Just a few of Britain’s 350,000 freemasons at a meeting in London

New threat to liberty

The state took the first step along the road of forcing ‘non-approved’ organisations to disclose the names of all their members last week with the announcement of plans for a compulsory register of freemasons.

Home secretary Jack Straw called on the United Grand Lodge - the masons’ national executive - to voluntarily publish a list of all its members, and threatened legislation if cooperation was not forthcoming. He also intends to oblige new recruits to the police, the magistracy and the prison and prosecution services to declare whether they are masons.

This followed an investigation into secret societies carried out by the parliamentary home affairs select committee under the chairmanship of Labour’s Chris Mullin, renowned for his dogged campaigning for victims of state frame-ups such as the Birmingham Six. During his work on their behalf Mullin discovered that several officers of the West Midlands serious crime squad - those most directly involved in persecuting the Six - were masons.

The freemasons are indeed a secret society, whose members vow to erect a “column of mutual defence” in front of a fellow member, committing themselves to “succour his weakness and relieve his necessities”. They are said to be able to identify one another through use of a secret handshake, which commander Michael Higham, the lodge’s grand secretary, declined to demonstrate to the right honourable members, when summoned before the select committee.

In fact the ‘brotherhood’ originated not as an exclusive club for select members of the establishment, but as a craft guild in the Middle Ages. It was only in the early 18th century that it started to become transformed into a society for ‘top people’. According to the United Grand Lodge, today there are around 350,000 members attached to just under 8,000 lodges. Renowned for its bizarre rituals, the organisation prohibits discussion of politics and religion during its meetings, although all members are required to believe in a ‘supreme being’.

The masons’ pledge to protect each other does indeed lead to their mutual advancement and the covering up of corrupt practices. But if Mullin thinks that outing freemasons will put an end to corruption and prevent new frame-ups, his energies are misdirected. Capitalist society, based on the achievement of gain at the expense of competitors, is congenitally corrupt - a feature which is inevitably reflected in its state. The masons form but one small strand in the whole corrupt web.

Many Labour politicians fell over themselves to back Straw’s move, which was also supported by Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesperson. Lord Irvine, the lord chancellor, appeared to stand alone amongst members of the government in condemning it. He said it was “an infringement of privacy and individual rights”.

Reacting to the government’s likely first move to set up a voluntary register of criminal justice workers who are masons, The Independent commented impassively: “Anyone who refuses to disclose whether they are a member or not is likely to be considered a freemason” (February 18). The very stuff of witch hunts.

Communists are not unduly concerned about the rights of judges, magistrates and the police. But a measure originally directed at one particular section can soon be extended to other organisations - especially those of the working class. If tomorrow our political parties, trade unions and strike committees were considered equally as undesirable and exclusivist, the state would not hesitate to use the precedent it first employed against freemasons in a more threatening direction.

Working class organisations - which potentially or in actuality stand in opposition to the state - need to protect their members and supporters. A requirement to disclose names and other details would not merely infringe our rights, but inhibit our ability to strike at our class enemy.

In a workers’ democracy the corruption of exclusive self-seeking groups would soon be exposed by the practice of openness and accountability - ensured by the ability of our class to recall and immediately replace all elected representatives. We need to fight for such advanced democratic practices in the here and now.

Peter Manson