The secret society is still pretty secret, and recent claims have reawakened long-held suspicions over its influence in public life
After closely guarding their secrets for centuries, Britain’s Freemasons have spent the last decade trying to open up their organisation, and some of its rituals, to outside scrutiny.
Public relations consultants have been hired, some doors at Freemasons’ Hall in central London have been unbolted for the public, and documentary makers have been allowed into lodge meetings. There are even Freemasons’ Twitter feeds – and a hashtag, #ASK12B1.
The often-repeated message has been that Freemasonry in the 21st century should not be seen as a mysterious and clandestine affair. The unspoken message has been that the wider public has nothing to fear.
Then on New Year’s Eve, the outgoing chair of the Police Federation, Steve White, tossed a hand grenade into this carefully crafted reputation management operation, with an allegation that Freemasons were blocking reforms in policing and thwarting the progress of women and officers from black and minority ethnic communities.
“The people who blocked progress at the Police Federation were all masons,” he said. “And they were all a pain in the arse.”
On reading the interview with White, many people who had not given Freemasonry a moment’s thought for many years immediately recalled the enormous suspicion surrounding the organisation during the 80s and 90s.
Officers of the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE), the governing body for Freemasons in England and Wales, were incensed. “The idea that reform within the Police Federation or anywhere else is being thwarted by an organised body of Freemasons is laughable,” UGLE’s chief executive, David Staples, said in a letter to the press. Police officers and masons enjoyed “shared organisational values of integrity and service to the community”.
Freemasonry’s problem, however, is that there is a limit to its transparency. It remains a secret society, or “a society with secrets” as it prefers to put it. There will always be some on the outside, unable to peer in, who will assume the worst – that the fraternal ties of the brotherhood could encourage improper conduct in public life.
What do we know about Freemasonry?
There are about six million Freemasons around the world, about 200,000 of them in England and Wales. That means there’s been a drop in membership of about 150,000 in England and Wales in the last 20 years.
There are about 30,000 active masons in Scotland and about 25,000 in Ireland, 70% of them in Northern Ireland.
The basic unit of organisation is the lodge, of which there are about 6,300 in England and Wales. Some have exotic names. There’s the Chapter of Sincerity in Norwich, for example, and the Swan of Avon in Warwickshire.
Lodges are organised in towns and cities, at universities or around schools, recruited from trades or professions, or are based upon military units. They have also been organised around other interests, such as football or rugby fans. The Mike Hailwood lodge recruits motor racing fans. The Lux In Tenebris lodge – light in darkness – was established toward the end of the first world war for blind masons.
There are a number of lodges for women, governed by their own grand lodges, but those governed by UGLE are entirely male affairs. Despite efforts to recruit younger men, particularly undergraduates, masons are also predominantly middle-aged or elderly. Only 2% in England and Wales are under 30, but more than 10% are over 80.
Candidates were traditionally recruited by word of mouth, but in the digital age men can apply online. Some of the rumours about the ancient initiation ceremony are true. The candidate must roll up one trouser leg to show that he is healthy and unshackled, a free man. He must expose his left breast to show that he is not a woman. A rope noose known as a cable tow is placed around his neck. This represents either an umbilical cord or ties to fellow masons. It is open to interpretation.
He is then led blindfolded into the lodge meeting room, where he is introduced to the secret signs of recognition – a word, a handshake, a symbol – and expected to deliver oaths of loyalty and secrecy. The blindfold is removed and he is shown the light.
At this point, he is an entered apprentice. Further initiation ceremonies are required before he can be accepted as a fellow craft mason and then a master mason. With each stage, known as a degree, comes a different ceremonial apron. There are other regalia – collars and white gloves and badges – and a plethora of ranks, with titles such as assistant grand pursuivant and grand sword bearer.
The rituals are intended to deliver messages about rebirth as a mason, passage through life and preparation for death. Masonry sometimes describes itself as “a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated with symbols”. Far from it being about mutual, covert support, they insist, its three principles are brotherly love, “relief” – or charity – and “truth”, which is usually interpreted as integrity and honesty.
Freemasonry is a secular affair open to men of any race or faith, although candidates for entry must declare a belief in a superior god-like being. In practice, the overwhelming majority of masons in Britain are not only older men, but also white.
One lapsed mason told the Guardian: “You’d find yourself sitting in one meeting after another surrounded by lots of old men. Masons profess a belief in equality, but there are no women and very few black faces.”
Suspicion and investigation
Such cynicism may be rare among the initiated, but it is more common among non-members. Freemasons’ charitable efforts are evident – they raised £33m in England and Wales in 2015, a sum that was split evenly between masonic and non-masonic causes – but sceptics fear the privileges of brotherly love can lead some masons away from their commitment to truth.
During the third degree ceremony, masonry is described as “a column of mutual defence and support”. Could this not lead to corruption, they ask.
Suspicion grew during the 1970s after journalists began unearthing evidence that a handful of police officers and criminals were members of the same lodges. The following decade, suspicion turned to paranoia after police in Italy began to investigate the notorious Propaganda Due lodge and its suspected links with a banking collapse and the murder of the banker and lodge member Roberto Calvi, who was found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge in London in 1982.
That year, the Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Kenneth Newman advised his officers to stay clear of Freemasonry. “The discerning officer will probably consider it wise to forego the prospect of pleasure and social advantage in Freemasonry, so as to enjoy the unreserved regard of those around him,” he wrote. A number of officers responded by setting up a new lodge, the Manor of St James.
Newman’s successor, Peter Imbert, went further, quietly putting out the word that his officers should leave, and that those who refused would not achieve high rank. At this point, according to a number of masons, many Scotland Yard officers quit the brotherhood.
By then, however, the Commons home affairs select committee had decided it should investigate the influence of Freemasonry in public life. The UGLE agreed to cooperate, but only after it had been warned it could be found in contempt of parliament if it did not.
One of the main witnesses was Martin Short, a campaigning journalist who investigated Freemasonry and corrupt links between police and criminals, and whose book on the brotherhood was an 80s bestseller.
In 1998 the committee concluded that while it had no evidence that Freemasonry had played a role in police misconduct, it could not rule out the possibility. It also said that while there was “a great deal of unjustified paranoia about Freemasonry”, the brotherhood, with its obsessive secrecy, was partly to blame. The solution, the committee said, was for public servants to be required to declare membership.
For a while, newly appointed judges and magistrates were obliged to declare whether they were masons. Expansion of the registry was resisted by the UGLE, however, and in 2009 the justice ministry quietly dropped the measure after the European court of human rights ruled that a similar registration scheme in Italy was discriminatory and breached masons’ rights to freedom of association.
The experience of coming under investigation had been uncomfortable for masons – “bruising” according to one UGLE officer. Along with other grand lodges around the world, the UGLE decided it was time to partly draw back the veil.
Those outside the brotherhood cannot be sure what remains hidden, however, even in 2018. There are the known unknowns – the secret signs of recognition – but are there any unknown unknowns?
Short remains suspicious. “It’s not the handshakes and rituals of Freemasonry that are secret” he says. “As always, its biggest secret is its membership. Who are these 200,000 men? We have the names of their ceremonial leaders, as listed in the Masonic year book, but almost all the brothers are unknown. We have no idea how they relate to each other in society at large, or what deals they may be doing behind our backs to the detriment of everyone else.”
Freemasonry could not abandon its last vestiges of its secrecy, even if individual masons wished to, because it is key to the future of the brotherhood. Men continue to join in order to discover what is being hidden from them.
As one mason put it: “The idea that there is an inner circle has a real allure, particularly for men working in a hierarchical situation: the police, the army, in business. Nobody wants to feel that they’re being left out.”
As long as secrecy remains, Freemasonry’s age-old problem – the suspicions of outsiders – will also persist.
Staples says that in shying away from explaining who they are and what they do, Freemasons have not helped themselves in the past. “That is now changing and we have a greater resolve to put forward a case – and it is a positive argument – to highlight that we are driven by integrity, by a desire to help those less fortunate than us, and to stem the flow of negative perceptions which has unfairly dominated public perception.”