Just how much do the Masons really matter?

Let the membership lists be published, so the public can judge for itself, argues Martin Short
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The Independent Online
When Michael Higham, Grand Secretary of England's Freemasons, trots out his hoary old argument that Freemasonry is a private, not a secret, society, he is merely acknowledging that its secrecy has been broken open by outsiders and renegades. It was never willingly surrendered, and is to be investigated by a House of Commons Select Committee.

All the rituals and oaths of Freemasonry are couched in terms of secrecy, and the penalties for revealing them are bloodcurdling in the extreme. If these rituals are not secret, then how can they be revealed? And why punish those who reveal them? Do the rules of a golf club or the Garrick need theircandidates for membership to swear to protect them "under no less a penalty of having my throat cut across, my tongue torn out and buried of the sand of the sea ... or the more effective punishment of being a branded as a wilfully perjured individual"?

And do the candidates of any other mere "private" society swear this oath blindfolded, bare-breasted, with nooses around their necks, and, yes, with the left trouser-leg rolled up? And all this done by the likes of Lord Parkinson, Lord Whitelaw, your local police chief and half the male members of the local magistrates' bench?

It is easy to ridicule the rituals and to exaggerate their significance. Retreating under a hail of public outcry in the Eighties, Britain's grand lodges have steadily watered them down, eliminating the more ludicrous elements. Most Masons never took these seriously anyway. Even so, the PR campaigns, videos and open-door policy so conspicuously pursued by Freemasonry since Stephen Knight and I wrote our books on them, have never included any performance of "private" rituals or any display of nooses, blindfolds and swords.

If we accept a frequent Masonic argument that the rituals are only little plays, not to be taken literally, it's difficult to believe that Masons take literally those other parts of the ritual telling them not to scratch each other's backs or break the laws of the land.

The breach of that injunction has worked to great mutual benefit in many walks of life, and to the great damage of non-Masons who have dared to call Freemasonry a mass conspiracy. In the police the number of Masons who used to rise to high office rightly upset non-Masons such as the former chief inspector Brian Woollard, who felt his inquiries into local government corruption in the early Eighties were being blocked by Masons encircling the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, as well as Scotland Yard.

If policemen join Freemasonry "to get away from other police, to meet ordinary chaps", as Commander Higham was reported as saying in yesterday's Independent, it is curious that the all-police Manor of St James Lodge was formed in 1986, not long after the Metropolitan Commissioner had strongly advised his officers to avoid joining the fraternity.

Grand Lodge now regularly expels Masons sent to jail for serious criminal offences but, again, this has only been forced on the movement by the media exposures of the Eighties. Grand Lodge has done nothing to deal with the large number of local government lodges in which elected councillors, full-time officials and suppliers of goods and services to the council all drink at the same bar and eat at the same table, bound together in a column of mutual defence and support.

The Commons Home Affairs Select Committee will have a tough job. Evidence of Masonic membership is very hard to acquire, the fraternity's regional yearbooks are highly restricted in circulation, and no such yearbook covers London's 1,600 lodges. If the select committee is to get to grips with the role of Freemasonry in the judiciary it will have to secure lists of all these lodges, and of the many others to which judges, solicitors and magistrates belong all over the country.

So much public apprehension about Freemasonry is caused by the fact that no one knows for sure who is, and who is not, "on the square". One solution is for all lodge membership lists to be available for scrutiny in public libraries. If that happened, I suspect outsiders might find it difficult to confirm their worst suspicions.

The writer is author of 'Inside the Brotherhood', HarperCollins.