Tom English: Why is Salmond objecting to Muirfield?

First Minister Alex Salmond hacks from the rough. Picture: Jane Barlow
First Minister Alex Salmond hacks from the rough. Picture: Jane Barlow
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IN THE summer of 2011, an Ayrshire couple won £161 million in the EuroMillions lottery. Shortly after their outrageous good fortune was made public, a letter popped through their door in Largs from Alex Salmond.

Addressed to one of the lucky multi-millionaires, Colin Weir, the letter began thus: “Dear Colin. When I was at the Open at Royal St George’s on Friday and heard the fantastic news that a Scot had landed the Euro lottery jackpot I did wonder if this was the same Colin Weir who helped produce SNP party political broadcasts for a young party publicity vice-convener all these years ago…”

The stand-out thing here is not so much Salmond’s brass neck in trying to schmooze his way into the thoughts of the mega-wealthy Mr Weir – you’d have to guess that most politicians in his place would have done exactly the same if there was any chance of getting his party’s fingers on some of that lottery lucre. No, it was that the First Minister wrote his letter from Royal St George’s, one of the all-male golf clubs that he has such an issue with.

I remember Salmond holding court that week. He had a little press briefing in a café in town. A keen golfer, the First Minister was full of the joys of the Open Championship and full of chat about the SNP’s initiatives to get more Scottish youngsters playing golf. Full of enthusiasm, too, about what the Ryder Cup was going to bring to the homeland. I don’t recall any mention of his objection to Royal St George’s being a male-only institution. Salmond, seemingly, had parked his protest about discriminatory golf clubs being guilty of “old-fashioned sexism”.

That was the phrase he had used a few years before when talking about the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews when it failed to offer membership to the new principal of St Andrews University. An invitation is the norm. It wasn’t extended that year because the principal was Dr Louise Richardson. A woman. Or, as the old boys might say, a “WOMAN!!”

Over the years, Salmond has won praise for his stance about male-only clubs on the Open Championship rota – Muirfield, Troon and Royal St George’s. The fact that he chose to attend one of these venues while at the same time criticising what they stand for has always been problematic. You want to say, “Well done Eck for standing up to a policy that has no place in the modern world” but, somehow, cynicism always gets in the way.

Is Salmond objecting because he believes in what he is saying – and here we must ask if he has ever enjoyed the playing experience at the “indefensible” golf clubs he has criticised? – or is he saying it because he knows it sits well with the population? If it’s the former, then why the contradiction of attending St George’s in 2011 and not attending Muirfield in 2013, as was announced the other day? Some might see Salmond’s actions on sexual discrimination in these golf clubs as a bit of a flip-flop. Hold up, though. Yesterday there was a change in the narrative of the story. On Friday it was said that the First Minister will not be attending the Open at Muirfield and would, instead, attend the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart. Salmond’s spokesman had said that the First Minister’s “views on single-sex clubs are well-enough known”. In declining the invitation to be at the Open, Salmond wrote: “I just think it’s indefensible in the 21st century not to have a golf club that’s open to all… To have the message that women are not welcome as members, can’t be members, can’t have playing rights over the course on the same basis as men, seems to send out entirely the wrong message about the future of golf.”

He backed this up by giving an interview to Radio Forth News, saying that sport in Scotland “must be based on equality and access for all.” Quizzed on the morality of Muirfield hosting the Open, he replied: “The R&A should have had a good think about this and perhaps politely, behind the scenes, suggest to Muirfield the public profile of being a single–sex club would be difficult… I don’t think it helps the game to have the suggestion of a bias against women and the greatest tournament on this planet played on arguably the greatest links golf course should have this impression that ladies, women should be second–class citizens.”

Strong stuff, only there is a problem. Actually, two problems. Firstly, Salmond isn’t attending the Open next month but his party, and his government, will be represented there all the same. Fergus Ewing, his tourism minister, will be there in place of the First Minister. So where stands all that stuff about “old-fashioned sexism” and an “indefensible” policy and “bias” and the perception of women being “second-class citizens”? When is a stance not a stance?

Yesterday brought news from Salmond’s spokesman. Or clarification, to be exact. The reason Salmond is not attending Muirfield? It’s got nothing to do with his views on their discriminatory policy. To which, the populace would be perfectly entitled to respond: “Pardon? What about everything you have said and the letter you wrote in reply to your invitation?”

Turns out, according to his spokesman, that Salmond is not attending Muirfield because he doesn’t want his diary to be full of golfing events this summer. That’s a pretty hasty retreat from his original viewpoint, is it not? A Mickelsonesque backspin, if you like. It’s no wonder that sports lovers grow weary of interventions from politicians because so often they are riddled with inconsistencies and self-promotion. And this is yet another example.

Fear not, Eck. If you decide to flip flop again and opt to attend after all, the word from Muirfield is that some of the rough is so fiendish that you could stand in among the high grass and nobody will see you.