Public face of the Masons defends right to 'privacy'

Freemasonry inquiry: Chief executive offers co-operation and rejects secretive image as press creation. Chris Blackhurst reports; 'There is no secrecy. The papers cannot distinguish between secrecy and privacy' - Michael Higham
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The Independent Online
For Michael Higham, Grand Secretary of the United Grand Lodge of England, yesterday had a familiar feel.

The Commons Home Affairs Select Committee voted the previous evening to investigate the influence of Freemasonry in the police and judiciary. The Independent revealed the committee's unprecedented decision - it will be the first ever inquiry by such a powerful body into the society - and within hours, Commander Higham, the Masons' full-time chief executive, was promising his co-operation.

By 9.30am he had penned a letter to Sir Ivan Lawrence MP, the committee chairman, offering his full support - just as he has done for other, less high-profile scrutinies in the past few years by the local government ombudsman into alleged Masonic corruption in Hackney and Lambeth councils.

"Anyone who wants to investigate Freemasonry we give as much help as we can," said Mr Higham, disarmingly. Sitting in his office in the imposing, austere Masonic headquarters in London's Great Queen Street, he tries to encourage a sense of openness - in so far as it goes.

Outside, a sign on the street invites passers-by to come in and learn the truth: the official history of Freemasonry in England. Inside, along the dark, wood-panelled corridors, Mr Higham does his best to correct any individual misapprehensions.

Forget the image, he says: in reality, being a Mason is an excuse to have a good dinner, a few drinks, be among friends, raise some money for charity and to be at peace. "We don't talk about religion or politics, which are two causes of dissension in society, and we don't have women, so there is a third." Men have the lodge, he says, women have the WI or Townswomen's Guild. Also known as the "Grand Scribe E" - the body also has people called Grand Sword Bearers, Inspectors, Standard Bearers and Scrutineers for the Porch of the Grand Lodge - he sits in front of a filing cabinet, bearing the words, "Grand Ranks". The curtains are permanently drawn and old oil-portraits stare down at the visitor. Mr Higham's cheerful, confident manner is overshadowed by the musty grandeur of his surroundings.

As befits a commander in the navy, he is confident and immaculately turned out. A piece of rope leading from his waist to a suit pocket is not a secret sign but an orderly way of keeping his keys safe.

Grand Secretary since 1980, he has seen it all before - notably with the publication of Stephen Knight's best-selling book, The Brotherhood, in 1984. He claims not to understand what all the fuss is about. "We encourage a very fierce rule that Freemasonry is not to be used to gain advantage."

The identity of the Craft's 360,000 members is "private" - he hates the word secret. But that is no different, he maintains, from other organisations. "You wouldn't get a list if you went to White's or the Methodist Church." He dislikes the Methodist Church, which crops up several times in our conversation. His membership is only "40,000 less than the Methodists", for instance. "They once thought we were a bad thing," he explains. And, presumably, they will never be allowed to forget it.

Why not abolish secrecy to silence the critics? "Because there is no secrecy. The press cannot distinguish between secrecy and privacy. The fact we don't trumpet all our affairs from the roof-tops is seen as secrecy." The only thing that is secret, apparently, are the recognition signals. He lets slip a tip: if anyone says to you "remember to be cautious", they may be more than they seem - it is a Masonic expression.

Why then, should the home affairs committee decide to investigate? "They've probably got the idea the police and judiciary are riddled with Masons." It is true, he says, the Manor of St James is a lodge devoted to former and serving officers in "C" Division of the Metropolitan Police - there again, he is in the Navy Lodge which only has retired and current naval officers.

He cannot see why lodges like the Manor of St James should worry anyone. "You don't use signs promiscuously, you don't strike an attitude and stand in a corner of charge room waiting for someone to recognise you're a Freemason.

"Yes, you may meet someone who is a Freemason but you may meet someone you play bridge with."

If members breach the rules, they are punished. Seven were expelled in December and six in September 1994, he volunteers. What did they do? he asks his assistant. "They went to prison," is the answer. People like Chris Mullin MP, who sits on the home affairs committee and has campaigned for greater disclosure of Masonic membership, he claims, are barking up the wrong tree.

Mr Mullin's interest has been whetted by his experience of investigating the case of the Birmingham Six, where many of the police and lawyers involved in the case were Masons.

"If they got it wrong, they got it wrong personally not because they were freemasons," says Mr Higham. "There is a great difference between cause and coincidence."

If the home affairs committee rules against police and judges being members or requires them to declare their membership, they "will lose a harmless spare-time activity".

As for helping the MPs in their inquiries, says Mr Higham, "I can't tell them how many are judges and policemen because I don't know." Besides, the reason a lot of police join is not to indulge in dark deeds, he claims, but to get away from other police, to meet ordinary chaps.

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