National Liberal Club to trial relaxation of dress code

After two years as the National Liberal Club’s first woman Chairman, I am proud to be stepping down just as the Club has agreed to experiment with relaxing the strict dress code it has had since 1979.

During my time, we have taken many leaps forward as a home for liberalism: a 15% growth in membership, driven by large-scale Lib Dem recruitment; an array of transparency measures and governance reforms; and a swathe of exciting and stimulating events drawing on the liberal tradition from the world over. But I’m aware that we haven’t always lived up to our liberal mantra – as a club founded as an inclusive home for liberals – in having a strict dress code that was first introduced as a temporary measure 39 years ago.

At Wednesday’s Annual General Meeting, members voted by 49 votes to 36 to relax the dress code for a trial period this summer, so that men will no longer be forced to wear a jacket and tie. (Women continue to enjoy a much greater degree of latitude in their dress, provided it is smart – we trust our women members, and I hope we can trust our male members, without having to tell them what to wear in the 21st century.) There was a stormy debate, with sincere, passionate opinions aired on both sides – opinions which I respect, since they were expressed with sincerity. What is important is that members and their guests should have CHOICE: no one is obliged to abandon a jacket and tie, but they are at liberty to do so – except in the Dining Room – during that trial period.

When the club was founded by Gladstone in 1882, it had no dress code – apart from a stipulation that members should not turn up naked, or in their pyjamas! This continued for the next 97 years, and it was only in 1979 that the club introduced its first dress code. The club was going through a difficult time in the 1970s, having been defrauded and asset-stripped by its chief executive and being the subject of various police investigations. At the time, it was felt that the one thing the club could do to draw a line under the difficult times was to introduce a dress code. But the vibrant, confident liberal club today is not the vulnerable, scandal-ridden shadow it was 40 years ago, and I don’t think our reputation rests any longer on asking men to wear a piece of silk around their necks at all times. In an age when both the House of Commons and the House of Lords have dropped a necktie requirement, the club’s 1970s dress code seems ever more out of date.

And I would point to one of the great liberal speeches of the last century, in which Martin Luther King said that he looked forward to a world where his children “will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”. To that, I would add that they should not be judged by the cut of their suits, but by the content of their character. It seems irrational that in the 21st century, this should even be contentious.

In my time as Chairman I have tried to address this issue in a conciliatory manner, bringing people together, and seeking consensus. What we voted for on Wednesday was a trial period, in July and August 2018, so that we can take lessons forward, ideally for a more permanent change. I hope the experiment will be a success. And I hope that you can help make it a success, by visiting the National Liberal Club during this trial period in July and August, or even joining it, to encourage it to move in a more, well, liberal, direction. Then we can focus on the club’s core mission of being a centre of liberal thought, and a welcoming meeting place for liberals of all persuasions. That is what we were founded for, and that is what is needed now more than ever.

* Janet Berridge was Chairman of the National Liberal Club from 2016 to 2018. 

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  • paul barker 19th May '18 - 1:26pm

    I am sorry, but no sort of dress-code is compatable with any version of Liberalism. This is not an issue where any compromise is possible.
    Either drop the Dress-code or drop the word Liberal.

  • Stephen Rourke 19th May '18 - 1:58pm

    Well, it’s about time!

    Many happy memories of sharing pints with fellow Liberal activists in this fine place, before all the faff and the snobbery of a dress code came in.

  • Nonconformistradical 19th May '18 - 3:49pm

    “When the club was founded by Gladstone in 1882, it had no dress code – apart from a stipulation that members should not turn up naked, or in their pyjamas! ”

    Sounds quite reasonable!

  • James Baillie 19th May '18 - 5:21pm

    My concerns about the National Liberal Club terming itself as such are far less to do with the dress code and far more to do with the extreme exclusivity of membership cost, which remains *far* beyond the financial reach of most liberals and liberal activists in this day and age. It is, one might observe, arguably true to say that the NLC caters for those of the wealthy who identify loosely as liberals, but I’m not sure it has anything in turn to offer to liberalism or the liberal movement more widely in the modern day and age given that many of us just wouldn’t be able to afford to join. The idea that it counts as an “inclusive home for liberals” is, sadly, far from the truth.

  • Martin Pierce 19th May '18 - 8:16pm

    After a total of 26 years membership (10 less than my Lib/Lib Dem membership) I say – hurrah!

  • Andrew Hinton 19th May '18 - 10:37pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with James Baillie, but the fact that some members of the NLC were strongly in favour of keeping a dress code, rather than clamouring for a return to the Gladstonian arrangement, reassures me that it’s not for riff-raff like me anyway.

  • I’m with those who say the very idea of a dress code is illiberal. I also agree with James that while it would be nice to have a home for liberalism in Whitehall, one that costs £800 a year membership, and is at great pains to allow non-liberals membership (see the former leader of UKIP) sadly does not fulfill those criteria.

    I’m genuinely happy that those who have the money can enjoy membership, but calling it an inclusive home for Liberalism is like calling White’s Club an inclusive home for women.

  • Geoffrey Payne 20th May '18 - 12:16pm

    I didn’t even know who the previous chair was, but I have seen Janet speak at the free events (I am not a member) I attend a number of times and I am delighted at the contribution she has made.
    I suspect a “trail” is the best compromise but I do wonder what the worst case scenario might be that would make it fail!

  • I am a former member of the Club andI think a relaxation in the summer is reasonable and sensible. However, the Committee should be wary of paying too much attention to those on this site who disproveof the principle of clubs and who would not dream of paying the( very good value) fee and yet see fit to opine on the dress code or lack thereof. Should be interested to see what the members’ view is.

  • Andrew Hinton 20th May '18 - 4:29pm

    David, I don’t think a single comment in this thread has “disapprove[d] of the principle of clubs” in any way, unless you regard the principle of clubs as being that they are reassuringly expensive enough to keep The Wrong Sort out. What a number of them have regretted is that the club they would like to belong to if it existed (an inclusive, liberal and affordable one) does not exist.

  • Michael Berridge 22nd May '18 - 7:22pm

    “At Wednesday’s Annual General Meeting, members voted by 49 votes to 36 to relax the dress code…” Ah. The Will of the (NLC) People!

  • Simon Banks 20th Jul '18 - 5:25pm

    Soem time in the late 1980s or early 1990s, I was part of a London Liberal working group that had a meeting at the NLC. It was a boiling hot early evening. I arrived in jacket and tie, but during the meeting, took them off. An employee approached and asked me to put them back on. Without a word, the whole group decamped and we met somewhere else.

    I’m reluctant to criticise a purely social club for having a dress code, whether it’s jacket-and-tie or naked above the waist, but the National Liberal Club is more than a purely social club. I welcome this change.

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