Club for all nations dumps empire and joins ranks of Cool Britannia

Rupert Cornwell discovers the new look Royal Commonwealth Society welcomes families and jeans
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TO GAUGE the "new Commonwealth," there's no need to peruse Foreign Office mission statements, study treatises on human rights, or book tickets to the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.

Just call in at 18 Northumberland Avenue, around the corner from Trafalgar Square, and survey what - to hear some people talk - is the trendiest addition to London clubland since the Garrick started life in 1831.

It is called the Royal Commonwealth Society. Not to be confused with the institution that used to be at that address, also called the Royal Commonwealth Society.

Julian Malone-Lee, manager of the new RSC, is perhaps over-addicted to the word "unique."

But he has a point. Maybe other London clubs offer 70 malt whiskies and 30 different vodkas, including a couple from Estonia. But none has ever been as totally re-invented as the RCS.

The shabby-genteel institution which went belly-up in 1991, re-opens for Commonwealth Day today, as a stylistic, political and gastronomic emblem of Blair's rebranded Britain.

Take the menu. Gone are the calorie-laden potted shrimps and bread pudding of yesteryear - banished in favour of warm salad of woodpigeon with beetroot crisps, and gateau of pancetta with aubergine. Healthy and modish fare and, if the dishes taste half as good as they sound, a snip at pounds 50 for two with wine.

"We're trying to make this a club for everyone," said Mr Malone-Lee, lately of the New Cavendish Club, grey-haired and 40 going on 25. "Lots of clubs can be very daunting, but here there are no old ghosts around."

In short, no intimidating ancient retainers, looking askance at every garish tie. Now you won't have to wear a tie at all.

And if you appear in jeans with the children, that's fine, especially on Sunday, when there'll be a family brunch followed by a children's feature film.

The club will offer round-the-clock service, from breakfast through to post-theatre suppers.

"We want to compete with the Ritz, the Waldorf, Fortnum and Mason," Mr Malone-Lee said. "We're going to smoke our own salmon, and make our own sausages, our own mustard, marmalade, and ice cream on the premises."

And in this slice of franchised Conran-land, the new Commonwealth will bloom. Its new director, Peter Luff, came to the RCS last December from the European Movement. He sees the two as complementary, not competing, symbols of Britain's destiny.

On to the ardent European has been grafted a no less ardent Commonwealth man: "The Commonwealth is about to happen, as a model, a network, an opportunity for business people and professionals of all countries."

He talks of a "Commonwealth civil society, based on the principle of human rights and good government, from which we can conduct world-wide campaigns on given issues."

It's all terribly new Labour, complete with the obligatory political correctness. Mr Luff has gone out of his way not to upset the 3,000 existing members, who have continued to cough up their subscriptions since 1991 - and one who joined the RCS in 1936 is said to have described the revamped premises as "brilliant".

But success depends on attracting another 1,500-odd young Commonwealth professionals and the NGOs. Minority groups are a priority target, to turn the club into a closer multi-racial reflection of the modern Commonwealth. But women are not - for the simple reason the old RCS was never a male bastion.

"Believe it or not," Mr Luff notes, "we had women members even before women got the vote [in 1919]."

But there the similarities end with the club that started out in 1868 as the Colonial Society and whose presidents included the future kings Edward VII and George V.

The old RCS boasted a glorious library housed in what might have been a stateroom on the Titanic. The new one has an Internet corner.

About the only clue to the past is a cluster of "noble savage" photos in the dining room depicting chiefs and elders from countries once shaded pink on the map.

Will the new club take off? More than 1,000 bookings have been taken for the first week alone.

However, the dazzled visitor leaves also a mite confused, wondering how the empire on which the sun never set has metamorphosed into coriander marinated vegetables with poached quail's eggs.