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Greasy Pole: In the Club - or Out?

Greasy Pole

Everyone laughed when Groucho Marx said he would not want to join any club which would accept him as a member. Nobody laughed when Iain Duncan Smith said he would not want to join the Carlton Club because that traditional bastion of the Conservative Party does not accept women as full members. Well you can't blame Duncan Smith for trying but he will have to do better than that if he is to dispel his image as a man who is most at ease on a chilly, early morning parade ground. Perhaps he thought that by apparently standing up to so stubborn an example of establishment tradition he would seem modern, unstuffy, a man of principle. This would have been likelier of he was not a member of another club – the Beefsteak – which also excludes women from membership. Perhaps he dreamed that the nation would be gripped with excitement at his courage so that they forgot about Osama Bin Laden and the euro and the current crisis in Coronation Street. But instead there was a paralysing apathy. There were no restless debates in supermarket check-outs, no rival groups pelting each other on football terraces. The nation ignored it and went about its business of being exploited and repressed, as the nation always does, leaving Duncan Smith to go about his business of being tedious and irrelevant as he always does.

Carlton
In case anyone is thinking of applying, the Carlton restricts its membership to supporters of the Conservative Party and a lot of its activity is directed at raising money for the party (almost £1 million during the last Parliament). So it is only to be expected that the Club would invite each leader of the party to become a member ex-officio. Duncan Smith refused the offer on the grounds that the Tory Party does not have any no-go areas so it would be inconsistent of him as leader to be in a club which discriminates against women. (For his sake, let us hope he does not intend to act in this way over every example of inconsistency in his party). Officially the Club says "Ladies are welcome and may use the Club's facilities with the exception of the public rooms on the ground floor designed for members and gentlemen guests". There is some doubt about whether women would want to use at least one of these rooms, which a male visitor described as "the most vile room in the building, frequented almost exclusively by bores and drunks" and by a female ex-member as "swept by an unpleasant draught". The chairman of the club's political committee, Peter Emery (who is responsible for organising all that fund-raising) said he thinks many of the women members like the rules as they are although last year one prominent female member, Shadow Minister Theresa May, resigned because she objected at the way women were treated as "second class citizens" there.

The last Tory Prime Minister to cause a few problems over membership of the Carlton was Margaret Thatcher. To be party leader was one thing; to be offered full membership of this exclusive, all male club was another. The solution was to accept her as an "honorary" member – some might say an honorary man, which brought to mind how the Nazis dealt with finding that they were allies of the racially inferior Japanese in 1941; they decided that the Japanese were "honorary Aryans" – at least for the duration of the war.

Admitting Thatcher to the Club caused quite a few of the crustier members to splutter into their port before they fell asleep again. But they were being unreasonable because this was not the first time the Carlton had displayed a convenient flexibility of principle. In 1967 the late Julian Critchley, who was then an MP, upset the members by giving lunch there to Jo Grimond, Leader of the Liberal Party. Critchley was quietly advised not to use the Carlton to entertain anyone whom he could not nominate for membership – in other words any political opponent. But a week or so later Ted Heath, who was Leader of the Opposition, had the Prime Minister of the Soviet Union, Alexei Kosygin, there to lunch. No effort was spared in making the Russian leader welcome; it was, according to Heath, a "sumptuous affair" at a "superb oval table" which introduced Kosygin to the gastronomic delights of oysters. It was rather different from the breakfast Kosygin had had earlier that day, with lorry drivers at a road side caff on the A1. It is not difficult to imagine which meal was given the more publicity in Kosygin's home country. Whatever outrage club members may have felt about the head of a country they regarded as a deadly foe being entertained in their dining room was not publicised. Neither were we told what the long-suffering Russian people thought about their leader feasting so sumptuously among men who they were encouraged to believe were their class enemies—always supposing they were allowed to know about it.

1922
As an integral part of the Conservative leadership, it was appropriate that the Carlton should be the venue for one of the most crucial decisions in the party's history. In 1922 a significant wedge of the party had grown restless with the wartime coalition which, with Lloyd George at its head, had rumbled on into peace-time. There was some anxiety, to say the least, that if this situation continued it would destroy the party and that this would become evident at the general election looming on the horizon. The leadership were clear that the coalition should carry on; among the rebels was the little known, self-effacing, Stanley Baldwin, who would never have admitted to being concerned about his chances of eventually leading the party and how these would be stifled under a coalition led by the Welsh wizard, who was not little known or self-effacing but popularly supposed to have won the war and so saved the world for civilisation.

The party leaders thought to settle the issue in their favour by challenging their critics with a vote of confidence and where better to arrange this than at the Carlton, suffused as it was with the party's traditions, expressed in all those overlooking portraits of past Prime Ministers. On the day all the big guns – Austen Chamberlain, Birkenhead, Balfour – were lined up against the rebels. Their victory was almost a foregone conclusion except that Baldwin had other plans; it was, he said, "time to ditch the goat" – an unkind reference to Lloyd George. And ditched he was. The Ministers had no choice but to leave the government and Lloyd George had no choice but to resign the Premiership. "He will be Prime Minister again" said Georve V. But he wasn't. It was a crucial change for the Tories, in which they lost their parliamentary giants. A little more than a year later they also lost 107 seats in a general election which brought in the first, unpalatable, taste of Labour government.

Lloyd George, not amused by his defeat, snarled that the Coalition had been broken up by "a West End Club" – an opinion shared with quite a few others. In fact, however the manner of the decision and the reasons for it, the vote did seem to be in line with the majority wishes of the party. Out of the bitterness and confusion there emerged the 1922 Committee, designed to improve communication between backbenchers and the party leaders. Then there emerged Stanley Baldwin. Now, long after the times when the party leader was expected to materialise after what Harold Macmillan called "the customary processes of consultation", the 1922 Committee is responsible for organising the election of the leader – an arrangement which is clearly not ideal for the Tories because it has thrown up people like William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith.

Whites
In fact the Carllton's policy of allowing women a limited access to membership is some way ahead of some of the other, traditional, posh London clubs. Whites is one example. It is the oldest and most exclusive of the clubs and has a grisly history of infestation by gambling addicts, where people who had grown fabulously rich on the pitiless exploitation of the workers spent money in betting on whatever took their fancy. In the 18th century a man dropped dead outside the club and was carried inside while members laid bets on whether he was actually dead. This was the ruling class at play, setting an example to the lower orders on how to behave. That the standards had not improved could have been judged when Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Health in the post-war Attlee government, was kicked in the bottom by a member, who thought this was an effective argument against Bevan's work in setting up the National Health Service. Other clubs who also exclude women are Pratts, Brooks and the Garrick.

But this is not to say that the Carlton leads the way to a more enlightened and hopeful age. Membership costs are £600 to join (free to women) and an annual subscription of £600 (£300 to women). And what you get for that is the right to share a rather splendid building with a clutch of political twisters or drunken, tedious supporters of a party which has consciously supervised a huge burden of human suffering. Beside that fact the issue of whether women can join on the same terms as men is seen in its true insignificance. The stand taken by Duncan Smith is motivated by nothing more than a characteristically feeble attempt to win a few votes and in the process to deny the importance of human relationships – including those between the sexes—to a sustainable society.