Does a freemason have the right to keep his membership of the craft secret? The Welsh Assembly thinks not and insists that its members declare whether they are also freemasons. Freemasons believe they are being discriminated against by the assembly and are even considering prosecuting it under the Human Rights Act.
They certainly should do so. It is a touch hypocritical for Welsh politicians, of all people, to denounce masons as a conspiratorial group of people who are out to help their own, but this question does go to the heart of a Briton's right to privacy and to keep secrets. As a former mason myself, I am convinced of their right to be left alone.
Soon after I left university, I was approached to join a rather grand lodge, whose romantic name I will not reveal in case - as the regulations stipulate - my guts are cut out of my still-living body and buried in the sand of a beach at low-tide. I had rather assumed that freemasonry was a dangerous conspiracy against the public, and had heard the usual rumours about how it subverted the democratic and legal processes. I was therefore tremendously keen to join, and duly underwent all the ceremonies necessary to become a full and active mason.
These were certainly very impressive indeed, both visually and in terms of the complex ritual, but for the sake of my gizzard I will not describe them either. Most impressively for me, as I strapped on my social crampons to start mountaineering my way up the foothills of London society, was the fact that my lodge contained precisely the sort of people without whom any decent conspiracy against the public would be doomed to failure. We had a serving cabinet minister, a brace of peers, two (rather terrifying) judges, a banker, a permanent under-secretary from an important department of the Civil Service, and the secretary-general of a very important institution. Furthermore, we regularly entertained senior policemen as guests from brother lodges. The lack of generals led me to assume that ours would be a civil rather than military coup.
Here, I thought, was the perfect opportunity to be at the very heart of a kind of British version of the infamous P2 lodge which so destabilised Italian democracy in the Seventies and Eighties, as it secretly amassed power for its shadowy members. All set for dark conspiracies, I learnt the (very difficult) mumbo-jumbo as I moved up the hierarchy from one position to the next, with the august position of Grand Master always in my sights.
It took some time before I came to realise that British freemasonry was worlds away from the continental variety, and that far from subverting the constitution, all these eminent and personable men wanted to do was to spend an evening a few times a year in friendly company away from their wives. The talk covered all the normal subjects of gentlemanly discourse from Fifties' clubland: Test match prospects, newly-published books, where to eat on holiday in France and Italy, West End plays they had seen recently, the odds on having better summer weather than last year's, and so on. They were all very charming and decent people, but not out to take over the country (they already ran it anyway) , so I made my excuses and left.
The emphasis on fund-raising for good causes is just that; there are no ulterior purposes. The wealth of the masons is distributed to worthwhile charities, not used in nefarious ways to advance freemasonry. Nor is the institution in any sense anti-Christian, as has been alleged. "The Great Architect of the Universe" is very clearly the Christian God, and the two senior Church of England clergymen in my lodge would certainly not have remained in the craft on any other basis.
A society with secrets, as opposed to a secret society, whose objects are charity and congeniality, ought not to be subjected to state interference. Rather than becoming more open, and even appointing a public relations director as it has, freemasonry should now instead become more secretive in order to protect their "brothers of the square" from the illiberal demands of the Welsh Assembly.
If a mason standing for the Welsh Assembly does not wish publicly to acknowledge his membership for fear of his chances of election being compromised through public ignorance and misconceptions surrounding the craft, he ought not to be forced to do so. As Jasper Ridley's excellent history The Freemasons points out, the craft has survived the persecutions of centuries, including the ferocity of the Nazis and Communists. Victorious over them, it should now stand up to the petty tyrannies of Cardiff.