Are they on the level?

The Police Federation has had a go at Freemasonry again, accusing the brotherhood of blocking policing reform, keeping out women and black people through a kind of network of prejudice. That network may well exist, but it’s got nothing to do with Freemasons.

The alleged anti-progress activities of Masons in the police has been an issue for years, and in the 80s one Met commissioner even tried to ban membership from the service. The suspicion has never gone away, but the evidence is thin. “There have been occasions when colleagues of mine have suspected that Freemasons have been an obstacle to reform” was all the Fed’s outgoing chairman could come up with this week. And it is a slow news week.

There may be reactionaries in the police force – it would be a surprise if there weren’t – and some of them might be Masons, but being reactionary because they're Masons is something else.
My dad was nominally a Mason, having been inducted by his father, and never went. We kids thought the notion of grown men prancing about in pinnies with their trousers rolled up irresistibly comical, and so did he (though there was something attractive to him in the egalitarianism of the thing). When he died we had to return his regalia – or “jewels” as they like to call it - in its neat little leather wallet, practically unused.

The origins of the Freemasons goes deep into the Middle Ages when clubs for craftsmen outside of the guilds and the church became popular, but the organisation dates its start from 1717 when four of these clubs, lodges, met at the Goose and Gridiron near St Paul's Cathedral and combined to be the first Grand Lodge. Christopher Wren expected to be its first Grand Master but the brethren thought he was too idle and too old (he was in his 80s) and he was passed over. Its principles are brotherly love, community charity and moral truth, but its main raison d’etre in the early 1700s at least seems to have been to have a decent lunch several times a year.

And the story is told in their own museum at the extraordinary art deco temple in Covent Garden. Freemasonry became extremely popular in the Age of Enlightenment, Mozart even wrote an opera around it. The whole thing was based on equality – several members of the royal family have been members, but the present Grand Master is merely Edward Windsor, not the Duke of Kent.

The Freemasons prefer to be called private rather than secret, and insist that the museum reveals all there is to know, including the arcane ceremonies (the trouser leg is a metaphor for new members stripping themselves naked of false adornment, revealing the purity of the soul). The funny handshake is something that only happens in these ceremonies, not outside the lodge (within which politics and religion are forbidden subjects). There are no blood sacrifices, Roman Catholic Freemasons cannot be excommunicated, there is absolutely no connection with ancient Egypt or the Knights Templar, and the secrets are about nothing more than modes of recognition. Since 1908 there have been women’s lodges whose first “Most Puissant Grand Commander” was Annie Besant.

They like regalia and ceremonies, a hangover from Freemasonry’s medieval roots, and dressing up became extremely popular in the first half of the 20th century so that the Masons rated somewhere between the boy scouts and Moseley’s Fascists, and probably a lot less dangerous than the Bullingdon Club. There might be 200,000 Masons in the UK but there are almost twice as many scouts, and you don’t hear them being accused of sedition even though they’re several degrees more paramilitary. The Freemasons are just part of our history, albeit a living one and for some slightly ridiculous. They are not the Mafia.

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