These bastions of masculine entertainment can pose a danger to open democracy. It is the gentlemen’s clubs of London where politicians, bankers and hedge-fund managers meet to do deals and form secret alliances. Because membership lists are not disclosed to the public it is impossible to tell when a minister proposes a policy that favours the interests of members of his club. Neither is the public privy to the terms of the sacred oaths they may have sworn. And in a court of law shouldn’t the ordinary litigant know whether a judge is a member of the same club as the opposing party? There are a myriad of potential conflicts of interest rooted in the secret membership of gentlemen’s clubs.
In the City and among our professions, where senior offices are dominated by privately educated bankers, hedge fund managers, lawyers and accountants, such clandestine meetings and associations create perceptions of injustice.
So what can be done? In Britain it is legal to form a private members’ club whose membership is based on restrictive characteristics. There are women-only and ethnic-minority clubs which do not admit men or those of a different ethnicity. The government’s own guidance on the Equality Act says that while it is unlawful for a private club to discriminate against, harass or victimise an existing or potential member it is lawful to restrict membership to people who share a particular characteristic. This is not true for political parties, which cannot block membership on the basis of race or sex.
What is required is the compulsory publication of a register of members so that the public can be confident that the business of government and justice is not being done in the secret smoke-filled dining rooms of gentlemen’s clubs. A more transparent approach might also open up some of these gentlemen’s clubs to more adult attitudes towards women.
Which club blackballed Robert Verkaik then?
Let us assume that everything he says is correct, entirely right. Now let us go on to think a little more. One of the great distinctions of English (a little more English than British, but only just perhaps) was that anyone could set up a club to do anything they liked without having to ask anyone. We recall the exceptions to this (Tolpuddle Martyrs perhaps, I think that was something to do with secret oaths in law?) and all too rarely remember the joys of it. The Friendly Societies, Boy Scouts, brass bands, Morris dancers, layaway plans for the bus and beer trip to the seaside and so on. All those things which do actually make up civil society. This is not company law where privileges extend to hte form of organisation, this is just the existence of an organisation itself. The English/British attitude was one of benign neglect over who may do what.
In contrast to, say, France, where I believe it is true that no Frenchman could set up a club or organisation of more than 25 members without permission from Paris – a rule which stuck until well into the 1950s. Not sure whether the details there are apocryphal but the basic point is true.
Or, as we might put it in the vernacular. Fuck off matey. For we’re English and therefore free, one of the defining points of which is that we consenting adults get to do what we want to do, with who we want to do it and when, without asking permission from some knobhead like you. Nor even informing you – it’s our life, not yours to manage for us, geddit?