Brian Monteith: Struggle to balance all things

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Some of Edinburgh’s earnest equality espousers have been getting their knicker elastic all in a twist this week thanks to two completely unconnected incidents.

The first is the bullying of one of the oldest debating societies in Scotland, if not the world – the secretive Speculative Society – by its landlord, Edinburgh University.

The Speculative Society, or “the Spec” as it is commonly known to those who know of its existence, has been around since 1764 when many debating clubs sought to further the discussion of ideas with wit, style and effective rhetoric at the time of Edinburgh’s golden period – the Enlightenment. The Spec is the last sole survivor and this must in part be to its very unusual nature in that it is unbelievably secret – I wager over 90 per cent of readers will have never heard of it – and that membership is by invitation only, and is therefore relatively exclusive.

So what, you may ask? What’s the harm in private clubs – by definition people of like minds or a similar approach to life that conduct themselves within the law of the land – getting together to down some claret and arguing the toss over a paper a potential member has presented?

Well, none of course, unless you are a high-minded university like Edinburgh that is committed to “equality and diversity” and you realise that within the very heart of your 
establishment there is a society of men that apparently does not allow women to be members.

I say “apparently” because the society stands accused of being secret, so how do we know for sure? We only have the word of a few rebellious members that say so. Did they not attend the last meeting when Lesley Hinds was presenting a paper on the efficacy of the trams? No, I thought not.

(Suddenly there is a flurry of e-mails by some seeking to establish the veracity of this report, not least Lesley Hinds’ office)

The university, showing its commitment, remember, to equality and diversity, has conducted a review by vice-principal Professor Mary Bownes and concluded that the Spec be given six months to change its ways by admitting female members or be turfed out of the room it has occupied in Old College since the days when Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson toasted its rude health.

Now here’s a thing. It is not illegal in Britain or Scotland for clubs to limit their membership to only men or women, although the Spec apparently has no such rule, it just never invites women to join. So it’s not breaking the law, it’s entirely within its rights to behave in this manner, even if it is anachronistic for our right-on anti-offending times.

But if the university truly believes in diversity then should it not be embracing the Spec as just that – an example of a minority that deserves shelter and support? Surely for all its quaint ways the Spec is a rare and valuable supporter of critical analysis, something that a university like Edinburgh is meant to represent?

But what of equality, you may ask? Well, the problem here is not that it may or may not exclude women but that it is the only society of that type – how then can it have any equal? Is that a reason for throwing it out and risking its collapse altogether? The better answer surely would be for the equality activists of Edinburgh University to encourage a debating society for only women, one that might see it as its goal to be encouraging female-self confidence through the medium of arguing over a Pinot Grigio? Then, like there are men-only and women-only clubs in Philadelphia, we would have equality.

By way of illustrating how self-regarding such nonsense is from Edinburgh’s pillar of the educational establishment, this paper also reported how Foysol Choudhury, chairman of the Edinburgh and Lothians Regional Equalities Council and would-be Labour candidate to replace Alistair Darling, has suggested that if there are to be women-only shortlists for candidate selections then why are there not similar methods to ensure other minorities are given a leg up? Pointing to the absence of Asian representation amongst Labour’s local politicians, he had a point.

The point I would make is that Labour’s positive discrimination – like that of the university excluding an old club because it happens to behave in old but perfectly legal ways – is doomed to failure and ridicule. Failure because it excludes on a whim the potential for the best candidate to be chosen in a seat because he or she is of the wrong sex. And ridicule because, as Choudhury has innocently pointed to without having to say anything, what about the Protestants, Roman Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists? What about heterosexuals, lesbians, gays, the disabled or anyone else? Should political candidates be regulated by the proportion they hold in society?

For me, in a free and open society, it should be only a question for Labour, just as the Spec’s tenancy is a question only for Edinburgh University, but if either makes the choice of exclusion over an intolerant view of equality and diversity then it confirms my worst fears about each organisation – that both have lost their way.