Victory for women at Tory club that rebuffed Thatcher

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The Independent Online

After 116 years of jealously guarding their territory, the town's menfolk have bowed to the inevitable and voted to allow women access to the bar and, should they wish, four snooker tables in the room next door. They can also say farewell to their associate member status and join as full members for £12 a year.

Some of the Scarborough women must have believed they would never see the day. Seventeen years ago, in a moment enjoyed to the full by the national media, Mrs Thatcher was discreetly informed that even she would not be welcome, according to rules established in 1889. But, perhaps influenced by David Cameron's modernising agenda, local Conservatives have decided that a gender bar is not the way to go about attracting a bigger and younger membership.

"We need to modernise the place and cater for the younger element, by which I mean people aged in their thirties and forties," said the club's chairman Barry Robson. "People sometimes think we are a bunch of fuddy-duddy old boys. It's true a lot of us are old, I am 76, but I and a number of my colleagues in the committee are young at heart and thought we needed to make some changes to attract a younger membership - and their wives and girlfriends."

Avril Gillies, one of the women associates who campaigned for full membership, was still more forthright. "We hope some of the men can be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century," she said.

It is a message that other Conservative clubs in the North may be forced to heed, although a handful still show no sign of implementing an open-doors policy.

The Conservative club at Heaton Moor, near Manchester, is still men-only, to the intense frustration of a new generation of women politicians. Susan Fildes, the leader of Trafford council, has described the club's policy as "archaic" and urged the club to "realise that we are in the 21st century". She added: "Private clubs struggle to get members as times move on. Barring half the population from becoming members will not help them in the future."

Another club recently to have voted on whether to allow women is the Tonge Moor Conservative Club, near Bolton, Greater Manchester. The male membership voted resolutely against.

In Scarborough there may yet be a traditionalist backlash. For years they have dined out on the way Mrs Thatcher was handled when she arrived in Scarborough to address the Young Conservatives' conference in 1988 and took time out to visit the club.

As the first female Prime Minister imperiously entered the grand, stone-built Victorian premises she was quietly informed that the bar and snooker-room had been men-only since it opened and there was strictly no exception.

"She had to go upstairs to the mixed lounge," said Mr Robson. "At the time we were rather strict, but Mrs T understood and she made no attempt to force the situation. She was very gracious and stayed for about 30 minutes - which didn't really give her a chance for a drink anyway."

The club has about 1,600 members, about half of them women, all of whom are restricted to associate membership at an annual subscription of £2 compared to full membership of £12. Mr Robson said only about half of the women members were "regulars" and some might choose to remain associate members.

But the all-male committee was bowing to the inevitable in putting forward its proposal for the membership to consider. A campaign for equality has been building among the women for months. "Not everyone was in favour, otherwise it would not be democracy," said Mr Robson. "There was a lively debate - we had a bigger attendance than for the AGM - but we could not stave it off any longer, there are not many clubs in the country which still don't have women as full members. It's been a long time coming but now it's set in stone."