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  1. The Staggers
3 July 2024

The entry of women to the Garrick will remake the British elite

As others follow Judi Dench and Siân Phillips, the politics of clubland could shift to the left.

By Aaron Reeves and Sam Friedman

The siege is finally over. Yesterday it was reported that Dame Judi Dench and Siân Phillips had become the first women to be admitted to private members’ club the Garrick, the culmination of a campaign sparked by a series of Guardian articles. Most commentators and many members have welcomed the move as long overdue and called for other male-only clubs such as White’s and Boodle’s to follow suit. And at its root this is clearly a story of elemental questions of fairness and entrenched male dominance. But London clubland is more than an exclusive social zone; it is where a large proportion of British establishment politics is transacted. And admitting women will not only change its demographics: it will also profoundly shift its political orientation.  

Over the last few years we have been studying the British elite – who gets in, how they get there, and the politics they espouse. Our basic source is the database of Who’s Who – a long-standing directory of Britain’s most influential individuals. Entrants to Who’s Who provide details of their club memberships, allowing us to sidestep the fact that clubs hardly ever divulge the make-up of their membership, and providing a rare window into who belongs to which clubs and what they think.

The most prestigious clubs in Britain are traditionally found within a few miles of each other in SW1 – the so-called clubland – but also include a few others that are close by, such as the Garrick and the Beefsteak. Looking at the membership of these 25 clubs, our data reveals an intriguing picture. Women are, unsurprisingly, a relatively new addition and they remain severely under-represented. Women were almost entirely absent from these particular clubs at the end of the 19th century, and still only number about one in ten of all members. In comparison, clubs are far more representative on race and are actually more ethnically diverse than the British elite in general (although this too is a relatively recent state of affairs).

The clubbable have certainly become less posh and overtly aristocratic over time but they remain a fairly exclusive crowd. Grab a drink in the bar of the Athenaeum or the Savile Club and you are very likely to encounter someone who attended one of the most prestigious schools in the country (around 14 per cent of members attended one of the nine Clarendon schools, such as Eton and Harrow, even though these old boys make up less than 0.2 per cent of the UK population). And you are even more likely to end up chatting to someone whose parents were in the top 1 per cent of the wealth distribution. There is also a 50/50 chance you will end up meeting someone who went to Oxford or Cambridge.

Interestingly, letting more women in will do very little to change these social trends, simply because the kind of women typically invited into these clubs are just as likely to have been born into money or to have gone to Oxbridge. But one aspect of club culture will change: the political centre of gravity will shift strongly to the left. In our forthcoming book, Born to Rule: the Making and Remaking of the British Elite, we surveyed 3,000 people in Who’s Who and found that those who are club members are strikingly more conservative than other members of the British elite, and indeed are more conservative than many people in Britain.

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Women members, however, tilt the other way. They are more likely to think the government should increase taxes and invest more in health, education and social security, more likely to believe that feminism is still needed in Britain, that we are still a racist country and that former colonies are not better off as a result of having been colonised. Of course, attitudes do not necessarily translate into action. Letting in slightly fewer old boys seems to have done little to change the political character of clubland, so the impact of admitting a handful of women may be similarly muted.

But equally, if the change at the Garrick is the start of a more concerted shift then it could be highly significant. Research has demonstrated that private members’ clubs play an important role in British political life – both as incubators where common world-views coalesce and take shape, but also as hubs that provide their members with a distinct institutional apparatus for converting mere acquaintances into tangible sources of social capital. Clubs, in other words, may be key settings where individual political preferences are translated into collective forms of political action.

So when the Garrick opened its doors to women a few days ago, it may have begun a transformation away from the cliché of the stuffy conservative club man. Clubs of the future may launch a very different political project, though the women seeking to drive change will likely not find it any easier than getting admitted in the first place.   

[See also: Will Rishi Sunak lose his seat?]

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