Depoliticisation and the Father’s Clause in Parliamentary debates


University of Birmingham POLSIS academics

Dr Stephen Bates, Dr Laura Jenkins and Fran Amery, use work on in vitro fertilisation to think through depoliticisation. 

Originally posted on May 19th at Policy and Politics Journal Blog

Depoliticisation, in simple terms, involves disavowing political responsibility, or persuading the public that one is no longer responsible for particular decisions, with the result that deliberation and choice are restricted. Crucially, as the literature has identified, choices are still being made – e.g. politicians may retain mechanisms for indirect control – but they are concealed.

Studies of (de)politicisation often conceptualise it as a function of government and tend to focus on economic and monetary policy (a classic example is the devolution of monetary policy to the Bank of England). Our article argues that (de)politicisation may occur outside of formal governmental arenas and should not be regarded simply as a form of statecraft. Specifically, we explore in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and the parliamentary debates surrounding the addition and eventual removal of the Father’s Clause of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Acts.

Our first point is that new reproductive technologies such as IVF may themselves be seen as politicising, allowing greater intervention into areas of life previous considered subject to fate, and thereby expanding the capacity for the exercise of human agency. This is not to suggest that human reproduction was never touched by social intervention before IVF – surrogacy, for example, has existed for almost as long as recorded human history – but the birth of Louise Brown, the first ‘test-tube baby’, in 1978 brought with it unprecedented new possibilities. IVF involves the creation of an embryo outside the female body without the need for sexual intercourse, and consequently allows for new distinctions to be drawn between biological and social parenthood.

In some senses, subsequent political debates on IVF may be conceptualised as reactions to its politicising potential. Partially owing to its controversy, there was a substantial time lag between the birth of Louise Brown and the eventual regulation of IVF, but the latter came in 1990 in the form of the HFE Act, which also covered other issues surrounding treatment of the embryo such as stem cell research. While the issue of embryo research came to dominate parliamentary debate on the HFE Act, another prominent issue was the welfare of any child created by IVF, in particular the child’s ‘need for a father’.

As a result of two amendments successfully appended by the Conservative MP David Wilshere, the eventual Act required ‘a child’s need for a father’ to be taken into account before treatment, potentially barring same-sex couples and single women from accessing IVF (although the effect that this ultimately had on clinical practice is debateable). In parliamentary debate, the need for this clause was justified in terms of the need to maintain ‘natural’, ‘normal’ and ‘common-sense’ – that is, traditional – family forms, and not to ‘upset the natural order of things’. This, we argue, represents a depoliticising reaction to the politicising potential of reproductive technologies, rejecting the possibilities for increased human agency and choice these technologies open up, and attempting to conceal the contingent nature of traditional family forms.

In 2008, after a review of the regulation surrounding human reproductive technologies, the Father’s Clause was removed from the Act. A number of amendments to the 2007 Draft Bill were tabled proposing the re-introduction of explicit reference to the need for a father, but these were rejected in favour of an amendment which simply expressed ‘the need for supportive parenting’. In the article, we argue that this represents a formal repoliticisation, once again opening up the possibility of a plurality of family forms and challenging traditional understandings of gender roles and reproduction. However, this repoliticisation is only a partial one – the parliamentary debate was premised on essentialist assumptions about gender, and the potential harmful effects of IVF were not debated.

While the article focuses on IVF, in particular its potential to challenge traditional understandings of the family, there are obvious parallels to other areas in which doctors and scientists may be perceived as ‘playing God’ or ‘interfering with nature’. We might expect to see similar depoliticising responses to other areas of human life in which new technologies – reproductive or otherwise – have opened up new possibilities for the exercise of human agency, or exposed the contingent nature of traditional or ‘common-sense’ ways of doing things: genetic engineering, human enhancement and sex reassignment therapy, to name a few.

The full article  on the subject – (De)politicisation and the Father’s Clause parliamentary debates – along with the rest of the special issue of Policy & Politics on depoliticisation, is available free in Policy and Politics throughout May.


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Should I stay or should I go? Why the UK should stay out of the Crimea issue


Iván Farías, Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Political Science and International Studies argues why the UK should stay out of the Crimea issue.

The Republic of Crimea is said to be at the centre of a dispute between the Russian Federation and the international community. Such dispute arose when about two weeks ago, 96.7% of the voters participating a referendum held in the peninsula supported the accession of the Republic of Crimea to Russia. As a result of the referendum, the Republic of Crimea, formerly part of Ukraine is now the (de facto) newest territory of the Russian Federation.

The result was not unexpected. With large numbers of Russian-speaking Crimeans and Crimea-based Russian passport holders boosting the ‘yes’ side, and about 38% of the Crimean population boycotting the referendum, the outcome was as predictable as rolling a loaded dice.

On this basis, some countries, namely the G7, have been very vocal about the alleged illegality of the referendum, its result and its implications. The United Kingdom has been no exception. Its political leaders have vociferously argued that the Crimean referendum should not be recognised. Simon Smith, the British Ambassador to Kyiv, recently stated that the referendum “should not be regarded as a legitimate expression of popular will on the part of the peninsula’s population”. Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary William Hague contended that “Russia cannot simply trample over international law” and that Moscow’s move to annex Crimea went against the principles of territorial integrity and non-use of force. Finally, Prime Minister David Cameron declared that “it is completely unacceptable for Russia to use force to change borders, on the basis of a sham referendum held at the barrel of a Russian gun”.

There seems to be something wrong in annexating a territory from a neighbouring country which is (was?) in the middle of a revolution. It seems to be something akin to stealing your neighbours’ possessions while their house is on fire. The argument is then that it is in everyone’s interest to protect the neighbourhood from individuals who take advantage of people at their most vulnerable. In this analogy, the United Kingdom is thus only contributing to protect the European neighbourhood and the world from bullies like Russia.

Yet, the United Kingdom is not the long-time champion of freedom and sef-determination that Smith, Hague and Cameron portray it to be. It took the United Kingdom six years to recognise the independence of Ireland, a country which it historically ruled with an iron-fist. Oppression, rather than freedom, describes more accurately what India endured under British rule. The British government did not hesitate to send its military forces on a 12,000-kilometre journey across the globe to ensure continued posession of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands. For some reason, the referendum in Ukraine, biased in favour of ethnic Russians, is illegal and illegitimate but the referendum held in 2013 in the Falkland/Malvinas, among a population of transplanted British islanders, is not. And now that Scottish independence is on the table again, England, the UK’s most populous and economically powerful country, has not hesitated into using scare tactics to maintain Scotland in the Union. Behind all of these historical developments lies the same idea: for the United Kingdom, freedom and self-determination are not cherished ideals, but only concepts whose meaning can be adapted to suit the foreign (and domestic) policy objectives de jour.

The United Kingdom seems to be interested in boosting its moral credentials on the promotion of freedom and self-determination by taking part in this alleged dispute on Crimea. Staying out of the issue could actually better serve such purpose.

Originally published in Ivan’s blog  03/04/14

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Special CREES/POLSIS Seminar – The production of Migrants in Contemporary Capitalism

The special CREES/POLSIS Seminar on The Production of Migrants in Contemporary Capitalism presented the work of two young scholars:

Dr Nikolaos Xypolytas (University of Cyprus) and Dr Bahar Baser (University of Warwick)


This Special CREES/POLSIS Seminar focused on the migration process in the contemporary capitalist European societies. Dr Nikolaos Xypolytas‘ paper presented the findings of his most recent research on the process of migrant exclusion in the case of Ukrainian domestic workers in Greece. His sociological study looks at exclusion as a three-stage process that involves not only the host country but the country of origin as well. The process starts with the impoverishment of the workers in the country of origin, which results firstly, in the change of work orientations and secondly, in the actual migration process. The second stage involves the allocation of the labour force, following an ethnic and gendered division of labour in the host country. The third stage is centered on the concept of reproduction of work, where migrant domestic workers internalise the rules and regulations of their employment. The result of this process is the isolation of migrants and their entrapment in their low-status jobs. Dr Bahar Baser discussed the challanges she came across conducting her qualitative research on contenious issues in Turkish and Kurdish diasporas in the Netherlands and Germany. She argued that in any research that utilizes ethnographic research methods, it is crucial that the researcher is aware of their ‘subject position’ and how this position affects relationships betwen the researcher and the interviewee.  Since the outcome of the study and the knowledge that it produces are very much dependent on this positionality, it is important that the researcher informs the reader where he/she stands. The researcher is by no means ‘an objective observer’ , as their gender, class, religion, ethnicity, or age among other factors, may have an impact on the research process. Therefore, the researcher should be conscious of his/hers priviledged position and potential power relations with the groups that are under study and should adopt a ‘reflexive approach’ which refers to a self-reflection process during the selection of the subject, the fieldwork, as well as analysis of the data gathered.

The seminar was chaired by Dr Deema Kaneff who facilitate a very stimulating discussion between presenters and audiance. Everyone was encouraged to share their views and pose their questions in a very friendly and hospitable atmosphere. The event drew together staff members, postgraduate students and scholars from different universities.


The organizers, Polina Manolova and Veysel Erdemli would like to thank everyone for the expressed interest, attendance and stimulating discussion.

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Essential scrutiny or national embarrassment? Dr Stephen Bates, Lecturer in Political Science, responds to the Hansard Society’s report on Prime Minister’s Questions

bates-stephen There are a number of institutional reforms that could be introduced to bring about the kind of PMQs that Speaker Bercow has called for. These reforms, some of which have been stated and  occasionally restated in various Procedure Committee Reports over the years, include: extending  PMQs by quarter or half an hour each week; reducing the number of questions that the Leader of  the  Opposition is allowed to ask; institutionalising a set number of closed questions each week  (including for the Leader of the Opposition); increasing the toleration of ‘referred’ answers by the  Prime Minister by requiring the Prime Minister to read out (shorter versions of) departmental answers at the next session of PMQs; and ensuring that the Leader of the Opposition cannot ask his/her questions until after a set number of backbench questions have been asked.

However, there is another change that would improve parliamentary discourse and help hold the Prime Minister to greater account but that would be difficult to institutionalise formally. This change relates to how questions are posed. David Cameron is often criticised – as was Gordon Brown before him – possibly correctly, for not answering questions, yet he can only answer the questions that are put to him. If these include ad hominem attacks, it could be argued that he is not obliged to answer them; this at least gives him an excuse not to answer. To take but one recent example, an opposition backbencher asked on the 6thNovember 2013:

“The Prime Minister has just been boasting again about 1 million extra jobs. Can he therefore explain why in my constituency the number of people unemployed for more than two years has risen by 350% in the last year alone? It is now the worst figure in the country. Nine of the 10 worst constituencies on this measure are in the north-east, including all three Sunderland seats. Is that because they are the same old Tories, who do not care about the north-east?”

The last sentence of this question is unnecessary and detracts from the important issue raised. Questions posed at PMQs should be direct, forensic, uncomfortable and challenging for the Prime Minister; they do not need to be sarcastic or sometimes plain rude to achieve this end. A change of this sort – and also a change with regard the opposite problem of toadying questions posed by government backbenchers – can only be brought about by MPs and parties themselves. If they did so, this would increase scrutiny and accountability and would help address some of the issues raised by the recent Hansard report – but without killing PMQs as a spectacle.

This post was originally published on Democratic Audit 04/03/14

The Hansard Society’s recent report can be found here

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Body/ State in An Age of Austerity- Saturday 22nd February 2014

On Saturday 22nd February, the University of Birmingham’s Gender and Feminist Theory Research Group were delighted to co-sponsor and host the PSA Women in Politics Specialist Group ‘s bi-annual conference.

The conference was oriented around feminist scholarship that has sought to illuminate the ways in which states and bodies are intertwined both in general and in an age of austerity in particular. This research has taken a wide range of forms, from interrogation of the significance of the presence of sexed and raced bodies in political institutions, to the disciplining of bodily ‘deviance’, to the ways in which the state itself has been gendered as masculine. Recent work has also questioned the gendered dimensions of austerity politics, the state’s part in the commodification of bodies and body parts and the politics of the alteration and ‘enhancement’ of bodies (Cameron, Dickinson and Smith 2013)


(Picture courtesy of @PSAWomenPol)

The day-long conference had a rich and varied programme that united a wide range of specialisms including British Politics, History, IPE and Law and Society. Academics from around the country (and from much further climes); met together and shared papers, ideas and expertise in a productive and friendly environment. The panels were ‘Gender and the State’, ‘Gender and British Party Politics’ and ‘Gender, Sexuality and Identity’.


(Picture courtesy of @PSAWomenPol)

Many thanks to Fran Amery and Dr Laura Jenkins for their tremendous effort in organising what was a fantastic and enjoyable day!

For more information on the PSA Women in Politics Specialist Group, please visit their website , Twitter @PSAWomenPol or discussion threads #WOMENINPOLITICS

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Between discipline and dissent: revoking citizenship is dangerous whatever the crime

Attempts to render terror suspects stateless, represent a dangerous step towards revoking the citizenship of anyone who dissents, and highlight a shift in the meaning of citizenship from emancipation to conformity.

tonkiss (1) Stories emerged earlier this week about Home Secretary Theresa May’s plans to make terror  suspects stateless by revoking their UK citizenship. The Government is already able to revoke UK citizenship from those with a dual citizenship, however according to these reports options are being explored to overturn international human rights conventions in order to strip citizenship from those with only a UK passport – rendering them stateless.


Not really British

It is interesting that the powers are intended to remove citizenship from ‘terror suspects’ and not ‘convicted terrorists’, implying that judgments over whether or not suspects are involved in types of behaviour that are ‘seriously prejudicial to the UK’ could be made outside of a formal legal proceeding.

Furthermore, the UK legal system – while it does not allow convicted criminals to vote – does not strip citizenship from those criminals. Could this power be extended to others, or is there a working assumption here that all terror suspects are ‘not really British’, and therefore can have their citizenship removed at the discretion of the state?

Discipline or dissent?

This points to a wider shift in the meaning we attribute to citizenship today. Traditionally, citizenship has been defined as a set of civil, social and political rights, and as such was conceptualised as emancipatory: the right to vote, the provision of basic social rights, the right to be treated equally, and so forth.

However, increasingly that meaning is changing, and particularly this has been in relation to how citizenship is gained. As May has continually commented, citizenship is now understood as a ‘privilege’ not a right, and it is something that is ‘earned’ through ‘good character’, citizenship testing and pledging allegiance.

All of this implies the requirement to conform to the state in order to gain citizenship. The citizenship test itself has been revised to include more content on history and culture, something which – as I have argued elsewhere – implies a greater demand for conformity to a specific type of state-sanctioned British identity.

The idea that citizenship can be revoked is dangerous no matter what the alleged crime, because it implies the ability of the state not only to demand conformity in gaining citizenship, but also that the state can revoke that citizenship at any time if someone is judged to have dissented. This is not the ideal of citizenship that lies at the heart of liberal democracy.

Dr Katherine Tonkiss is a Research Fellow in the School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham. She is interested in migration, citizenship and post-nationalism – particularly in relation to policy-making in the UK and the EU. Her book, Migration and Identity in a Post-National World, has recently been published by Palgrave Macmillan.


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Obama’s Soft Power A Hard Sell After NSA Revelations


POLSIS Senior Lecturer Dr Adam Quinn examines U.S. soft power in light of the recent revelations regarding the National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance activities.

For presidents, like sports team managers, the tough weeks tend to outnumber the jubilant. But even by the standards of an unforgiving job, Barack Obama could be forgiven for feeling unusually buffeted of late. Many of the blows have come on the domestic front, with the all-consuming stand off of the government shutdown segueing into frantic efforts to defend and repair the roll-out of Obamacare amid charges of fatal technological incompetence. But if he were tempted to seek solace in the autonomy of foreign policy – as modern presidents have been wont to do – there has been little consolatory triumph to be found.

In August and September, he was caught in a mighty tangle over Syria, threatening military strikes over its chemical weapons use before being hamstrung first by Britain’s refusal to join the charge and then by the reluctance of his own Congress. The legacy of that mess continues to work itself out in unpredictable ways, such as increasingly public tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia, hitherto one of its more solid allies. Though the eventual Russian-orchestrated deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was a respectable one given the circumstances, the episode as a whole spoke of an America straining to translate its power into influence, or to maintain a united front among its friends.

Now the rolling scandal over National Security Agency surveillance, triggered by the mass leak of secrets by Edward Snowden, has entered another phase of intensity, this time centred on Europe. Revelations that the US tapped the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, operated numerous “listening posts” on European soil, and sucked up vast quantities of communications data from millions of citizens across Europe have broken in the press. Public expressions of displeasure have been forthcoming, including a European Union statement. Taken together, these vignettes of public dissention will be enough to make many ask the question: is the US losing its influence even over its allies? Is this just a tricky moment for a particular president, or harbinger of a broader trend?

Global shift

First, the necessary caveats: enduring alliance relationships resemble long marriages, in that the mere presence of moments of strain, or even audible arguments, cannot be taken as evidence of imminent separation. Looking back over the longer-term history of America’s relations with its allies, episodes such as the Vietnam War, the “Euromissile” crisis of the 1980s, and the controversial interventions in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, demonstrate that sharp differences of opinion and conflicting priorities are no radical new state of affairs.

And however unhappy they may be with their recent treatment, it is not obvious that countries such as Germany, France or Saudi Arabia have anywhere to go if they did decide the time had come to tout for alternative alliance partners. It is not entirely clear how European annoyance might manifest in ways that have practical importance. It is true they have it in their power to threaten progress on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership process, but it is not clear that such an action would harm the US more than Europe itself. In short, even if they are disgruntled, necessity may ultimately prove a sufficient force to help them get over it.

The reason present friction between the US and its allies carries greater weight, however, is that it arises in the context of a global shift in power away from the US and its established allies and towards new powers. The prospect of “American decline” in terms of relative international power is the focus of a great deal of debate over both substance and semantics. But the central fact is that even the part of the US’s own intelligence apparatus charged with long-term foresight regards it as established that within 20 years the world will have transitioned from the “unipolar” American dominance of the first post-Cold War decades to a world in which multiple centres of power must coexist. The centre of economic gravity has already shifted markedly towards Asia during the last decade.

This certainly does not mean any single new power is about to rise to replace the US as a hegemonic force. Nor does it mean the US will be going anywhere: the scale of its existing advantages across a range of fronts – military, economic, institutional – is sufficiently great that it is assured a prominent place at the table of whatever order may come. What it does mean is that Americans must presently be engaged in thinking carefully about how best to leverage their advantages to retain the maximum possible influence into the future. If they cannot continue to be first among equals in managing the world order, they will wish at least to ensure that order is one that runs in line with their own established preferences.

Soft power

Many of those who are optimistic about the ability of the US to pull off this project of declining power without declining influence place emphasis on two things: the extent to which the US has soft power due to widespread admiration for its political and cultural values, and the extent to which it has locked in influence through the extent of its existing networks of friends and allies. Even if these advantages cannot arrest America’s decline on harder metrics, if played properly they can mitigate its consequences and secure an acceptable future. Shoring up support from like-minded countries such as those of Europe ought to be the low-hanging fruit of such an effort.

So the current problems do harm on both fronts. It will be difficult to maintain the allure of soft power if global opinion settles on the view that American political discord has rendered its democracy dysfunctional at home, or that its surveillance practices have given rein to the mores of a police state. And it will be harder to preserve American status through the force of its alliances if its politicians’ economic irresponsibility (for example, publicly contemplating a default on American national debt) or scandals over surveillance or drone strikes alienate their public or cause their leaders to question the extent to which they really are on the same side as the US.

Obama’s day-to-day foreign policy struggles should not be simplistically taken as signs of collapsing American influence. But if the long-term plan is to carefully manage relative decline so as to preserves maximum influence, episodes such as those his country has faced since August do nothing to boost the prospects of success.


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