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National Liberal Club to trial relaxation of dress code

May 20, 2018 1:54 PM
By Janet Berridge in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

National Liberal ClubAfter 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.