It seems almost retro to be talking about Freemasons again, but after two alarming reports there is light on their darkness again. First, over the new year there was an allegation from retiring Police Federation chair Steve White that freemasonry was blocking reform within the force, preventing women and black officers progressing professionally. And this weekend saw a report that two lodges set up to recruit at the Palace of Westminster are continuing to operate: one established for members of parliament and staff in the Commons and Lords, and the second for political journalists.
Two Freemasons' lodges operating secretly at Westminster
Many regard freemasonry as an 18th-century boys’ club, all funny aprons and comedic handshakes. That’s good for the masons themselves, but it’s our mistake. The most senior figures are listed, but surely that’s a sop because, all the while, the vast majority of lay members, “the brotherhood”, remain anonymous. What’s the problem, they will ask you, but don’t be fooled. No one joins the masons for the handshakes. It must be for the benefits it can bring.
And from the outside, we can’t be entirely sure what those benefits are. In the past, criminals have been found to be in the same lodges as investigating police officers. Brian Paddick, the former Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate and one-time commander at Scotland Yard, tells in his autobiography how one officer – a mason – changed both behaviour and body language on becoming aware of Paddick’s membership, an attitude he saw replicated by other masons whenever he revealed his links. The guilt, he says, led him to stop attending lodge meetings.
It’s all above board, little more than a social club, defenders tell you, a place to know more about yourself, and become a better individual. Or, as they call it, “a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated with symbols”. But if that is all harmlessly true, why the defensiveness? On learning of my intention to write an article, a senior council official phoned to berate me for making a fuss over nothing, claiming freemasonry was just a way for “men to let off steam”. When I asked why membership remained secret, he cited tradition. When I asked how many of his senior council colleagues were also masons, he paused and hung up. Need to know, I suppose.
One can try to understand, perhaps, the thrill of being part of an invisible network and recipient of wordless acknowledgment, but it’s also important to understand that this is how power is perpetuated. Equality legislation, and audits on gender pay gaps, ethnicity and disability, – within companies and public authorities – all aim to stamp out the informal transfer of power through social networks, in favour of appointment through genuine merit. But how can that happen if favours are dispensed behind closed doors, or even when there is the lingering belief that unseen processes give people we cannot identify an advantage. It certainly can’t happen when only specific groups can benefit. The council official who called knew very well I wasn’t a mason. Being both female and Catholic, my entry would be unlikely. While a small handful of lodges outside the main organisation now admit women, my Catholicism would also be seen by most as pretty much incompatible with Freemasonry.
It is, of course, questionable in a free society whether it is right to dictate to individuals with whom they can associate. Some association with criminal intent is proscribed by law and punishable by the courts, but in all other cases people are free to choose. That said, it is well within the rights of society to shape the nature of the decisions people freely make. If Freemasons won’t be completely open about their membership, should we not say that in all cases membership is incompatible with public service? Asking public servants to either confirm they are not a member of a masonic organisation or to be open when they are won’t fully excise the backroom deals or the stench of privilege. The police have attempted for many years to impose such a stricture, with apparently limited effect. Still, it would signal intent.
Freemasons in Westminster ‘should declare membership’
The Brotherhood hardly seems in fine fettle. It is said that membership has fallen by 150,000 in the last 20 years. But we can’t know that for sure. Indeed, when the masons talk about transparency and good spiritedness, we are taking a great deal on trust about the elements in public view, without any ability to see what lies beneath the surface.
And we have ample reason to be suspicious. Chumminess, social connection, camaraderie: all of these are in good supply at sports and dining clubs with doors on the high street and windows that peer out on to the 21st century. Masons, tell me this: if you truly huddle in secret to no malign end and with no professed benefit unavailable elsewhere, what is the point?
• Dawn Foster is a Guardian columnist
• This article was amended on 21 February 2018 consistent with conclusions of a readers’ editor investigation of a related Guardian article.
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