Who holds the apron strings? That's a secret

APPARENTLY English Freemasons have a sub-aqua club now. I suppose they wear rubber aprons, but the snorkels must make the vows rather difficult to hear. This thought-provoking fact emerged this week in the solemn surroundings of Freemasons Hall in Covent Garden, where the brethren were launching an updated guide to their history.

The History of English Freemasonry, which comes in a package of slim paperback book and five CDs or cassettes, only pounds 39.95 (hurry, hurry) is partly intended to lift some of the mystique, not to say suspicion, that clouds the Craft.

'Freemasonry provides something for people they might not find in other parts of life,' said Commander Michael Higham, RN, Grand Secretary. (In fact, of course, people are not welcome into the United Grand Lodge of England, only men.) 'It demands a belief in God . . . it has a very satisfying social life,' Cdr Higham went on. Some people needed to be in an organisation. There was the charitable work. 'It's got a very challenging and satisfying amateur dramatics side,' he said with commendable frankness. 'It provides a haven for people who lead a tumultuous life. It's got its moral teaching. The package altogether is not an easy ride.'

The dress of the masons at the launch was notably sombre: dark suits, well-polished shoes. It must be a bit of a thrill for establishment dressers - policemen and all that - to be able to drape their normally sober lower parts with, for example, white lambskin edged with 2ins of crimson and dark blue, gold-edged silk, and gold- fringed ribbon, without anyone making improper suggestions.

Why shouldn't men get together, excluding all women, dress up in funny coloured emblems and watch rituals? They've been doing it at the MCC for years and no one thinks there's a conspiracy there. Not a successful one, anyway. Tolerance is a quality on which we used to pride ourselves.

There is the jobs-for-the-boys problem, of course. The masons' answer to this is that apprentice 5masons have to promise that is not why they're signing up. That doesn't stop them, naturally. I had a relative who joined because he hoped it would help him win business contracts. He was bitterly disappointed. Still, it probably works for some, particularly in the lodges containing a single profession. At the very least, dressing up and carrying out private theatricals together must lead to male bonding of a special sort.

John Hamill, the author of this reissued history and librarian of the United Grand Lodge, will have none of this. 'It is a rather sad comment on society today that it is prepared to believe that an employer will employ or promote someone simply because they are a Freemason, regardless of their experience, ability or qualifications,' he writes.

Except that's not quite what society believes. What we think is that the Freemason is more likely to be picked, among a bunch of applicants perhaps broadly similar in ability and qualifications, if he's a Lodge pal of the Freemason doing the choosing. We in cynical old today's society think this because it happens in every other old boys' network. Except that when someone from the cricket club gives a mate a job, the favouritism is fairly transparent.

When a Freemason does a favour for a pal no one can be certain why. Is Jones in the planning department sharing a pinny with the builder who got that unexpected consent? Naturally, the rules of Freemasonry forbid the use of the Craft for personal gain. But human nature is what it is. Because the names and positions of Freemasons cannot be satisfactorily checked, unless a man admits to membership no one can be sure. In this climate, nutters and the paranoid flourish, and no set of compact discs, available by post or otherwise, will ever set them right.

The Grand Lodge is not going to help us here. It respects, explains Mr Hamill, the privacy of its members. Anyway, there is the Data Protection Act. And anyway, there are almost 360,000 members and it would be terribly costly. And so on.

John Major piously believes that masons in public life - the system of justice, councillors, MPs, the police - should declare their membership. He hasn't seen fit to make them, though. Mr Hamill is not very happy about forcing such people to declare their Freemasonry alone. It might be a civil liberty issue, he said - after all, what about the Townswomen's Guild?

What we need, Mr Blair, is a commitment in your manifesto that you will legislate to make those in the system of justice, in public office and its service - let's throw in the royals - roll up their trouser legs and declare all clubs and memberships. Even sub-aqua clubs.