The Hall of the Athenaeum Club, 1893 engraving (Photo by Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The unmaking of the Athenaeum

The venerable club is being spoiled by ideology

Artillery Row

This is a story that some of my friends do not wish to publicise. It concerns the Pall Mall club called the Athenaeum, which reaches its bicentennial year in 2024. Like other members, I recently decided that I would not renew my subscription at the end of 2023. Athenians, as we call ourselves, traditionally stay mum about the private conversations and activities that occur within the club. But the assumptions, methods and targets of a public body are being grafted onto the institution, which is fast forsaking its private character. The doctrinal takeover at the Athenaeum ought to be known to outsiders.

The Athenaeum was founded in 1824 as a non-partisan club. The intention was that its members should comprise scientific and literary gentlemen, patrons of the arts, bishops, judges, members of the Royal Academy, and the cognoscenti. Liberals and Tories were well balanced. Political and factional disputes were beneath its dignity. There was never coercion from the club’s committee to accept any social or economic creeds. The introduction of commercial television, the Suez crisis and Brexit have been the only causes of major ill-feeling since 1940.

Field marshals, thirteen prime ministers, novelists, painters, public intellectuals, princes of the church, Whitehall officials, scientific wizards and painstaking scholars have given a special character to the club. Over fifty members have been awarded Nobel Prizes — more than France. Darwin was a member. Kim Philby joined on KGB instructions. After all, the Athenaeum was called “the most august of the big clubs”, in which reposed “the secret power of England”.

I loved the Club Table best. Members lunching or dining alone sit side by side on a long table and talk with their neighbours. In the old days one never introduced oneself. The fun was in guessing who they were from what they said. Once I found myself sitting next to a charming and vigorous old man. “When I came out of Paddington station this morning I saw a bus and ran for it,” he told me. “When I got on, the driver asked, ‘Who do you think are, Roger Bannister?’, and d’yer know, I didn’t tell him I was.”

These show-offs are distasteful but not as deadly as the New Righteous

The club was invigorated by the admission of women to membership in 2002. It has not been improved in the last decade by the acceleration of the election process so that, with deft wire-pulling, a candidate may be elected in six weeks. The chief beneficiaries of this have been impatient, status-conscious business people. For them the club is a classier version of the Institute of Directors. They are lordly in their treatment of the staff, arrogant in their bounce on the stairs. An entrepreneur of ruthless temper crowed to a friend of mine — an academic of international eminence — that raising the annual subscription would be a good way of ridding the club of those members whom he called “nuisances”.

Although money-making discussions are forbidden in all St James’s clubs, I recently saw, in mid-afternoon in the Athenaeum’s main drawing-room, two members consulting a spread-sheet on their laptop screen, two members discussing sheets of paper stencilled “Draft Report”, and a self-important chump bustling about with a bulging briefcase. Some of this set, moreover, have engaged in stealthy schemes to lower the club’s dress-code to that of a Soho celebrity hang-out.

These show-offs are distasteful but not as deadly as the New Righteous. These are men and women, often in their sixties and seventies, who form a hardened phalanx on the club committees. Many of them are retired from careers as senior public functionaries or semi-official administrators. They retain abundant energy, and they have long expertise in regulating people. Under their direction, the Athenaeum has taken a prescriptive tone. There has been an all-round loss of congeniality and trust. The root cause is, I think, the aim of the New Righteous tacticians to inculcate approved socio-political attitudes in club members and to give purposive direction to the recruitment of new members. For two centuries the club rooms have been a placid haven for charming, pensive conversation — sometimes agreeably aimless, sometimes cynical, sometimes generous. Now the place is becoming a hive of clamorous priggery.

The unifying faith of the New Righteous is Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). They measure social fairness by the 20th century criteria of social class and ethnicity, which seem to me facile and out-of-date. From my experience of schools, colleges and workplaces, the people who start with least favours and most disadvantages are those with mentally ill, violent, alcoholic or drug dependent parents. People who grew up in Wood Green or Redcar and are elected to the Athenaeum may think of themselves as champions who have overcome bad starts to win the race for success; an emphasis on class or racial discrimination best suits their own glowing personal narratives. In the 2020s, though, the great disqualifiers of opportunity and the broadest obstacles to social equity arise from the damage wrought on children from unstable, chaotic, destructive families. The experience of domestic fear makes more restrictive fetters than class, race or creed. It matters little whether the dangers come from a Millionaire’s Row in Cheshire or from a sink street in Thamesmead.

The current chairman of the club, Dame Ann Limb, is a virtuous, lively, frank, altruistic and constructive-minded Quaker aged 70. She has dedicated her working life to improving the amenities of Milton Keynes, and she was principal of a college of further education there. She is a leadership coach — I’m sure an effective one — and has chaired the Scout Association. She is a far nicer person than many of her committee colleagues who use her as the friendly face of authoritarianism.

She presided with valiant good humour at the annual general meeting of the club on 5 June 2023. This proved to be the most unpleasant event in the club’s history. A group of traditionalists, calling themselves the 1824 group, led by the eminent historians David Abulafia, Felipe Fernández-Armesto and David Parrott, had proposed a raft of motions criticising different aspects of the club’s management. These covered a variety of issues, including financial policy, architectural renovations, staff unhappiness and EDI. In the event, one-third of the membership voted in support of the group’s motions and committee candidates.

Ann Limb has repeatedly called for mutual courtesy and respect amongst members. Yet the conduct of business on 5 June, as arranged by the ruling camarilla of the club, was a consummately planned piece of jiggery-pokery. Arrangements were ruthlessly enforced to stifle, mock and trounce the traditionalists. Most of them, including such an eminent figure as Professor Parrott, were prohibited from speaking on the motions that were down in their name. The camarilla’s supporters were called to speak, it seemed, by prior arrangement, and they often did so with rancorous pettishness: twice we heard from Theresa May puffing and blowing in her worst tetchy form. Whilst Fernández-Armesto was speaking, a leading committee member sitting behind him threw back its head in a stagey manner and emitted derisive laughter. I was reminded of Trump pacing the stage behind Hillary Clinton in order to intimidate her on the presidential hustings in 2016.

There was another odious aspect to the meeting. That morning The Times ran a story, evidently planted to discredit the 1824 Group, falsely depicting them as homophobic and misogynistic bullies. These slurs made some sympathisers with the traditionalists pause in their support, and they visibly shook Fernández-Armesto and Abulafia. Trevor Phillips, who is a zealot of multiracialism at the Athenaeum as well as a columnist on The Times, was asked at the meeting to comment on his paper’s story. He denied responsibility for it, and he implied that such publicity was inevitable if members circulated emails amongst themselves criticising the club’s management.

Elderly radicals want assurance they have lost none of the clout of their heyday

I took Phillips to mean that if members had the lese-majesty to criticise the club’s inner circle, they had only themselves to blame if they were defamed in newspapers or had primitive prejudices attributed to them. Phillips is arguably the most influential activist in the club. Born in the early 1950s, and once the Blair government’s choice to head the Commission for Racial Equality, he has a persuasive agility in disputes and is always concerned to burnish his reputation. One of his club allies is Elizabeth Filkin, a flinty octogenarian, originally a community worker in Brent and lecturer in social studies at Liverpool, former chief executive of the Citizens Advice Bureau — someone who never allows herself to wobble in deciding what is right. Together Phillips and Filkin have recently fast-tracked the dreary monochromatic Labour time-server Jack Straw into membership of the club.

Elderly radicals, who want assurance that unlike Straw they have lost none of the clout of their heyday, move fast and break with the past. Filkin has been asked by the camarilla to prepare future policy on both the advance of EDI in club life and on future treatment of dissentient members’ public discussions of the club. Her recommendations will be circulated soon: doubtless she will use hoary shibboleths of class and ethnicity to recommend high-speed EDI in the recruitment of new members. I expect censoring and punitive measures to be introduced against vocal nay-sayers.

Temperate friends of mine, who would not identify themselves as traditionalists, were dismayed at the suppression of opinion and tight control of members that befouled the June meeting. One of them, who is a judge, spoke in the sharpest terms of “disgust” at the “fixing” that occurred. A neutral-minded friend, who understands money matters as I do not, told me that the financial report was partial, unconvincing and delivered in an antagonistic manner.

If discussion of the motions had been permitted, I would have spoken in support of Marie Kawther Daouda’s. She was born in Morocco in 1987, lectures in French language and literature in Oxford colleges, and regards EDI as patronising, bigoted and based on obsolete 20th century obsessions. It was, I think, shameful that this gloriously intelligent, vivid, dignified and upright woman was not invited to speak to her motion. When she tried to do so, she was harried into halting her remarks.

There was no chance for me to make the short intervention that I had written:

The Athenaeum is not a public or corporate body, but a private club. The committee of the club have responsibility to its current members, but not to posterity or society in general. Dame Ann Limb wants the club, in her words, “to reflect the inclusive faces of contemporary Britain”. “Inclusive faces”, dear Lord! The basis of club-life is exclusivity. Purposive, centrally-directed recruitment of “inclusive faces” is a betrayal of the basis of a club. As a trustee of arts funding and educational charities, I supported policies of equality, diversity and inclusion in bodies where they were fit. But their attempted enforcement in the Athenaeum shows a void of sense, experience and even decency in the running of a club. I imagine this policy is to be put at the forefront of the bicentenary celebrations: in which case it will bring public scorn and internal ferment on what would be, under the direction of more prudent club leadership, a happy event.

A club must be susceptible to social trends, of course, but it should not scuttle into compliance with trendsetters. If the specious drive for EDI succeeds at the Athenaeum, the club’s identity will be abased and betrayed. It will become instead a doctrinaire quasi-official institution with an overblown sense of its own socially-inclusive correctitude. Already its website speaks of seeking a corporate relevance to contemporary society. It is a travesty of a non-party-political club to envisage a tactical, centrally-directed, purposive, non-organic recruitment policy. There should be no truck with quotas reflecting irrelevant, arbitrary and cultish criteria; Northerners or Windrush descendants are no more disadvantaged or deserving of special encouragement than a multitude of other groups.

The rowdy and unjust June meeting was followed by another inexcusable episode in October. The camarilla wants to fill the club’s rooms with “inclusive faces”. They decided to hold an India Week which would celebrate decolonisation and also till the ground before an EDI initiative to recruit new members drawn from the subcontinent. To me it seemed grotesque to hail the granting of independence to India 76 years earlier, when this event entailed Partition, which led perhaps to a million deaths and the forced emergency migration of over fifteen million people. A more apt and interesting celebration would focus on the centenary of the first breakaway from the British Empire, when Ireland gained independence (bar six counties) in 1922. That would have little served the EDI agenda, though.

India Week opened with a banquet to honour Vikram Doraiswami, the High Commissioner of Modi’s India. I call this shameful. It is as if the Club had selected as guest of honour at a banquet in 1938 the diplomatic representative of Generalissimo Franco, or of Generalissimo Pinochet in the 1970s. Modi leads the BJP, and he is a member of a Hindu paramilitary group, the RSS, which modelled itself on the Italian fascists. Modi’s regime is violent, corrupt and abusive. It persecutes academics and drives them out of post, for telling scholarly truth and for refusing to toady to the forces of murderous sectarianism. Yet the Athenaeum, in anticipation of Elizabeth Filkin’s report on the recruitment of ethnic minorities, seeks favour with the Modi regime.

The club’s India jamboree included a panel discussion chaired by the ubiquitous Trevor Philips. The expertise of the panellists is not wholly deniable, but they represented a bland orthodoxy: there was no place for Nigel Biggar, who is a supporter of the 1824 group. I anticipate that the India stunts will be followed next year, or soon after, by the General Committee, following EDI good practice and issuing apologies for having elected to membership such colonialists as Rhodes, Goldie, Lugard, Curzon, Dufferin and Milner. Next, I expect, the portraits of Charles Darwin and Frederick the Great will be taken down. Nobel laureates, whose thinking was more daring and speculative than that of Jack Straw or Trevor Phillips, may have their work disavowed.

Totalitarian traits are spreading in the Athenaeum. Staff feel intimidated, and they dare not speak their mind at consultative meetings with employment consultants because they feel sure that there are informers in the audience. One of them lately spoke of conditions being as oppressive as in a forced labour camp. A former Secretary of the club, beloved and trusted by its members, has been denounced in a circular letter as if he were a fallen party member made into an unperson on Stalin’s orders. The doctrinal purity of the ruling group has been ruthlessly protected by excluding or marginalising traditionalists from the club’s counsels. These traditionalists, who are honest men and women, neither misogynists nor homophobes as their opponents told The Times, are dismissed as deviationists: to be driven out of the club into exile by the new dictatorialism, purged because they uphold competitive excellence rather than EDI’s clumsy scheme of recognition and rewards based on race and class.

It is heart-breaking that an institution two centuries old has fallen into the grip of joyless and refractory doctrinaires. An official in Stalin’s secret police said that there were three questions to put to any enemy of the proletariat: To what class does he belong? What is his origin? What is his upbringing, education and profession? In the old days the wrong answers brought a bullet in the back of the head in the cellars of the Lubyanka. The right answers in future will qualify people for membership of the degraded Athenaeum.

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