blair is very able to make a good impression, e.g., by emphasizing what he does not want on his consciousness, as well as having helped liberate the Iraqis, as we see in the second part of example 18. But he is also very able to avoid answering the most crucial questions by changing the legally valid reasons to go to war (actual danger, WMD, breaking UN resolutions, etc.) for morally valid ones (ridding Iraq of SH).

Only by carefully examining relevant context features, and matching these with more general political knowledge – shared by the participants and the analyst alike – are we able to derive the political implicatures that constitute the politically ‘real’ meaning and definition of this communicative situation: Tony Blair’s self-legitimation and the delegitimation of his opponents.

That on the crucial question his opponents are not necessarily those of the Conservative party becomes crucial when opposition leader Michael Howard begins his speech:


(19) Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): At the outset, may I say that I very much agree with the Prime Minister's concluding remarks? I agree with what he said about the United States, and about present conditions in Iraq. I agree, too, with what he said about the threats that we face in this dangerous world, and about the necessity to take action to deal with those threats. On all those vitally important matters, there is complete agreement between us.


Obviously, the very structure of this fragment suggests a disclaimer, which begins by saying what the speaker does agree with, followed by what he does not. The political implicature here is that if the opposition criticizes the Prime Minister and the government, it is not about the war in Iraq. So in what follows Howard insists on an inquiry about the failing intelligence, and that in the future the government first must convince the House and the British people:


(20) It is also vitally important that any future Government, before they discharge their most solemn duty -- the dispatch of our forces abroad -- must be able to convince the House and the British people of the necessity for action. I have little doubt that such a solemn duty will be required of a future Prime Minister and, given the fact that many of the threats we face from rogue states, weapons of mass destruction and terrorists are incubated in secrecy, we must have sound intelligence before we can make a convincing case for necessary action


We now see that Howard as Conservative opposition leader obviously wants it both ways. He obviously must agree with the war, and hence with Blair’s overall policy, but in order to adequately ‘do opposition’ he must also criticize Blair, on the one hand, and hence agree with Blair’s critics that wars cannot be declared against the will of the people. The presupposition of this assertion is that Blair did not do so, and hence acted undemocratically, and the political implicature of that move is that the Conservative party would do a better job in that respect, and at the same time is trying to win the favor of those opposed to Blair. Democratic arguments and populist arguments about the “will of the people” are very closely related here, but the upshot of Howard’s intervention is that he and his party agree on some points with Blair and his government, and on the other hand, with those who oppose the war – a majority that of course cannot be politically ignored. Also this analysis is based on a combination of a textual and a contextual analysis, because the political implicatures only make sense (for the participants and the analyst) if it is explicitly spelled out who Howard is, what his function is, what his party stands for, what power the Conservatives have in parliament, and so on. With this knowledge about UK politics and parliament, and with this model of the current situation, we are able to make the relevant political implicatures explicit.

The specifically critical aspect of this contextual analysis resides in making these implicatures explicit, and to show how they are instantiations of the reproduction of political power in the UK, in general, and how a majority of parliament could accept going to war and to keep supporting Blair even when it turned out that the argument of the WMD was unfounded, if not a lie. In the last example, we also see that this was not just due to the Labour majority in the House, but also due to the collusion of the Conservative party. Indeed, Howard later explicitly says that without the support of his party, Blair might not have had a majority at all in this case. We see that critical analysis also needs detailed contextual analysis, for instance of political implicatures, and how these arise from how participants interpret the communicative event. Indeed, most of the relevant political meanings of this debate are not spelled out explicitly, and a critical analysis has the task to make them explicit, and where necessary expose them.


Concluding remark


Further theoretical work will be necessary to make such contextual analyses much more systematic and explicit, so as to be able to derive political implicatures and other political meanings is a reliable way, and hence to be able to explicitly criticize such text and talk within the framework of critical discourse studies. We have been able to show that even a more informal analysis can make these inferences plausible on the basis of what is known by the participants, that is, part of their context models on the one hand, and that these inferences often become explicit in the text itself when expressed by the participants. This also makes them relevant by definition, and hence also part of the context model as shared by the participants, and not (just) a speculation of the analyst about the speech event.