Not that The Independent has anything particularly against masons. People do much stranger things than shake hands in funny ways and roll up their trouser legs in private. And they do much worse things than raise money for charity. One teenager asked his father what freemasons actually do. "It's a secret," came the reply. "But if you promise not to tell anyone, I'll tell you: we give a lot of money to the blind."
Masonry is not always so benign, of course, and so Mr Straw is right in principle to take a hard line in favour of disclosure. There are enough documented cases of masonic links in corruption, especially in local government, to justify action. They can operate in a malign way, discussing police and government business in private caucus. And yet, that said, freemasonry is being elevated to an importance it does not deserve, the predictable focus of left-liberal conspiracy theorising. The trouble is, in part, that the power of other less-explicitly-secret networks is being overlooked.
There are secretive societies housed in unmarked buildings in London that are more influential than any bunch of leg-barers. They go by strange codenames, Garrick's, White's and Traveller's, and are known as "gentlemen's clubs". Are we to legislate for disclosure of membership of them? Business, legitimate and otherwise, is carried out privately in golf clubs, tennis clubs and gyms. Judges, lawyers and police officers may be members. Should they have to disclose that?
We are all, save for the most dysfunctional, members of networks of mutual support of varying degrees of secrecy or openness. Such networks may not be as widespread as masonry, but they are all mechanisms, witting or unwitting, for social exclusion, for dividing humanity into ins and outs. Any club induces in non-members the paranoia of the playground, of social exclusion and the fear: "Are they talking about me?"
Careers can be advanced and blocked by membership of all kinds of society. There is the society of office smokers, who conspire in the fug-room. There is the fraternity of after-hours drinkers. There are networks based on family, culture, language, sex, sexuality and football. There are societies which should perhaps be more secret than they are, such as that of Manchester United supporters. But all are bound by ties of loyalty, common interest or shared hostility.
We must be vigilant about secret and semi-secret societies. Conspiracy is a human trait which needs to be constantly attacked. But it is foolish to pretend that we are, or could be, an atomised gas-cloud of individuals, making clinical and disinterested judgements. There is a clear line to draw in the cases of masonic lodges and Opus Dei, the secretive Roman Catholic society. These are organisations which have secrecy written into their articles of association. That would be fine for a darts club, and no one should be too excited about freemasons or Jesuits in most of life's broad avenues. But in government, local and national, these things are different. And when it comes to judges, magistrates, Crown prosecutors and senior police officers - entrusted with the impartial administration of justice - harder tests apply. It would be interesting to know what arguments Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, is deploying in resisting a compulsory register for new appointments and a voluntary one for existing office-holders in the legal system. It is doubtful whether he is putting the high-minded case for freedom of association in civil society. It is more likely that the judges have got on their high horse, resenting any suggestion that their integrity could be impugned. If so, they should watch the Prime Minister's interview on television last Sunday, which was a classic example of a politician answering a different question to the one asked. The question was whether anyone might think it was possible for Mr Blair to have his judgement influenced by a large donation. He pleaded, passionately and sincerely, that he was incapable of being so influenced. But it was his assertion against the "appearance of a conflict of interest" - the intangible charge against him that could only have been dispelled by early and complete disclosure.
The more intelligent of judges might oppose Mr Straw's plans because they recognise the danger that, after secret societies, it will be their membership of gentlemen's clubs and their tax returns that will have to be disclosed. But generally, the resistance isn't philosophy. It's the special pleading of a vested interest, and Mr Straw is right to lean his shoulder against it.Reuse content