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22 March 2024

Abolish the clubs

The chumocracy is poison for democracy.

By Jan Eijking

What do Benedict Cumberbatch, King Charles, and Michael Gove have in common? They’re all members of a men-only “retirement home that serves fine wine”. This week, the Garrick Club has come into the spotlight as an elite institution that bars women. On 18 March, The Guardian published a previously secret list of its all-male members, reigniting controversy over the merit and very existence of gentlemen’s clubs. The chief of MI6 Richard Moore and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case both left the club on Wednesday in response. But even the most cursory glance at the history of gentlemen’s clubs and similar institutions will tell you: the problem lies too deep to be solved by a simple opt-out––or by admitting women.

It’s amusing to picture Succession co-stars and Garrick members Brian Cox and Matthew Macfadyen sipping their Spätburgunder off-screen as much as on-screen — distinguishing themselves, in the words of Macfadyen’s character Tom Wambsgans, from “the weekend Malbec morons”. But there is a more serious problem with clubs, and the fact that the Garrick excludes women is only a part of it. Indeed, private clubs exclude far more than “just” 51 percent of the population –– a sense of exceptionality, rarity, refinement, is their very essence. It’s what creates and reaffirms entitlement to be in power, since the social capital that produces that power is supposed to be based on merit and “greatness.”

The spotlight so far has been on those members of the Garrick club who lead public institutions, such as the MI6, the civil service, but also several senior judges. If part of their public role is to uphold impartiality and non-discrimination, Garrick membership sends questionable signals. In the middle of an MI6 diversity campaign with the catchy hashtag #ForgetJamesBond, the Garrick comes as a fairly #WellActually moment.

A legal opinion issued by Lord Pannick argued that the wording of the Garrick’s rules does not actually bar women: “the language of the rules is clear” and there is  “no prohibition on the admission of female members”. This is all important: women will rightly be repelled by the fact that top-level public office-holders deem their membership in a club founded on discrimination by sex acceptable. Judges have received the bulk of this criticism: having a sex discrimination or even a sexual assault case judged by a Garrick boy rightfully raises the suspicion that fair trial and impartial judgement matter less than upholding the chumocracy.

But again, fixing membership rules is not enough — we need to question the existence of clubs. What clubs stand for, with or without women, becomes readily apparent in how they’re being defended. Less than 48 hours had gone by after The Guardian’s revelations until the historian and journalist Nigel Jones rushed to the defence in The Spectator: “is anyone surprised that the great and the good are signed-up members of the Garrick?” Well, nobody is surprised. But are they not deemed “great and good” precisely thanks to closed-off, neo-aristocratic institutions such as the Garrick?

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The Garrick is not the only one. Clubs are everywhere: from the Bullingdon Club to Boodle’s to the ill-fated Soho House. And we don’t call all of them “clubs”: think of traditional fraternities in The Netherlands and Belgium — they too forge elite influence through socialisation behind closed doors. All of these are a defining feature of unapologetic elitism, in societies where access to power is already disproportionately distributed by way of nepotism. Whether we’re talking about the overrepresentation by those who attended public schools, or the revolving door between Westminster and multinationals, or about medical equipment deals being handed out to “friends” — it’s the super-rich who stand to gain the most. To defend clubs is to defend white male privilege. But it’s also to defend a deeply anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian institution whose main function is the maintenance of inequalities of wealth and what we call “distinction”.

What kind of place is the Garrick? In the heart of London’s West End, a Victorian facade proudly announces itself to passersby. Founded in 1831, the Garrick is one of the world’s oldest private members’ clubs. Catering to the world of arts and theatre, in honour of the 19th-century actor David Garrick, it has since counted numerous famous and infamous alumni among its ranks, from Charles Dickens to H.G. Wells, Kingsley Amis to Stephen Fry.

Among the club’s founders were not just theatre patrons but also General Sir Andrew Barnard of Waterloo and West Indies fame, as well as railway speculator Francis Mills. They created the institution as a meeting place where “actors and men of refinement and education might meet on equal terms”. Yet from the beginning, the whole point was that “equal terms” were conditional on radical exclusion. Gentlemen’s clubs were exclusive venues, attracting but also forging and maintaining elite distinction.

Not unlike fellow clubland institutions, from Boodle’s (founded in 1762) to the Athenaeum (1824), the Garrick is highly selective. Its admissions rules state “that it would be better that ten unobjectionable men should be excluded than one terrible bore should be admitted”. Central to selection was how “clubbable” someone was. This vague notion was linked to wealth and influence, on the one hand, but also talent and various forms of social distinction, be it notable contributions to the arts, to politics, or in the military.

The anti-democratic roots of clubs are twofold: on the one hand, most metropolitan gentlemen’s clubs were established in the first half of the 19th century, when worries about a disobedient working class loomed large and elite escape-hatches were in high demand. Sheltered socialising at a safe distance from the masses was attractive — clubs promised just that.

On the other hand, clubs became integral to imperial culture and decor. During the later decades of the 19th century, gentlemen’s clubs were established across the British Empire — replica spaces intended to recreate the same vibe and feel of imperial power, now in the colonies. As Leonard Woolf once put it, the club was “the centre and symbol of British imperialism … with its cult of exclusiveness, superiority and isolation.” In Burmese Days, George Orwell characterised the European gentlemen’s club in India as “the spiritual citadel, the real seat of British power; the Nirvana for which native officials and millionaires pine in vain.”

The logic historically underpinning clubs was anti-democratic either way. Social codes and rituals, assumptions about rank and distinction, but also expectations of civility and of course “clubbability” were central components of European claims to civilisational superiority.

Is it acceptable, in a democratic society, to have spaces that are at the same time completely insulated from the public and crucial to influence over it. Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, and much-beloved actor Stephen Fry all seem to think so. Even if many of them allegedly “are in favour” of letting women join, that doesn’t change the basic raison d’être of the club: to rule in peace and quiet.

Imperial nostalgia and the bygone era of the aloof gentleman lives on within the thick walls of those pompous buildings housing London’s clubs. They are little islands of high-imperial Victorian culture — cushioned escape lounges for those who prefer butlers and tweed suits over LinkedIn Premium. As Nigel Jones tellingly noted in his defence of clubs, his own club “offers a comfortable haven in a wicked city, a safe space from the horrors of the outside world.” That is the exact problem. Clubs disengage elites from the societies they claim to serve. Frozen in the mid-19th century from which they sprung, they create casual routes to power that combine public school connections with family entitlement and, ultimately, money. They are relics of an imperial past, and they’re poison for democracy.

[See also: Welcome to the Willy Wonka experience that is British politics]

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