Michael Kelly: Good reasons for male-only clubs

Picture: Jon Savage
Picture: Jon Savage
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Male-only clubs have the legal right to keep out women and while it is legal, they must not be persecuted for excercising it, writes Michael Kelly

TODAY, let us take few moments to celebrate the courage, conviction, foresight, but particularly, the speed of the members of Royal Burgess. Referenda, as we Scots know only too well. Even to get one on the political agenda takes years of discussion. Once there months pass before bureaucrats and politicians manage to arrange a framework for discussion. This is then followed by interminable debate over three years even when the issue is crystal clear.

It is only a few months since Alex Salmond committed his volte-face and condemned the Open golf tournament, which he had hitherto supported and vilified all male-only golf clubs. Yet already Scotland’s oldest golfing society has not only taken the issue on board, but has consulted its members on it – a rare a bold step for any golf club to take. Those trusted members have taken a clear decision. And so well are we versed in the lore of referenda that we know that the decision, whatever it may be, has to be respected for at least a generation – although in Nicole Sturgeon’s case this seems to have slipped to fifteen years. I am sure that the Edinburgh golfers will accept that timescale.

By settling such a fundamental constitutional question so quickly and decisively Scotland’s oldest golfing society has set an example for us all. This is a question that goes to the very nature and hearts of male-only clubs. It is not only a constitutional question, but in most clubs the constitutional definition of a member as having to be male is enshrined in a constitution written more than one hundred years ago.

It takes a powerful argument to overcome that length of tradition and none has so far been found to overwhelm the preferences that these clubs express. The fundamental question, which I am sure the wise Burgess members considered, was whether or not their existence creates any real discrimination. Clearly they have decided that it does not. Women have ample opportunity to play golf in Scotland. They have equal access with men to play, as guests or visitors, all of Scotland’s famous courses, because that equality is enshrined in sensible UK law. They also enjoy the same lounges and dining facilities as male visitors. If they want to make an Open course their home they have Turnberry which as a resort course not only includes both men and ladies clubs but easy access to visitors. Or they can join Carnoustie where the links are publicly owned. In addition, there are a number of female-only clubs whose members are determined to keep men out. Their constitutional rights must be defended.

Why would people wish to open up membership of a club whose traditions and atmosphere they despise? To change it, that is why. And that is why the members of these clubs resist change. They like things the way they are. Fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned, grumpy, blazered high handicappers on leather chairs many of them may be. They like it that way. Plus they are completely unwilling to do anything Alex Salmond wants them to do.

But it was outside lobbies with axes to grind that started all of this. Women golfers, who understand the situation, have no problem with the way which male-only clubs approach this. Officially women’s golf sees this as an evolving situation which may well result in the elimination of such a gender barrier. They are to be praised for their patience.

One Burgess member was somewhat sneeringly quoted as saying that, ‘ladies cause no end of issues.’ This good golfer was not referring to women in any disparaging way. He was drawing attention to the very real issues which would arise if lady members were to be admitted. This is not a reference, as many people want to believe, to the ladies’ toilets. All these clubs already have them. They are needed for their waitresses.

However, most golf clubs have a constitutional limit to their number of members. If women were to be admitted would they simply fill any vacancies in strict application order with the men who apply? In that case it would take years to build up a viable ladies’ section. Or should the male applicants be discriminated against and all women who applied be accepted immediately irrespective of waiting lists. The Scottish Golf Union takes an active interest in how club competitions are run. Women have their own (forward) tees, their own handicapping, their own competitions. All of these needs would have to be catered for no matter how few women joined. Organising a medal for six women would hardly be worthwhile. And would women join? A few would. But enough to make ladies’ sections viable? Given the desperate state of women’s golf at many Scottish clubs it is highly unlikely. These clubs are not cheap. One membership per family is probably as much as any prudent Edinburgh father would wish to shell out.

The male-only club is an anachronism. But it is a nice anachronism. It is home to a special breed of men. The men who populate these august clubhouses do not go supermarket shopping. They cannot cook because their tea has always been lovingly on the table when they came in from work. They open car doors for their wives. They wear caps and doff then. They are noble men willing to sacrifice rates relief for their belief. In a world begging for role models to keep the young boys of dysfunctional families from crime we could hardly go past these male golf club members as a particular kind of model. The alternative seems to be the metro male who puts on cleansing cream and is encouraged to behave like a mother pushing prams rather than golf trolleys.

The male only club proudly stands for the old view. It may or may not be right. But it is not illegal. If politicians want to reduce further the diversity of our sporting culture then they should pass a law to that effect. Tomorrow, we are promised, in an independent Scotland, these clubs will be gone. However while they are extant they should not be persecuted. Rather their rights should be protected as vigorously as those who insist on women-only gyms.