Stephen McGinty: Drive for equality is doomed

Men and women flock to watch the Open at Muirfield, the majority apparantly untroubled by gender controversies. Picture: Jane Barlow
Men and women flock to watch the Open at Muirfield, the majority apparantly untroubled by gender controversies. Picture: Jane Barlow
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CRAGGY Island is the bleak, windswept rock to which Father Ted was banished for misappropriation of church funds.

While he may have protested that the money was merely “resting” in his account, his dim-witted curate, Father Dougal pointed out that it was, actually, “a good, long rest”. His punishment was a parish on a rock so unloved by the Irish state that they permitted the British government to dump nuclear waste along the coastline. Uncharted on any nautical map, Craggy Island remains a key navigational aid to mariners on the grounds that as long as they are sailing away they cannot fail to be heading in the right direction. So bereft of culture and entertainment is Craggy Island that the highlight of the annual fete is “The Ladder” and the sinister “Tunnel of Goats”. Yet such is the beloved ubiquity of golf that even Craggy Island has a course, even if it is of the “crazy” variety, consisting of a single hole whose obstacle is a removable windmill.

When Bishop Brennan, Ted’s bête noire, visited it was not to play a round but to inspect an image of his holy face that had miraculously appeared in the skirting board, actually a ploy to allow Ted, who had lost a bet, to kick him up the ar**. Accompanying Bishop Brennan was his faithful secretary, Father Jessup, who exerted his boss’s influence by means of sarcasm, and is, as Fr Ted explained: “the most sarcastic priest in Ireland.”

A characteristic that Mrs Doyle, the housekeeper discovered when she asked: “Shall I make the beds in the spare room?” To which Father Jessup replied: “No, we’ll sleep outside in a ditch!”

Mrs Doyle: “OK so...would you like a cup of tea?”

Father Jessup: “No, We want to die of thirst.”

This week the role of Father Jessup was played by Fergus Ewing, the minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism who had the unenviable task of attending the Open at Muirfield Golf Course after his boss, the First Minister Alex Salmond, made it quite clear that he would not be attending in protest at the club’s refusal to accept women as members. At the time it was reported that a “junior minister” would attend in his place and I remember thinking what an unpleasant task that would be, attending not as a guest but as a walking riposte. First there is always the indignity of getting a hand-me-down invite, one whose stiff, gold-edged card bears someone else’s name and secondly there is the idea that your attendance is making a larger point about your boss’s non-attendance. Was Mr Ewing briefed that while he had to attend he couldn’t appear at any point to enjoy himself, vol-au-vents were to remain untouched and if hydration was required it must be obtained from the tap in the toilets? I trust, however, that Mr Ewing, was as devoted to his political “bishop” as Father Jessup and so was suitably sarcastic during the small talk.

Club Secretary: “Minister, are you enjoying your visit to Muirfield?”

Fergus Ewing: “Oh yes, I like nothing better than seeking out the company of fair-minded, red-trousered gentlemen, who would consider my mother who, I might add, represented Scotland in Europe, as unsuitable to join their club by dint of her feminine charms.”

Club Secretary: “We, at the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, do have a certain long standing tradition…”

Fergus Ewing: “Yes, so did the Royal Navy but they eventually phased out rum, sodomy and the lash.”

Muirfield and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers do appear to be in hot water at the moment, but it’s good to see Alex Salmond and the SNP uniting with David Cameron of the Conservatives to ensure that wealthy women will one day have the right to pay £X,000 to join one of the the oldest golf club in the world.

Maria Miller, the UK minister for culture, media and sport has also suddenly become particularly concerned about the issue for a number of reasons, principally it allows her to have a good old go at the BBC. Two weeks ago when John Inverdale, the sports presenter made a hash of his commentary of the women’s Wimbledon final by saying that Marion Bartoli was “not a looker” the minister made no comment. (I can’t quite remember if she made any comment when David Cameron told a female MP to “calm down, dear” or when the Foreign Secretary muttered under his breath that his opponent was a “stupid woman”.) However now that Inverdale is part of the BBC’s coverage of the Open, which is being played at Muirfield, home to the Honourable Company which doesn’t permit women to join as members, she’s written to the BBC director general wishing to be informed of what further action is being taken against Inverdale, on the grounds that her letter conveys an unwritten belief that further action is clearly required. As minister for woman and equalities it could be argued that she is right to raise questions, particularly about what she feels is the lack of women’s sporting events broadcast by the BBC, but, by waiting almost two weeks she looks as if she is trying to score points and boost her own flagging reputation.

If so, it has failed, as the new director general Tony Hall wrote back almost immediately pointing out that the Inverdale matter is now closed as the presenter was given a stern talking too by his bosses, Hall then went on to point out a raft of female sporting events that the BBC has and will be broadcasting and its clear than few of them would have secured air time on commercial channels due to their current minority appeal. I’ve pontificated in the past, most recently two weeks ago, about my lack of interest in watching sports, but I do respect how popular and beloved they are to huge swathes of the population. So while I, as a viewer, would be more than happy if the BBC didn’t carry any coverage of the Open from Muirfield, millions of licence fee payers would not. How would they react if the BBC, on a point of liberal principle, refused to broadcast the Open because of the sexist rules of its host club? The BBC does make decisions about carrying events on ethical grounds and dropped coverage of Cruft’s over concerns about the health of certain dog breeds.

What is interesting about private clubs such as The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers is that they are predicated on a degree of prejudice. It is just that few are as overt as Muirfield where their prejudice extends to one half of the population of the world. It is rather ironic because if they were not as ambitious in their prejudices but were more focused and so accepted women but said that they preferred not to have to share their locker rooms with Catholics or Jews or Asians or Blacks their actions would clearly be illegal, but, strangely as it stands they are perfectly entitled to do so and their behaviour is protected by the Equalities Act of 2010. Women, as the club points out, are allowed to play the course any day of the week. If the current law says they do not have to accept women as members then so be it. People may not think it is right or proper or forward-thinking but the current members are clearly happy with the status quo and that is their private business.

If, as they invariably one day will, but not at the point of a politician’s bayonet, accept women members, this prejudice will shift to excluding those women they consider to be unsuitable, vulgar women with high handicaps and new money, just as they are currently prejudiced against such men. The point of these clubs is exclusivity and this means not everyone can join. The poor, for instance, are unlikely to be able to join the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and this is a prejudice with which we are all quite comfortable.

Thankfully it is a predicament that I, for the moment, will not have to countenance on the grounds that my golf handicap is 118. It should be pointed out that Fergus Ewing made it home quite safely and did not succumb to the fate of Father Jessup who was trapped for days in the fetid laundry basket belonging to Fr Jack, an unhygienic alcoholic.