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John Locke vs Harriet Harman

John Lockeby Brendan O'Neill, Telegraph

I’m worried that people haven’t clocked the gravity of what is being proposed by Harriet Harman in relation to all-male golf clubs. She wants them banned. Some people agree with her, some people disagree. But few seem to recognise that what underlies Ms Harman’s proposal is a belief that the state should have the right to overhaul and reword the constitutions of private associations. Stop and think about what that would mean. It would represent the end of freedom of association in Britain, the end of people’s age-old right to mix in private with whomever they choose.
Consider what Ms Harman said. In response to the controversy over Muirfield – the men-only golf club that is hosting The Open – she said equality laws should be amended to allow the state to “stop discrimination by private groups”. The 2010 Equality Act has a “loophole” which allows private organisations to set their own membership rules. And Ms Harman wants to close that loophole. She describes this as the “unfinished business” of equality legislation in Britain: preventing “private associations [from continuing] to determine their own membership rules”.
This is alarming stuff. If private associations are not allowed to determine who may join them and who may not – that is, to be discriminating in their membership policy – then there would be no real rights of association, religion or political organisation. Discrimination is absolutely key to the freedom of association. All private groups do it; it is the means through which they sustain themselves and their ideas, by keeping at bay those who do not accept those ideas and who do not meet the group’s membership criteria. Political parties discriminate against people who don’t share their political ideals; gay men’s social groups discriminate against straight men; churches discriminate against non-believers; traditionalist religious groups discriminate against women in particular roles. In a civilised society, private associations must by definition have the right to discriminate, and the rest of us of course have the right to choose whether or not to enter into that association and to abide by its rules and ideologies.
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