Behind Closed Doors: The Secret Life of London Private Members’ Clubs 
by Seth Alexander Thévoz.
Robinson, 367 pp., £25, July, 978 1 4721 4646 5
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This year​  marks the sixtieth anniversary of Anthony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain, which gave a pioneering analysis of the ‘anonymous institutions’ that seemed to be running the country, and the relations between them. It was the most famous of several books published in the early 1960s exploring the idea of a British ‘Establishment’, as part of a discussion about failure in economic and social life. Sampson’s analysis was so well received that he updated it several times, the final version appearing in 2004, the year of his death. More than once this involved rewriting the book almost entirely. Each edition included a circle diagram describing the country’s centres of power and their relative significance. In 1962, most of the circles represented conventional institutions, the largest being industry and the civil service. But by 2004, two circles were much larger than the others: media and ‘the rich’. If Sampson were writing another edition now, neither would have shrunk.

The original version of Anatomy of Britain is still remembered, but usually not quite accurately. Though he joined the widespread criticism of the old political and social elites, Sampson insisted that those who blamed an Establishment for national ills missed the point. Such complaints were tired restatements of the early 19th-century radical William Cobbett’s claim that Britain was smothered by a monstrous network of corruption, which he labelled the ‘Thing’. In the 1960s, no such powerful clique of reactionaries existed; instead, the problem was the failure of Britain’s various small centres of power to work together effectively, resulting in a drift towards sclerotic disorganisation.

Sampson supported his argument with reference to London clubland, gently ridiculing the idea that the grand clubs of Pall Mall were places of conspiratorial Establishment chit-chat. Civil servants did not use clubs for serious meetings with other professionals, still less with the industrialists who might keep them informed about the modern economy and alert to new policy needs. Clubs were dominated by dull professionals, and prided themselves on exclusivity and unsociability. During the war, academics had been forced to emerge from their burrows in the Royal Society and the British Academy and contribute to national policymaking, but now they preferred to nap in the library of the Athenaeum. Sampson was so convinced by his argument that he dropped the chapter on clubs altogether in his third edition, published in 1971.

The title of Seth Alexander Thévoz’s new book suggests a return to Cobbett’s world rather than Sampson’s. His focus is also on Pall Mall, though he ventures occasionally into the empire and more hesitantly into working-men’s establishments (but never into the sporting locker room). I was keen to learn what secret power plays he had discovered behind the closed doors of elite clubland. In fact there aren’t any, and he makes only a passing claim for the continuing political significance of clubs – for oligarchs and spies, apparently. Can this be true? Surely oligarchs can operate more discreetly on their yachts or in their Italian villas than in the vast saloon of the Reform Club, built for people-watching. Thévoz bases his case on his own claim to have been approached to spy for the Chinese government during a club lunch. In truth, he does not push his argument for the subversive potential of clubs very far, because he is happier suggesting that gossip, and being seen, are their main attractions. The gossipers have often included the staff, who have compensated for disgracefully low pay by selling secrets to journalists. As a result, clubs have always been terrible choices for conspiracies of any sort.

What lies behind Thévoz’s closed doors isn’t power but low-grade sleaze. His book is a fair-minded overview of three hundred years of club history, neatly researched and quite fact-heavy, but overwhelmingly preoccupied with carnal and financial appetites. London clubs developed in the 18th century out of private backrooms in coffee houses, where groups could get together for gambling, or sometimes for gay sex, out of sight of the law. The association with licence has never quite gone away. In 1963, Mark Birley insisted that his new club, Annabel’s, ‘must smell of exclusivity and sex’. Paula Yates posed naked in the saloon of the Reform Club.

The 18th-century business model was to fleece rich young men by overcharging for food and drink. The idea of the member-owned club developed as a means of outwitting such entrepreneurs, but it involves expensive annual subscriptions. As with gym memberships, a minority of hardened regulars get the best deal, while most other members pay over the odds in order to entertain friends occasionally in opulent surroundings. Most clubs have struggled to turn a profit; many have ended up at one point or another in unscrupulous hands. Peter Cook’s venture, the Establishment, was taken over by gangsters in 1963; in 1972 John Aspinall sold the Clermont to Playboy as its main London casino. In 1976, George Marks, a jovial Canadian-American property developer with a silver Rolls-Royce, offered to liberate the National Liberal Club from its debts, hoping that he would in return be nominated for a peerage by Jeremy Thorpe. He removed most of the paintings and silverware, took a large cut from selling the library and wine cellar, brought in busloads of Scandinavian tourists, got the club to pay his children’s school fees, and finally escaped to Miami Beach with an estimated £60,000 of club assets.

In 1913 there were four hundred London clubs, but only a tenth have survived. The defunct institutions include almost all of the fifty women-only or mixed-sex clubs set up towards the end of the 19th century to offer women tea and social facilities during shopping trips. These were displaced by the cafés of Harrods and Selfridges, and by improved hotel facilities. Architectural swank has been crucial in the survival of many clubs. The Athenaeum (founded 1824) was projected as a temple of classical wisdom that all wise men would wish to join. The Reform Club (founded 1836) offered the new class of prosperous provincial politicians a London base to rival aristocratic salons, a grand atrium for receiving constituents, and more salubrious bedrooms than were available at shabby hotels. Clubs recognise that members are addicted to stealing smart embossed crockery and towels in order to add lustre to their homes. Even Gladstone pilfered writing paper from the Carlton and the United University Club.

The aura of exclusivity that members craved from their clubs rarely lasted. Decisions on the election of new members had to be delegated to committees, because existing members wanted to blackball so many aspirants that club budgets were jeopardised. Financial pressures often forced mergers between institutions, exposing social tensions on both sides. The Carlton Club decided that it had to absorb the Junior Carlton in 1977 despite its treasurer’s complaint that the latter was full of estate agents; he was reminded that the Carlton had a plethora of property developers.

Flora Tristan, a French-Peruvian feminist (and Gauguin’s grandmother), gatecrashed a number of London establishments in the 1830s, by means of enterprising cross-dressing. She found clubs to be full of escapees from the tedium of family life, killing time on their own because they feared social embarrassment if they talked to strangers. Thévoz speculates that the impossibly suave heroics of James Bond were the product of Ian Fleming’s boredom at Boodle’s during the Second World War, while he was serving as a desk-bound intelligence officer. Club bores typically occupied themselves by complaining about the vulgarity of recently admitted members. The dislike of all and any change has been fatal to a number of institutions; despite this, a surprising number still do not admit women members. P.G. Wodehouse is partly to blame for this bull-headed conservatism: his interwar accounts of the Drones Club were deliberately anachronistic, but so successful that his postwar fans expected their clubs to perpetuate his stereotypes.

So, while on the whole avoiding overarching interpretations, Thévoz generally corroborates Sampson rather than Cobbett. There is no powerful clubland Establishment. Leaving aside a handful of eccentrics and snobs, most members are well-heeled professionals with conventional tastes and ambitions, and a tinge of self-delusion. For Sampson, the significant fact about the big clubs of the 1960s was that they no longer fulfilled their Victorian function of bringing classes and interest groups together for a social purpose. They had joined the dignified rather than the efficient part of the country’s social structure. Along with some other institutions, they perpetuated the illusion that Britain remained an effective, dynamic unit. Not enough people saw through that illusion. Those who did tended to be sharp outsiders – often from the former dominions – who wanted to get rich and realised that the traditions that held their British rivals in thrall were flimsy and insignificant. The Canadian newspaper magnate Roy Thomson pointed out that there must be something wrong with Britain because it was so easy to make money out of it.

Sampson’s proposed solutions now seem quaintly old-fashioned. At heart he was a Victorian liberal, a latter-day Walter Bagehot. Like Bagehot, he venerated Parliament as the only institution that could sustain an effective balance and co-operation between the country’s contending interests. Parliament should aim to represent the grievances of old and new Britain alike. It needed to work harder to check government bias and hold it to account. Its committees should act as tribunes of the people, scrutinising the executive and facilitating a coherent discussion about national needs. Over the successive editions of Anatomy of Britain, Sampson became increasingly critical of Parliament’s failure to perform these duties. By 2004, the Parliament circle in his diagram was smaller, while many other circles were much larger. Power had been centralised by governments that were subject to fewer informal checks. Banks and multinational firms had more influence; political parties were desperate for donations and eager to use patronage to reward rich supporters. The media had much more power to set the political agenda and define the tone and terms of the national conversation. Politicians’ language had become more conventional and uniform as a result.

In short, there was a new Establishment, dominated by rich men and media tycoons, the successors to the sharp outsiders of the 1960s. The irony was that they rose to power by posing as the enemies of elitism. They projected themselves as battling against an old Establishment that was never as powerful as they pretended, or as uniform as the one they now belonged to. Businessmen made money and politicians won elections by claiming to be on the side of the people. Wilson, Thatcher and Blair all defined themselves against an old ruling class. Entrepreneurs cultivated a demotic image; government asserted a new openness. But the rich got richer, more official information was concealed and more civil liberties restricted. The media forced other institutions to be accountable to it, but refused to be accountable itself. Sampson quoted the Tory MP George Walden’s remark that society in 2000 was ‘dominated by an elite of anti-elitists’.

Sampson​ would find it easy to amplify his case now. The Conservative media warns tirelessly of the threat posed by an out-of-touch Establishment. The precise nature of the peril we are said to face varies according to the needs of the moment. For years, EU bureaucrats were the main culprits, but since Brexit the attack has centred on Britain’s plot-addicted ‘Remainer elite’, and on the European Convention on Human Rights. There are also frequent warnings about ‘left-wing blobs’ whose ‘wokery’ is suffocating universities and the Supreme Court. All these enemies are useful because they absolve the government of its own mistakes. If the state does less and less, less and less competently, an uplifting vision of a free society can be sustained only by focusing fire on any obstacles that might plausibly be blamed for the failure to realise it. The object of identifying these enemies is not to beat them – they must never disappear – but to mobilise the indignant while steering them away from demanding more inconvenient changes.

During the Tory leadership election, the attack on the enemy within has moved up a gear. It has now found a target at the heart of the ‘deep state’: the Treasury. Liz Truss’s supporters have made remarkably vindictive attacks on her rival Rishi Sunak’s management of the economy as chancellor, as if it had been executed independently of Johnson’s cabinet, in which she served. The relative restraint of Sunak’s spending promises, and his reluctance to join Truss in offering immediate tax cuts, have been blamed on his deference to the Treasury’s fusty notions of fiscal rectitude. Since the late 19th century, ‘Treasury control’ has been a core principle of British government. The Treasury established itself as the dominant civil service department, the policeman of state spending, and the soundest authority on national economic priorities. Its advocates continue to see Treasury control as the nearest approximation to genuinely disinterested government. For so many Conservatives to attack its influence so baldly is unprecedented. They have also rounded on the Bank of England, on grounds reminiscent of interwar critiques of the bank’s pro-capitalist deflationary policies and the resulting unemployment. When Gordon Brown returned operational independence over monetary policy to the bank in 1997, so that it could set interest rates without political interference, he was signalling New Labour’s distance from the socialist arguments that had led to the bank’s nationalisation in 1946. Are the Conservatives now interested in grabbing hold of these economic levers?

Of course there is a debate to be had on these issues. The combination of quantitative easing and pandemic spending has changed assumptions about budgetary etiquette. Sky-high energy bills, a Russian war and a climate crisis will make it impossible to fight the next election on an austerity ticket. The new Tory debate about national economic priorities might also charitably be seen as the first serious attempt to consider the long-term future of British political, economic and legal arrangements outside the EU – a question to which answers have been sought since 2016. But is there really a constructive plan behind this attack on Treasury-bank orthodoxy? It’s difficult to believe that much significant change to economic policy will be possible before the next election. Dominic Cummings, our offstage Oliver Cromwell, wants to blow up the Whitehall bureaucracy and create a purer civil service technocracy, but his utopianism has so far failed. In practice, the main consequence of weakening Treasury control over the spending of other departments and agencies might be a lurch down the road of pork-barrel politics.

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