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Alex Salmond Drives into a Muirfield Bunker

2 July 2013

11:20 AM

2 July 2013

11:20 AM

Unlike some politicians who profess an interest in sporting matters, Alex Salmond’s enthusiasm for golf, tennis and horse racing is genuine. He even supports the right football team.

Nevertheless, the First Minister has bunkered himself this week. This is the subject of my latest Think Scotland column:

Which brings me to the summer stramash of Alex Salmond and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. The First Minister has let it be known – nay, has trumpeted – the fact that he will not attend this year’s Open Championship because it is being held at Muirfield and Mr Salmond will not break bread with an organisation that excludes the good women of Scotland from membership. According to the First Minister, it is “indefensible” in the “21st century not to have a golf club that’s open to all”.

As we shall see, this is “indefensible” only if you strip all meaning from “indefensible”. Not content with writing to Muirfield, Salmond paraded his protest on radio too. In other words, this is a story the SNP and the First Minister want to see get some “play”. Salmond not so subtly suggested that perhaps Muirfield and other single-sex clubs on the Open rota be pressured into admitting women members. According to Salmond “I don’t think it helps the game to have the suggestion of a bias against women”.

Perhaps not. But, and here I’m afraid some cynicism is unavoidable, it must be said that Salmond has only recently come to this conclusion. In 2010 he was happy to attend the Open at St Andrews, even though the R&A is, famously, an all-male fraternity. The following year he was just as content to attend the Open at Royal St Georges in Kent another club that, like Troon and Muirfield, limits its membership to the male of the species. If Salmond had a principled objection to these policies then it was not strong enough to persuade him to act.

So a low and cynical mind might conclude that perhaps there’s something else playing here. And by jove, I think I’ve got it! There’s a referendum coming along soon and Salmond desperately needs women’s votes. Since polls consistently report that women are less enthusiastic than men about independence, the SNP and Salmond himself it is not surprising that the First Minister should seize on anything that might soften his image and improve his standing amongst the women of Scotland.

This, one supposes, is one such issue and it will, doubtless, do him some good. There are plenty of professional women, in particular, who will approve of Salmond’s stance. Most of Scotland’s newspaper columnists – the modern day unco guid in many cases – will nod and cheer.

I hold no brief for Muirfield but their membership policy is a matter for the club, not something appropriate for political grandstanding. This remains the case even if you disapprove of single-sex institutions. Indeed, the chief definition of a liberal sensibility is the ability to tolerate views and practices that though often distasteful are no proper concern of the law, far less the kind of thing that should occupy parliamentary time.

Salmond is certainly entitled to his views, but freedom of association is, with freedom of speech, a vital pillar supporting the principles and decency of an open, liberal society.

Muirfield, like Royal Troon, Royal St George’s and the R&A*, is a men-only enterprise. This may be discreditable but it’s their prerogative. Private clubs are by definition discriminatory associations and once that’s accepted – as it should be – then you’re only arguing over the detail of that discrimination. It’s a matter for those clubs and associations and no-one else.

Again, one may believe an all-male golf club such as Muirfield an anachronism but that’s a matter for the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers just as the Catholic Church’s prohibition on female priests is a matter for that institution alone and as the Selkirk Common Riding Tust’s insistence that only men are eligible to be the Royal and Ancient Burgh’s Standard Bearer is a matter for the people of Selkirk and no-one else.

The wider point to be remembered, however, is that this is another data point – joining the dreadful Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill – suggesting that “civic” or political Scotland is not as reliably liberal a place as it likes to think itself.

*UPDATE: I should have noted that St Andrews is a slightly different case. The R&A does not admit lady members but there are two female golf clubs in St Andrews which, like the R&A, do not own the courses upon which they play. The St Andrews courses are administered by the St Andrews Links Trust.

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