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A slice off the top

D. R. Thorpe reviews an updated history of The Carlton Club

13 February 2008

12:00 AM

13 February 2008

12:00 AM

The Carlton Club, 1832-2007 Sir Charles Petrie and Alistair Cooke

obtainable from The Carlton Club, 69 St James’s Street, London SW1A 1PJ, pp.264, 30

‘I’m not going to pay good money’, Groucho Marx famously quipped, ‘to join a club that lets in people like me.’ In the case of the Carlton Club on St James’s Street, whose 175th anniversary last year was marked by this handsome history, requirements were quite explicit. Membership depended on opposition to the 1832 Reform Bill. Four years later, the Reform Club demanded the exact opposite. Thus, in their political heyday between the first two Reform Acts, these rival clubs became the effective headquarters of their respective parties, a role altered but not entirely diminished in the Carlton’s case by the foundation of Conservative Central Office in the early 1870s. ‘After 1870’, we read, ‘Central Office got the drudgery; the Carlton kept the glamour and excitement.’

The most celebrated moment in the Carlton Club’s history came on 19 October 1922, when the party met to debate future involvement with the discredited Lloyd George Coalition. The background to the meeeting and subsequent developments are grippingly described. On the way into the meeting, J. C. C. Davidson, Stanley Baldwin’s PPS, was asked by the Yorkshire Post what was going to happen. ‘Just a slice off the top’, replied Davidson enigmatically. His prophecy was fulfilled, as the party voted over two-to-one to end its association with Lloyd George, who on hearing the news exclaimed, ‘Damn, there goes Chequers’, and tendered his resignation to George V, never to hold office again. Lloyd George, unsurprisingly, categorised the meeting as ‘a backstairs conspiracy in a West End club’. In fact, the result was a powerful assertion of internal party democracy. By jettisoning both the incumbent prime minister and their own leader, Austen Chamberlain, the parliamentary party triggered an immediate general election, established Stanley Baldwin as the face of inter- war Conservatism, and consigned the fractured wings of the Liberals to permanent third-party status in the Commons, thus making the Labour Party the main opposition force in the Commons. It was the beginning of modern British politics.

All the Carlton Club’s other notable moments take their place. On 14 October 1940 the Club, then in Pall Mall, suffered a direct hit from a German bomb, and the future Lord Chancellor, Quintin Hogg, was observed carrying his father, the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, on his shoulders from the wreckage, for all the world like Aeneas bearing his father Anchises from the ruins of burning Troy, to the classically educated observers, such as Harold Macmillan. Tragically the Club, by then in its present home at 69 St James’s Street, was specifically targeted by an IRA bomb, on 25 June 1990. Alistair Cooke has found in the Club archives the stoical response ‘wine stocks were unharmed’.

The Carlton did not escape the controversies over female membership, a matter that arose in acute form after Mrs Thatcher was elected party leader in 1975. At the time, the club did not admit ladies as full members, but the leader of the party was automatically offered honorary membership, a dilemma which led to much acrimonious soul-searching, frankly described. Indeed fewer eyebrows were raised when Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Foreign Minister, dined in October 1970 as the guest of his British counterpart, Alec Douglas-Home, a social occasion when Gromyko consulted the Foreign Secretary as to the best guns to purchase for his son — as ‘he, silly boy, waits for ducks to fly off lake before shooting them.’

Harold Macmillan, who belonged to seven clubs, and the Carlton for 57 years, thought the ideal composition of a membership was 75 per cent gentlemen and 25 per cent crooks (‘That is why White’s is so fascinating’), and the most interesting new material in this history is on the key part Macmillan played, as chairman at the age of 83, in saving the Carlton Club, principally, but not only, by amalgamation with the Junior Carlton in December 1977, which had the added benefit for him of continuing the Disraelian links enjoyed by both clubs.

Alistair Cooke, in revising Charles Petrie’s classic 1955 edition, and bringing the story up to the present day, has created a compelling narrative account of this slice of clubland history, as well as of the Conservative Party over nearly two centuries. Institutional histories can be parochial, but Cooke triumphantly surmounts this hurdle and has produced a book, handsomely illustrated, which will appeal to all those interested in the political process and its changing social patterns.

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