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19 June 2000

Cut privilege out of the body politic

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

The Secretary of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers does not mince his words. When taxed on the exclusivity of the club that owns the Muirfield golf course at Gullane in East Lothian, Group Captain John Prideaux said: “We know we have a particular reputation, but frankly we don’t care.” Muirfield regularly hosts the Open Championship and is considered by many of the greatest players to be the toughest and best test of golf in the world. Jack Nicklaus named his own Ohio course Muirfield Village in homage to the Scottish course.

But Muirfield is a private club and it is famously difficult to get a game, not to mention become a member. In the 1970s, Ludovic Kennedy was blackballed and, although there was, of course, no reason supplied, it is likely that the senior members of the Edinburgh legal establishment, and of Muirfield, were less than comfortable with his pursuit of cases of injustice in the courts. And it is alleged that when a group of distinguished visitors approached an official to ask if they might be permitted to play a round as guests, he looked out over the near-deserted 18 holes to see three foursomes playing and replied that the course was too busy.

There are signs, however, that the monolith may be cracking a little. The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s attack on elitism in British society may have moved the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers to sniff the wind and relax the rules for a day or two. Next month, 64 young golfers from the Edinburgh area have been invited to play the course that will host the Open Championship in two years’ time. As a one-off way of celebrating the millennium, the youngsters will enjoy two days of free golf. “We will look after them for a couple of days, give them lunch and let them play our championship course, which they would not normally get to play,” said Prideaux. “We’re doing this really as a gesture to youth – at that age, they are all dead keen, but wouldn’t normally play a championship course. Maybe we’ll find some exceptional talents.”

In a small country that produces arguably more world-class golfers per head of population than any other, these are admirable sentiments. But coming from Muirfield? The Honourable Company? This is really something out of the ordinary. Despite the popular currency of the comforting cliche that Scotland is somehow a more egalitarian society than class-strapped England, the truth is that it is nothing of the kind. The extremes of privilege and poverty are, if anything, more sharply drawn north of Hadrian’s Wall. Almost cheek by jowl in a small country, dukes and addicts lead parallel lives and understand almost nothing of each other. Scottish society is riddled with inequality and social injustice, and if the point of Gordon Brown’s attack on the selection criteria of Oxford University was to open a debate to get at these issues, then he deserves all our support.

But a golf club that refuses to let in the riff-raff? Surely a piece of music incidental to the main refrain? Certainly not. When Prideaux said of the club’s reputation for exclusivity, “frankly we don’t care”, his attitude was echoed by a silent and resounding “Absolutely, John!” from the membership. Hiding behind the facade of the Honourable Company is an important and powerful segment of Scotland’s elite; and, in Muirfield, they have a jewelled privilege that they are damned if they are going to share with anyone else. Prideaux doesn’t make the rules, they do.

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Now private clubs may do as they wish, but there are wider issues at stake here. When cautious jokes are made about Muirfield’s closed-door policy, they forget who is behind the door and what it says about their attitude to the rest of Scotland. Several Scottish judges and many senior lawyers are members, and their attitudes should concern us very much. Is it not worrying enough that the Edinburgh legal establishment is itself apparently so exclusive, with sons following fathers on to the judges’ bench and legal dynasties dotted all over Edinburgh’s New Town?

By its secretive nature and its mysterious institutions, the inner workings of any establishment are hard to track, and it is only on the public face of a place such as Muirfield that it has much expression. And it seems that it tells a familiar story, one that should be well known to Labour politicians, most of whom have no place in it, particularly in opposition. Now that we have two Labour governments in office simultaneously, and now that the interests of business and big money have been pacified by three years of prudence and the promise of more, let us take a claymore to privilege and cut it out of the Scottish body politic.

The simple goals of equality of regard and equality of opportunity naturally appeal to many Scots both inside and outside the Labour Party, and it cannot be beyond our collective wit to devise a long-term programme of measures to approach them. It would change Scotland from a miniaturised, tartan version of the Pall Mall clubs, the country house parties, Ascot and all the rest, to a renewed nation with something innovative to say, and out of the mouths of those best equipped to say it.

Alistair Moffat

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