Opening soon: the doors to the inner sanctums

When I first heard the word `clubbable', I assumed it was to do with taking a stout stick to beat some bloke to death, rather as other nations deal with seal cubs
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Fling open the windows, unlock the doors and let the people in. The British people have caught a dose of democracy, and it's spreading like wildfire, against the grain of centuries of tradition which decreed that everyone should know his or her place.

Only the British could have invented a word like "clubbable". When I first heard it, I assumed that I was being offered an invitation to take a stout stick and beat some bloke to death, rather as other nations deal with seal cubs. It was explained to me that the word merely meant that the chap was decent; one of us, a sound fellow, the sort of person that could easily join your club. We've suddenly got hold of the rather un- British idea that anyone should be allowed to be anything they like if they have the talent, resources and ability; that they should be allowed to go anywhere as long as they pay the entrance fee.

At the same time, the corollary of this seems to be true: as long as you do your job well, no-one has the right to disapprove of the way that you live, or of what you are. The declaration of the MP Angela Eagle that she is a lesbian was followed by - well, not very much. No one thinks it matters, since she seems to be a pretty effective politician. It's a far cry from the old days, when it might have been made impossible for Ms Eagle to do her job.

Even the most conservative elements of our society are waking up to the truth. When the trades union movement decides it's time for a change you know that some kind of revolution is happening. The Transport and General Workers Union is a byword for the sort of curmudgeonly, backward-looking industrial relations that helped to enfeeble the unions. They were the staunchest defenders of, for example, the closed shop, and at-the-gate recruitment, which ensured that only those who "belonged" would get jobs - no women, no blacks, no Irish.

Under its current General Secretary, Bill Morris, there have been efforts at modernisation - ballots, financial services to members, the recruitment of a new breed of younger organisers, and a new spirit of co-operation with employers. But there are several generations of history to shake off, not to mention several generations of the membership.

Ironically, the union that elected the first black general secretary, just two generations ago stood out against the recruitment of black workers to the motor industry on the grounds that it would cause conflict (ie, they did not want to compete with black workers). In practice, the best paying sections became all-white enclaves, no less exclusive than any London gentlemen's club. Today, in theory, no one in industry could take such a stance. Ford has developed, as part of its parent company's diversity policy, a model equal opportunities programme.

But the current dispute at Ford's Dagenham plant shows that the old reflexes are still there. 42 per cent of Ford's North Estate workers are from minorities, earning, on average, below pounds 20,000 a year. Yet in the so-called elite truck fleet, where earnings go from pounds 30,000 upwards, fewer than 2 per cent are non-white. That's because this is one of the few places that still puts recruitment largely in the hands of the workers - they do the tests on new recruits.

After some six years of painstaking negotiation, the TGWU has negotiated a series of agreements that would drag this enclave into the 1980s (ok, they're 10 years adrift, but we cannot hope for too much too quickly from backward types like these). In theory, a new series of practices has been in operation for the past few weeks that should ensure fairness in recruitment. However, the most crucial innovation - that there should be an independent person involved in the assessment of applicants for the truckers' jobs - is still being resisted by the men. Some have even joined a breakaway union.

The upside of all this is that the TGWU, to its credit, has given up on these members rather than compromise on the issue. It is hard to see what kind of compromise is possible between those who can work with a de facto colour bar and those who cannot. Mr Morris and his colleagues at Ford would be right to insist that it is time for a change. The mood of the great British people is to trash all the closed, exclusive clubs which shut people out because of an accident of birth. It won't stop with the unions, though.

We used to accept that there were places that we should not pry. At school, you peeped into the staff room at your peril; at work, the executive washroom or dining suite remained a mystery to most employees. Not any more. Awe of the inner sanctums has given away to deep irritation at encountering a closed door. At present, there is polite knocking on most of these doors; but unless they open soon, expect the hobnail boot of legislation to be applied. As with Ford, many of the doors are not physical barriers; they consist of arcane customs, snobbish rituals and baffling, unexplained entry qualifications. Every great institution that has any of these barriers to entry can anticipate a serious assault in the near future.

We've already seen the demands on the most exclusive club of all - the Royal Family. They are responding in their slow, Hanoverian way. But many others are vulnerable to our need for transparency; and because I'm a helpful sort of guy, let me just warn some other targets:

The Freemasons: a tourists' guide around the Lodge and a list of charitable donations isn't going to be enough; we need to know what you do, why, how and most of all who does it. Why not publish your handbook for members, if such a thing exists?

The Civil Service: you won't be able to hide behind the need to appear impartial forever; we need to know who gives what advice and why; and we need to believe that any clever young person can become a Permanent Secretary, even if they haven't been to a "good school". I know that such people exist, but few of the public know of them.Why not copy the White House's programme of attaching brilliant young men and women to top civil servants for a year, working inside the machine, learning its language, and in the process, reminding the Sir Humphreys what real people not mired in the machine look and sound like?

The Royal Opera House: who could fault the product? But now you're under new management and you've raised oodles of money, lots of it from the great unwashed. Isn't it time to open the bars to people who don't look like horses and bray like donkeys?

The Services: we know that you're concerned about the problems of recruitment. But might it not be easier to recruit ambitious young people from non- service backgrounds if the top echelons of the services did not consist of people from such similar - elite - backgrounds?

London's Gentlemen's Clubs: call time on the exclusion of whole classes of people. Rooms marked "No Ladies" aren't even quaint any more.

You, reader, may have other targets. The point is that after centuries of accepting that some clubs are just too good for us to contemplate joining, the British people have decided that Groucho Marx was wrong. He said that he didn't want to join any club that would accept him as a member. The story here is that every club has to be the people's club; everyone knows their place in a modern society - anywhere their talents and abilites take them.