In defence of Freemasonry: Yes, they pull a few (apron) strings, but is that a crime?

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When Michael Higham, the Masonic bigwig, was being knocked about by MPs the other day he used a curious phrase. The Freemasons, he claimed, are a "freedom association". Masons? All that regalia, clandestine meetings, enigma wrapped in allegory, aprons, back-scratching and - without question - occasional dabbling in conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Yet he was right. Political freedom means that between state and individuals there have to exist layered institutions allowing us room to manoeuvre without interference from above. Our brand of free-market capitalism only works because economic activity is embedded in a dense network of social norms and relationships of trust, which form around voluntary organisations. Freemasonry is such an institution and such a form of trust. No Freemasons, less freedom.

You don't have to tip your wig to Edmund Burke to see his "little platoons" do embed us in society and help protect against tyranny. (Conspiracy theory watch: Burke was also a paid-up Mason.) One of Thatcherism's greatest errors was her misunderstanding of the nature of markets, as if individuals were the be-all and end-all when in fact - as the Russians are painfully discovering - without a dense civil society, market economies slip into crime and corruption.

Think, this weekend, of the ties that bind ... the bowls clubs, boy scouts, the National Trust, Greenpeace, the United Reformed Church, Chelsea Football Club, the Attlee Memorial Runners ... and, yes, the United Grand Lodge. None of them belongs to the state. Each is bigger than the individuals who form their members. Britain is thickly planted with them; they are part of the national formula for political peace and social stability.

To call Chris Mullin, the Chairman of the Commons' Home Affairs Committee, a despot, would be silly. The balding, bespectacled Labour MP burnished his credentials as a civil libertarian by his tireless campaigning against state injustice on behalf of the Birmingham Six.

Yet he flirts with a dangerous attack not just on individual liberty - for why on earth should not grown men be allowed to join together for the purposes of rolling up their trouser legs if they so wish - but on the social foundations of liberty. A state which cannot tolerate, let alone protect, the privacy of its citizens, is a dangerous one indeed. Mr Mullin, on the left of the Labour Party, knows full well that the trade union movement only exists because the state deliberately decided not to look inside its lodges and rituals.

So it wasn't just the distastefulness of the bullying to which he and his colleagues subjected the Mason's chief executive (the MPs' credibility as earnest seekers after truth and justice would be a lot greater if they ever harried ministers in the same way). It was the disproportion in their response to allegations about Masonic involvement in conspiracy. So far, in Britain, we have avoided importing the American culture of conspiracy. People here by and large believe that the problem with conspiracy is that, if it is to succeed, it requires conspirators to be amazingly clever. But when we look at the evidence, cock-up is always a better bet. From the arms-to-Iraq saga back to Buster Crabbe, the Cleveland child abuse or any other Great British Conspiracies: prefer the simple explanation every time.

Police officers - in the West Midlands, to name but one suspect force - were Masons. They conspired together. Injustice resulted. But is that really an indictment of Masonry rather than a condemnation of police management. The West Midlands Police Authority is more at fault than Masons.

Similarly in the courts. The problem is surely not that judges belong to a secret society but that the judiciary has, at least until recently, barely been managed and certainly not subjected to external scrutiny. You could add this to the charge sheet: if you appoint only men of a certain age, schooling and background to positions where their efficiency and effectiveness is never examined, is it really surprising they get away with ... murder?

Masonry has, evidently, not lived up to its own ideals. On its escutcheon the Grand Lodge says firmly that "any attempt to use membership to promote business, professional or personal interests" is contrary to its ethic; officially, a Mason's prime duty is to the law of the land. Brother constable and Master judge have let the side down in a big way ... but then what organisation (churches included) ever lives up to its own ethical billing?

Masonry has always been a queer kind of secret society. Walk down the main street in Laurencekirk and the most imposing building - it challenges the Church of Scotland for size - is the Lodge. In Scotland, Masonry really does, like golf, belong to the people, or at least those involved in the building trade and medium-sized commerce. Step forward Brother Rabbie Burns.

English Masonry, like most things English, is snootier. The Grand Lodge's web site (well, it was inevitable they would have one) lists among former grandees admirals, field marshals and bishops. But just because the Duke of Kent is Grand Master does not mean every fantasist's dream about Jack the Ripper being a royal deviant is true. Freemasons' lodges are only one among many forms of association. I confess that I belong to what used to be called a gentleman's club, with an imposing portico on Pall Mall - but it does not make me either a gentleman or a potential conspirator against justice and good procedure.

Is Masonry really so tainted that Jack Straw is justified in forcing police officers and judges to declare membership as a condition of entry to the job ... and if Masonry why not also membership of the MCC, the Roman Catholic Church, the Tory Party? How many private dining societies does the House of Commons support? To call this government's thinking about privacy incoherent is an understatement.

When Masons, rather wistfully, try to remind everyone that in the past they have been less wedded to the established order, they do have a point. After all Brother Wolfgang had a liberal, anti-authoritarian sensibility.

History will not save them but sociology ought to. The Grand Lodge should purchase for its library several copies of the books by (New Labour-friendly) Robert Putnam on civil society in Italy and the United States along with a shelf of recent Demos pamphlets, especially those written by Geoff Mulgan, now resident at Number 10. All that stuff about networks, connectivity and trust ... that is exactly what aprons, bare breasts, daggers and passwords are all about.