Let the boys have their clubs

The only surprise in the news that the Garrick Club is facing legal action over sex discrimination is that it took so long. This year no old institution has been off limits to progressive calls for radical reform, but boys’ clubs have been acceptable targets for much longer and nobody can deny that a men’s only members’ club qualifies.

The complainant is Emily Bendell, chief executive of underwear company Bluebella. The entrepreneur instructed lawyers last Tuesday to send a letter to the club, informing it that she is seeking to reverse its policy of only allowing women into the club as guests or employees.

Her lawyers’ case is that since the Garrick Club runs a restaurant and guest rooms, much as a business would, it cannot lawfully discriminate between the sexes. The distinction seems to be a fine one, since the Equality Act 2010 allows single sex clubs, such as choirs or sports organisations, some of which have bars or similar facilities.

Bendell told the Guardian that she had been seeking a members’ club to meet people after work when she’d discovered the situation. Adding to her motivation is the general lack of women at business events, although having been to such events I wonder if most women simply have their priorities in better order.

The Garrick Club is nonetheless a juicy target, long perceived as a ‘bastion of the establishment’. Critics have highlighted that it is frequented by prominent politicians, journalists, civil servants and other undesirables, with recent members including Michael Gove, Dominic Grieve, and Ken Clarke. A similar clientele attend the Carlton Club – long associated with the Tories – as well as Pratt’s and White’s.

The 18th century actor David Garrick inspired the eponymous club, founded in 1831, fifty years after his death. As the name and West End location imply, theatre and the arts have been its focus from the start.

According to the club’s website, its founders wanted a place where “actors and men of refinement and education might meet on equal terms”. Today the club claims 1,300 members, including “many of the most distinguished actors and men of letters in England”. Presumably Scots, Irish and Welsh writers go elsewhere.

Bendell’s claim that the Garrick Club’s members “are people who are running the country” is probably a tad overstated, unless you subscribe to Andrew Breitbart’s maxim that all politics is downstream of culture. People will also note the irony in someone calling for equality while trying to access a private members’ club, which is open to everyone only in the same way as the Ritz and the English justice system are, as the old gag goes.

Seemingly emphasising this last point, Bendell suggested that discrimination might be tolerable “if this was a tiny little club with four members in the back of beyond”. One can only assume she expects judges or parliament to decide which clubs are unimportant enough to remain single sex.

Authorities’ recent record of creating nuanced rules limiting our freedom to associate with others does not inspire much hope. Some weeks it has barely been worth describing new Covid-19 rules and their lengthy exceptions and regional variations, the likelihood being a fresh set will be issued by the weekend.

Freedom of association lacks the glamour of many other hard-won rights, but for many lockdown will have shown how precious it is. Some have spent half a year unable to meet friends and family, and future restrictions might extend this situation into next year.

Fundamentally free association is meaningless without the ability to discriminate. A progressive party would be ineffective if it were made up of conservative members. A vegetarian society full of meat eaters would likewise be absurd, as would a mothers’ meeting full of childless adults.

The popularity of girls’ or boys’ nights excluding either sex suggests that many like to spend time with only one or the other. If in our permissive society we largely agree that consenting adults should do what they like behind closed doors, presumably this includes sitting in an all-male lounge drinking wine while flicking through the Financial Times?

Behind efforts like Bendell’s is the increasingly unquestioned goal of inclusivity. Given prevalence of historic discrimination there are many contexts in which this is laudable, but London is not short of clubs, restaurants and hotels open to any man or woman with a credit card. Not being able to access a handful is a trivial impingement.

That many feminists are seeking to protect exclusive spaces for women from encroachment by transgender activists suggests such arguments are not the sole domain of hoary reactionaries in gentlemen’s clubs. Whether the benefits are social, political, or whatever else, people should be allowed to form clubs whose members do not include you.

Jimmy Nicholls
Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact jimmy@rightdishonourable.com

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