Professor Anne Phillips

Doctor of Laws Professor Anne Phillips

Wednesday 30 January 2013 at 11.15 am - Orator: Professor Terrell Carver

Mr Vice-Chancellor,

Anne Phillips, whom we are honouring today, is one of the most influential political theorists of our time. Her influence is measured not simply through citations from academic colleagues and by books under ‘required reading’ for students – though she has more than enough on both counts to qualify for the distinction we propose today. Her effect in the practical world of politics – where many of us now strive for ‘impact’ with our research – has been profound and global. Her best known book – The Politics of Presence – lacks a tabloid title, but the right people have read it and used it. And it has helped create a better world.

Anne studied Philosophy and Politics and earned a BSc here at Bristol. It was courses on African politics in particular that stimulated her interest and set her on an academic path. From Bristol she went on to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London for a Master’s degree in West African politics, and then – after an interval – to the City University in London for a PhD in that subject.

But how did political theory – the philosophical study of the ideas and concepts that we use in politics – get into the picture? During the later 1970s and the 1980s Anne’s experiences in socialist and in feminist activism in London were career-changing for her, and indeed for others who are now iconic feminists – and, like her, still active. Anne published the prize-winning book Engendering Democracy in 1991, and another, Democracy and Difference, in 1993. Both deal with ‘the basics’ as to how masculine presumptions in political thought and practice exclude and devalue women and typically feminine activities and experiences.

The Politics of Presence, published in 1995, made its impact, and has stood the test, because of the quality of its argumentation, and the straightforward, concise and even-handed prose. The book takes on topics that have come to be worldwide issues and arenas of struggle: democracy, representation, equality. Women are a human universal – indeed majority; democracy is now the global prism through which national politics is refracted – indeed forcefully pursued; equality for women is self-evidently lacking – indeed on any measure of power and influence; and representation is the gateway to decision-making in democracies. Activism is the means by which these issues are pursued in debate and practice. The best political theory reflects on this experience, clarifies the terms, constructs the arguments and counter-arguments, and draws clear conclusions. No serious consideration of political representation today excludes Anne’s magisterial work.

Anne’s argumentation has a wonderful quality of transgression and reversal – a ‘hold on’ and ‘wait a minute’ way of engaging the reader – that adverts to academic debate, but makes it vivid. The concept of representation, in terms of political theory, was thought to be ‘done and dusted’ when she started: democratic decision-making was said by the relevant authorities to require an appeal to ideas, rather than to persons. The particular character of those persons was really irrelevant, on the conventional view. And a straightforward appeal to ‘personal characteristics’ such as age, sex, race or ethnicity and the like (as opposed to mere assumptions of ‘good character’) was rather out of order. From this conventional reasoning it followed that anyone could represent any idea or interest and be an advocate for it. Counter-arguments that men could not really represent women, or white people people of colour, or old people younger ones, were written off as special pleading and ‘not what democracy is about’.

Anne turned this smartly on its head. Whilst acknowledging any number of ways that under-representation in democratic systems can be demonstrated – such as race or ethnicity, class, language, disability, religion and the like – and indeed in legislatures, courts, executive positions and the higher civil service – she had no truck with a then influential argument. This was the settled view that no set of institutions could – or should – ‘mirror society’ precisely, so there was therefore no need to try make these institutions ‘more representative’. Nor on the conventional view was there any reason to object to the fact that – as indeed anyone could plainly see –all these UK institutions were male-dominated. And at the time nowhere else was all that much different anyway.

What would make a difference for women? This was the practical question that Anne’s book answered. The answer was twofold. Firstly, the gender balance of major legislative bodies must change in order to move women out of the ‘token’ or ‘permanent minority’ position – a goal that reflects centuries of struggle by women to gain access to education, the professions, and public life in general, not just the vote. Secondly, the most likely route to progress in this regard would be candidate-shortlisting and -selection quotas by sex to ensure that women actually get to face the democratic electorate – of which they are the majority part. This was not an original idea, but it required sterling argumentation to win the day for it.

Subsequent political science has demonstrated beyond doubt that sex-quota mechanisms work. They are in place in some form in over 100 countries worldwide in a wide variety of electoral systems. Waiting for men to select the ‘right’ women in the absence of quota mechanisms was of course no proof that they wouldn’t. But it has been easy to calculate that on the usual rates of progress, noticeable change would in many cases take some hundreds or even thousands of years. Even with the huge strides and efforts in this regard since 1995 – almost 20 years now – there has only ever been one significant legislature worldwide that has registered a female majority, and indeed an executive cabinet similarly constituted – the Welsh Assembly, and then only briefly. Note that Anne’s argument is not a substantive one that any particular number or percentage of women in any institution will change it in any particular ‘women’s’ way. She herself said, ‘gender parity is … a shot in the dark’. But on the other hand, she showed that exclusion and under-representation really matter and that it can be remedied.

Anne is currently the first female occupant of the Graham Wallas Professorship of Political Science at the London School of Economics, having previously directed the Gender Institute there, and she held prior appointments at London Guildhall University and the City Polytechnic of London. She has been elected Fellow of the British Academy, and has occupied distinguished appointments overseas and delivered prestigious lectures at home. The quality of her argumentation is key to her persuasive presence, and – looking back to her days in Philosophy and Politics at Bristol – there is perhaps something ‘Bristol fashion’ there to be proud of.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Anne Phillips as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.


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