Over the weekend, the Guardian revealed that two Freemasons' lodges are operating secretly at Westminster, with politicians and political journalists among their members.
A lodge, for those of you not up on your Freemason terminology, is essentially a local branch of the larger organisation – a group of Masons who meet up to chat business, current affairs and whatever else it is they chat about. In this recent case, the New Welcome Lodge is for MPs, peers and parliamentary staff, while the Gallery Lodge is for members of the political press corps, or "Lobby". The Guardian report stated that no journalists, MPs or Lords had declared their membership to either Westminster lodge publicly, and that they were so secret that many Lobby journalists who weren't members were unaware of their existence.
However, it's not just in Parliament that the influence of the Masons is allegedly still being felt. Former Police Federation chairman Steve White recently claimed that the group's influence acted as an obstacle to both reform and the progression of women and people from ethnic minorities within the police force. "What people do in their private lives is a matter for them. When it becomes an issue is when it affects their work," he said in December, before stepping down as chair. "There have been occasions when colleagues of mine have suspected that Freemasons have been an obstacle to reform."
The Masons are a fraternal organisation believed to have started when groups of stonemasons began meeting at the end of the 14th century to regulate the stonemasonry trade. By the 1800s, the group had evolved into a shadowy global society with its own passwords and rituals, boasting members like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and prominent figures from the worlds of politics, business, policing and the arts. Over the years, because of all that secrecy, the organisation has been outlawed in various countries and accused of involvement in real-life corruption cases and endless online conspiracy theories.
The connection between the Masons and the police first generated a public outcry in the UK during the 1960s, when the presence of detectives and high-ranking underworld figures within the same Masonic lodges came to light. An investigation by The Times into corruption in the Met revealed that detectives were part of Masonic lodges whose members included major London criminals. Ever since then, the prominence of Masons in the force has been the subject of constant criticism, both from the media and senior policemen.
In that time, Masons have been linked to serious crimes on a number of occasions. The most notorious in recent memory involved an officer who was discovered to have helped London criminal and fellow Mason Kenneth Noye avoid arrest. Noye is also alleged to have offered a policeman a million-pound bribe after the officer initiated a Masonic handshake. The officer wasn’t actually a Mason, but had done the handshake in the hope that Noye would think he was and do something like offer him a million-pound bribe. He immediately reported the incident.
Following the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, a retired PC who was present at the stadium that day claimed there were rumours of a Masonic conspiracy to shift the blame away from members of Sheffield's Dore Masonic Lodge. Officers involved in Freemasonry were banned from investigating the cover-up following this revelation.
These tidbits aside, the issue of Masons hampering diversity in the police force is not clear cut. It is notable, though, that concerns have been expressed about the Masons’ impact upon the makeup of the force for several decades, long before White’s comments, with a report on equal opportunities in the police from 1995 stating that the Inspectorate of Constabulary had been told by some police staff that "Freemasonry had an undue influence on selection within their force".
A large number of current and former police officers are Masons, and there are lodges set up to cater specifically to them. One is Sine Favore, a male-only lodge founded in 2010 by Police Federation members; another is the Manor of St James, also male-only, which was set up for Scotland Yard officers. For all we know, what lodge members discuss during their get-togethers could be as innocent as the weekend's sports results – but it's because of Freemasons' persistent refusal to reveal anything about their meet-ups that suspicion is aroused and theories cultivated.
The Masons, of course, vigorously deny that their prevalence in the police has a negative impact on minority enrolment or career progression. When I contacted them for comment, a spokesman told me that "the idea that reform and the progression of anyone within the Police Federation or anywhere else is being actively thwarted by an organised body of Freemasons is laughable and suggests an unbelievable element of will and influence from an organisation which is non-political, non-religious, values integrity and upholds the law".
The problem, of course, is that when a society is shrouded in secrecy, it's difficult to check whether its claims of apoliticism are true. Instead, I contacted the National Black Police Association President Tola Munro to ask if she thought the presence of the Masons affected the recruitment of minority officers.
Munro told me that although she thinks Steve White is an honest person, he needs to provide more detail to substantiate his claims. She did, however, acknowledge that the prominence of the Masons within the police could prevent people from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds from joining. "A secretive group that has repeatedly been mired in controversy over its links with policing could be a hindrance to ethnic minority recruitment," she told me. "That’s because it seems to run contrary to the model of an open and fair police service."
I wanted to know if there's any history of overt racism or sexism in the organisation, or if the view of Masons as racist is based purely on conjecture, so I contacted Masonic-history expert David Harrison to get his perspective. He told me Masons in the UK have never openly discriminated against people on grounds of race. "The core essence of English Freemasonry has always been about equality, and that’s regardless of race," he said. "It’s all about being equal with everybody, no matter what race, creed or religion they are."
Unfortunately, the same isn’t true of Masonic lodges in other countries. All-black lodges sprung up in the US in the 1770s due to mainstream lodges' refusal to accept black people, and there are still some branches of the Masons that refuse to accept the legitimacy of these lodges today. There have been accusations that members of predominantly white lodges in America have complained about the presence of black members as recently as 2009.
There is also a history of male dominance within the Masons. During its early years, women were only allowed to play a minor role. Nowadays, there are "co-Masonic" lodges which allow both men and women to join. There are also lodges that only allow female members, but in spite of these developments the vast majority of Masons are still male. CEO of the governing body for the majority of the UK's Masonic lodges, Dr David Staples, told me that their members prefer separate male and female lodges, and that the Freemasons are no different to other single-sex organisations in this respect.
Regardless of whether Steve White's claims are true or – as as the Masons' spokesman said – "laughable", you can see how the presence of a historically secretive, gender-segregated group might, as Tola Munro pointed out, dissuade women and BME people from joining the police in the first police. And until the organisation opens up, for many, that suspicion isn't going anywhere.