“You’ve got five daughters, how can you possibly be a member of a club that only allows men to join?” That question was put to me, in a blunt but fairly friendly way, by a colleague. We’d been discussing a story in the news this month about a businesswoman who’s taking legal action against the Garrick Club in London. Her lawyers argue that the Garrick is in breach of the 2010 Equality Act. They argue that, because the club has a restaurant and rooms for hire, then it should be seen as a “service provider” under the terms of the Act. As such it would be obliged to offer those services to anyone regardless of gender.
I’ve no idea whether this action will reach the courts, or should the plaintiff get her way, whether the impact will be felt at all of the other exclusively male members’ clubs in London. But it poses some interesting questions.
In a free society, people have the right to associate with whom they please. You cannot force people to spend their precious leisure time with people whose company they would rather abjure.
At the club where I’m a member (nothing so grand as the Garrick), women are not allowed to be members, but they are permitted as guests. It’s rare to enter the dining room, bar or terrace and not see a woman. Women can stay in the club’s bedrooms, but only with a member. Discriminatory?
Well, yes. But then clubs are discriminatory. The club where I’m a member discriminated against my younger daughters who wanted to join their older sisters for lunch with me there. But club rules forbade anyone younger than 14 from doing so. Had I been less garrulous and more objectionable, it’s also likely that I would never have been allowed to join in the first place. Clubs are viciously discriminatory when it comes to bores and misanthropes.
The reason for this is simple, if highly unaligned with the zeitgeist. Clubs are exclusive and excluding. They demand conformity (“would sir please put his jacket on in the dining room?”) and rejoice in petty rule-setting. My club has typically bizarre regulations. One such example is that conversation at breakfast is forbidden (the Wodehousian assumption being that the member will have a hangover and would appreciate being freed from the necessity of idle chat).
Joining a club also feels like an act of reverence for the past.
The way these rules are imposed – a raised eyebrow here for a first offence, a quiet word there for the recidivist – comes close to the bone right now. After all, as a society, we’re having to think hard about how we govern and codify behaviour in a time of coronavirus. Funnily enough, in this regard, my club is way ahead of the curve. One of it pottiest ordinances instructs that no member can shake hands with a fellow member. It’s presumed that the two are good friends merely by dint of being members. Daft. But, it turns out, Covid-secure.
The point about these rules is that they are predicated on a vital first principle. In a free society, people have the right to associate with whom they please. You cannot force people to spend their precious leisure time with people whose company they would rather abjure. This is obvious at an atomic level. Given a choice, I will go to the pub with a handful of chums. But what if it turns out that I hate the beer, the food, the staff, the decor, the other patrons? What’s to stop me and my pals, if we had the means, from buying our own pub? We wouldn’t be touting for trade. So there’d be no need for signage. You begin to see how the clubs came about.
And though most are grander than any pub, the principle remains intact. My club isn’t owned by a vast corporation, or even a solitary entrepreneur. It’s owned by its many hundreds of members. And it’s they who decide who they feel fit to share the undoubted privilege of membership. They do so on the basis that a candidate is likely to be clubbable and fit in. You begin to see how odd it would be for someone who has mounted an expensive legal campaign against a club’s admission policies, only then to present herself to a committee of those members for admission.
The old-fashioned clubs, like a friend’s club where I went for dinner last week and where we were the only diners for an hour, may not be long for clubland.
The system is opaque with none of the transparent routes to entry and advancement so beloved of the meritocrats who increasingly run advanced countries. And, who by the way, increasingly have their own (sometimes women-only) clubs. These new clubs, with admissions policies which reflect the outlook of founding members, will – if they attract attractive personalities – thrive and grow. They will become – already are – networking hubs for thrusting folk who are more representative of modern demographics. The old-fashioned clubs, like a friend’s club where I went for dinner last week and where we were the only diners for an hour, may not be long for clubland. Of course, that may have just been the Covid effect. Club members are more likely to be shielding at home.
In a nation like ours, where the number of people living alone has recently topped eight million, there’s no shortage of men and women who crave company without the complications of cohabitation. Clubs provide that. That said, many clubs did once have permanent residents. The last one at my club died a few years ago. And I remember visiting the tiny Catholic chapel where Monsignor Alfred Gilbey could be found ministering to members of the Travellers Club on Pall Mall. He lived there until his mid-90s. Fashions change. Yet, for me at least, joining a club also feels like an act of reverence for the past. Those previous members who created such magnificent buildings and interiors. Not everyone likes that. So don’t join. Let these clubs, if they deserve to, wither on the vine. Legislating against them would be to undermine a fundamental right of free association and represent a serious incursion into individual liberty by the state.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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