By Dave Clements
Working Mens’ Clubs (WMCs) first appeared in the mid-1800s as a refuge from the ‘miserable place’ their members called home, says Ruth Cherrington. In the latter part of the 19th century, while they were exempt from new licensing laws—and booming as a result—the clubs were nevertheless regarded as the respectable alternative to the pub. The clubs were frequented by the social drinker, not the ‘rough’ (or as we might say today, the binge) drinker. As an 1875 Act of Parliament determined, they were centres for ‘moral improvement and rational recreation’.
This respectability was as important, initially at least, to the members themselves—some clubs had their own reading rooms, featured talks and lectures from invited speakers, or had their own debating societies—as it was to social reformers keen to impose a greater sobriety on the working class. Today’s temperance campaigners, while far less interested in the intellectual improvement of the lower orders, are similarly contemptuous of their everyday conduct. Instead of wielding bibles as did the Salvation Army troops of the clubs’ early days, today’s booze botherers hide behind scary stats and ‘awareness’ campaigns.
But this is not to forget that the clubs were far more than just drinking establishments, as Cherrington is keen to point out and as the title of the book makes clear. They ‘exercised a form of local democracy’ alongside the emerging trade unions ‘long before all working men had been given the right to vote’. They were a focus for political meetings and often named after the industries in which their members worked or, despite the efforts of the Club and Institute Union (CIU), after their political leanings: be they ‘Radical’, ‘Liberal’ or even ‘Conservative’.
The club movement continued to grow through the inter-war and post-war period. By the 1970s, there were an estimated four million members of what was, under the umbrella of the CIU, ‘one of the largest voluntary organisations in the world’ the author tells us. Since then the WMC movement has been in a state of decline with half of the clubs established at their peak having since called time. The ‘trades-clubs’ were the first to go as industrial decline set in. So embedded were the clubs in the communities of which they were a part, and for all that some continue to hang on, they could hardly survive without the ‘working men’ in whose name they functioned.
And much has changed since at a cultural level too. Cherrington points to a number of factors to explain the demise of the clubs: television, the ‘swinging sixties’ and holidaying abroad; the ban on smoking, the wide availability of cheap alcohol in the supermarkets and pub chains; the popularity of multiplexes, gyms and coffee shops; and a rise in home ownership and home entertainment, as people found something better to spend their growing disposable incomes on. But while all of this is no doubt true, it seems to me that what was really decisive is that what made the clubs special and distinct—that they were owned by their members and were proudly independent—has been progressively undermined over much the same period. That people increasingly became ‘passive consumers of fee-charging leisure venues’ with which the clubs simply could not compete is only a part of the story. Their decline was also part of a much wider trend of institutional and community-level disorientation and fragmentation.
While the clubs themselves left much to be desired—‘An air of decay set in which in itself was off-putting’, says Cherrington—the world was also changing around them. ‘Masses of people used to do the same things at the same time’ until the young became more mobile and drifted away from the clubs, we learn. While this undermined the socialising influence of communities, it was also a good thing: an opportunity for young people to escape the constraints of community and make their own way in that changing world. (That today we live so much more privatised ‘home-centred’ lives is a problem.) Cherrington presents the complex of factors involved in the decline of WMCs but does not disentangle them. We are still left to wonder why the clubs are no longer what they were. It seems to me that not only was there the pull of a more exciting world beyond Clubland, but also the push of a slow-burning crisis in those communities; itself a consequence of the demise of a wider social, cultural, and moral framework rooted in the old class politics.
The recent experience of riots without reason and the growing problem of anti-social behaviour can, in this sense, be understood as a result of the breakdown in those old social solidarities established through institutions like the clubs. Critically, it was the political defeat of the working class in the 1980s—not just the experience of industrial decline—that was responsible for the eventual collapse of those community-formed institutions.
In this context, what are we to make of the clubs? Cherrington tells us the CIU still represents 2,000 clubs across the country. But not only do they continue to close; they are thoroughly irrelevant even to their own members. (Few bothered to vote in the election in 2009 for a new CIU General Secretary. The author tells us that the spoiled papers of 25 clubs came in third place.) This is a shame in as far as in their day they had a lot going for them. They may have been little more than a room above a shop or a converted house to begin with. But what they lacked in facilities they more than made up for with their admirable facility for ‘self-help’ and, as Cherrington puts it, ‘clubbing together’. Which, incidentally, is why WMCs appeal (albeit after the fact) to a political class that worries about social atomisation, cultural decline, and, relatedly, its own irrelevance. But trying to retrospectively co-opt a decaying institution in the service of civil renewal is doomed to failure.
The urge to recreate a ‘sense of community’ in our anxious and individuated times, while understandable, gets things the wrong way around. It is a mistake to get too sentimental about the clubs. They served a purpose for communities that no longer exist. They are an institutional expression of, and a left-over from, those expired social collectivities. But they are still worth reflecting on.
They were a product of a culture that imbued individuals with a characteristically robust sense of themselves—something we could badly do with today. While the club movement was torn between its ideals of autonomy and a stuffy moral conservatism—my local Walthamstow WMC, possibly the first CIU registered club, is still teetotal and men-only to this day according to the author—they were also the source of some strikingly permissive sentiments. Cherrington cites a late 19th Century Lord Rosebery, CIU president at the time, declaring in a perennial debate about licensing, that working men are ‘not to be patronised, and fostered, and dandled.’ Their clubs must ‘be free from all vexatious, infantile restrictions on the consumption of intoxicating drinks and similar matters’. ‘All that is to be done for the working men is to be done by themselves’, insisted Rosebery.
What is most striking is that this aristocrat’s belief—over a hundred years ago—that ordinary folk could be, as he put it, ‘raised by their own endeavours’ could not be further removed from the elitist and belittling sentiments expressed by supposed left-wingers and ‘liberals’ today. They are far too busy pitying and patronising the poor and so-called vulnerable about their drinking and gambling habits to entertain such wild notions. And they would no doubt be surprised to learn that this insistence that the working man stand on his own two feet was not inconsistent, as Cherrington makes clear, with a compassion for one’s fellow members. In the days before the welfare state, they would contribute to the early social insurance schemes run by the clubs, and raise funds for seaside ‘convalescent homes’ for members taken ill.
And in this latter regard too it is tempting to see a model for today, a way of addressing society’s problems from lonely older folk to riotous (quite literally) youth, or—in the case of intergenerational projects—both. Maybe the clubs ‘can help to combat these negative trends that impoverish people’s lives and their communities’ and even be ‘part of important social capital’ argues the author. Maybe. But there is also a danger in looking for answers to today’s problems in a long gone yesterday; or in expecting clubs to do more than what their members want from them.
For instance, for all the talk of self-improvement in the early days, most clubs increasingly opted for the ‘less earnest and well-intentioned’ world of music hall as ‘an escape for ordinary people from the daily grind’. Clubland became the ‘largest collective venue for live entertainment’ in the country, explains Cherrington. And yet now what was once a vibrant world of tough crowds and honed acts barely exists outside grim seaside resorts and affectionate TV comedy send-ups, namely the excellent Phoenix Nights. While a minority of enterprising clubs are getting the younger folk through the doors (with new bands and burlesque apparently!); this is not a revival of the clubs so much as a reuse of the buildings that once held them.
So much has changed that it is perhaps worth reflecting on how the clubs drew on a very different set of cultural assumptions. They used to be rather good at raising the young for instance. ‘Parents would collectively keep an eye on the kids’ as members took on an ‘informal childcare’ role that simply would not be allowed today. The clubs did not have to be registered with the DfE, and members were not required to have a CRB check. The members were ‘acting as informal mentors to the next generation’ without ever thinking of themselves as such; initiating young men both into their fathers’ clubs and into adulthood. ‘It gave them not only a membership card’ says Cherrington ‘but a sense of belonging and identity’ too. But I suspect the ‘club child’ would be an object of official concern today, however much the clubs successfully nurtured aspirant adults. Not only have the authorities—in the absence of mediating institutions like the clubs—sought to protect the young (and not so young) against the supposed dangers of alcohol, smoking, and gambling (amongst other things), they have also promoted a culture where adults taking on collective responsibility for socialising their children is largely unheard of today. The newly held assumption that we should regard each other with suspicion rather than as potential allies or as sources of mutual support has been thoroughly internalised.
Though it was women—even though they were not members in most instances—who took on the childcare responsibilities; these were clubs, as Cherrington puts it, ‘set up by men, for men’. Whatever your views on the clubs’ attitudes to women, exclusivity is the point of setting up or joining a club. The members alone decide who they let in. In the late 1980s, the CIU President Derek Dormer made the case for women to have full membership rights but only on the clubs’ terms: ‘This is not something that will ever be forced upon club members’ he said. But the pressure to conform saw the CIU introduce equal membership rights in 2007; and by 2010, they were required to comply with the Equality Act. Indeed ‘equalities’ became something of a nuisance for a club movement with more than enough problems already.
When it came to ‘race’, for instance, the exclusivity associated with club life was not regarded as a recommendation so much as an indictment. The right of members to exclude those with whom they did not wish to associate looked suspiciously like, and sometimes was, a ‘colour bar’. One branch claimed they had ‘coloured people’ as members. ‘We would be discriminating if we kept a list’ it was argued, and it has to be said with some logic. Up until the mid-1970s, the CIU stuck to this line with one General Secretary writing that those accusing the clubs of racism failed to ‘understand the true nature of a bona fide members’ club … that it is an essential ingredient in the construction of a club that it must be private’.
While acknowledging their slowness to adapt and their embededness in ‘attitudes and behaviour that were prevalent’ at the time, Cherrington reminds us that the clubs had always self-selected according to ‘occupation, political stance, or ethnic identity’—the Welsh miners with their choirs ticking every box. So what is the problem? ‘Should clubs’, she asks, ‘whether WMCs, Turkish or Greek sports and coffee clubs, be made to recruit from outside their own target groups?’ Surely that would be absurd and unreasonable? Rather tentatively she ventures: ‘It could be that multiculturalism has encouraged separation of ethnic groups rather than mixing’. I would go a little further. Those who have endorsed this supposed ‘equalities’ agenda— multiculturalism with its reification of cultural difference in fact being its opposite—faced with the fact that it has tended to reinforce and even fuel divisions rather than abolish them, have sought to legislate against its divisive impact.
In an eloquent presidential address to a CIU AGM, and under the threat of equalities legislation, one delegate had this to say: ‘A club is not a club because of the size of its structure but because of the atmosphere inside the building. That is the atmosphere of friendship that comes from love or esteem between two or more persons—it can never be ordered by law’.
This understanding as Cherrington put it that ‘people could only be integrated on the basis of friendship and mutual cooperation, not the force of law’ held little sway with the leadership of what was (once at least) the political wing of the labour movement. Indeed, the coming to power of the legislatively-loose and politically hollowed-out New Labour governments only made things worse. The clubs were compelled, if they had 25 members or more, to demonstrate through their constitutions that to the satisfaction of law makers they did not discriminate with regards gender, race, or ‘disablement’. Whether or not clubs are more inclusive as a result, there are certainly fewer of them around to do any including. I suspect such impositions, whatever the intentions, are only contributing to the quickening of the clubs’ decline.
Against this rather hostile social, cultural, and political backdrop, Cherrington’s optimism is admirable. Surely the kids will get bored of social networking online and rediscover their grandparents’ yearning for ‘real, physical contact with friends’ in which the clubs specialised, she speculates. The trouble is that far from being able to trade on the ‘unique worth and traditional values’ of the WMC brand to this end, these were jettisoned long ago.
The CIU has forgotten its values in the opportunistic pursuit of a narrower notion of ‘worth’. Its rightful opposition to the bureaucratic burden on the clubs is not driven by any underlying principles. While it strongly opposed the impact of the smoking ban on its members, it has been less keen on them exercising their freedoms outside of the clubs. So it joined in the calls for minimum pricing on alcohol to allegedly stop so-called binge drinking. And no less opportunistic is the search for policy fads on which to hang a hoped for revival. The new-found admirers of the clubs in the policy world go on about their importance to building the Big Society. Cherrington too thinks they are capable of ‘addressing fragmentation and social breakdown’ after the riots; and that the ‘evidence that clubs are good for you’ means they can contribute to the government’s rather creepy happiness agenda too.
But putting these questionable policy prescriptions to one side, the author’s account of the club movement is not only fascinating but a thought-provoking contribution to the debate about what happened to the working class culture that bore the WMCs. Still I find it hard to disagree with those who regard the CIU and at least some of the clubs affiliated to it as ‘out of touch and old-fashioned’. I rather think that they should be allowed to go extinct rather than be preserved as flat-cap curiosities. Energies would be better spent trying to create new institutions more suited to our times—while challenging those things that have changed for the worse—rather than seeking to breathe new life into one that is evidently taking its last gasps.
Of course, given the scale of the physical legacy of the WMCs, some will make a go of it and good luck to them. But this will have little to do with what motivated the working men that built the clubs, however much social capital they might generate for their respective localities. Being more outward-looking and business-minded, and inviting the community to use the clubs’ considerable under-occupied facilities is no bad thing. But there is a difference between trying to revive the WMCs and finding a new use for the buildings they once occupied. Their emptying out as representative and functioning working people’s institutions—much like the faded New Labour brand and what passes for trade unionism today—is too far advanced for that.
This was written under a Creative Commons License, with a few edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/
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