Clubbing - the very essence of democratic life

British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800: The origins of an associational world by Peter Clark, (Oxford University Press, £50)
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The Independent Culture

This is, in almost every respect, a very fine book. It is a testament to a kind of university system that now struggles to exist. The work underpinning Peter Clark's volume must have taken years, if not decades, to assemble. The reader is left to guess how an academic author now would manage to square such scholarship with the demands to produce work annually, measured by the yard rather than by the quality.

Here is a study - on clubs or voluntary associations - which many people would categorise as a wonderful example of British eccentricity. And the irony is that Peter Clark has written on a very British subject. Why would any accurate picture of British, and particularly English, society have to devote a large part of its canvas to the role of clubs dedicated to practically every subject under the sun? Why are the British such great joiners? What makes for their wish to follow a particular interest in the company of other citizens, and to have fun doing so? And what impact does this urge have on British society and its political culture?

Clark does not answer these questions directly. He concentrates on the rise of clubs in the 18th century, and it is this choice of period that should prompt some debate about the approach he adopts.

Medieval societies were also characterised by clubs or, as they were then called, fraternities. Yet Clark does not believe that the roots of clubs, as a voluntary form of association, lie in this earlier period. He tends towards the view that their existence depends, in large measure, on a stage of urbanisation - a stage also accompanied by changes in communications, and especially access to the printed word.

To date the origins of clubbing (if one can misuse the modern terminology) does not, of course, explain why the British so love this activity. Clark does not offer an answer, and maybe one has to look for an explanation to areas of expertise beyond history and the social sciences. But to examine the medieval period - with so many people charging around eating, fasting, feasting and taking part in processions as members of a local fraternity - does suggest that this urge predates the period chosen for Clark's magnificent study.

It would be a non sequiter to disqualify fraternities as the forerunners of 18th-century clubs on the grounds that they were primarily religious. Given the dominance of Christian cosmology in medieval times, this is not saying very much. Moreover, the fact that most medieval associations collapsed under a punishing Reformation regime again says very little - other than that the Reformation was largely successful in this country.

Clark's historical approach raises a further question. There is more than a little whiff of Whig historiography arising from this book. Clubbing was doing politics in a different way to the one currently recognised. It is neither a better nor a worse way. Yet Clark draws up a mixed balance-sheet for voluntary societies. "If British society gained in terms of social cohesion, pluralism, and social capital," he concludes, "the price may have been high, certainly by the late Victoria era, in terms of government efficiency."

But is not social cohesion (a strong society), pluralism (the spreading of power), and social capital (skills at work in society) what good government should be all about? Clubs should not, therefore, be viewed simply as the teaching agent for modern democracy. In every sense, except in the restricted late-20th-century view of politics, they are democracy in action. One reason why the franchise was finally granted in Britain was that the rulers saw the skilled working class safely running democratic mutual societies and trade unions.

An age of voluntary associations should not, therefore, be viewed as, at its best, simply a minor station on the journey to democracy. Associations are what democracy is about. Do we not see all around us that government, in the 20th-century meaning of the term, is not after all a very efficient way of managing the modern politics of advanced societies?

The reviewer is the Labour MP for Birkenhead