By Doug Pickford
Doug Pickford of Freemasonry Today interviewed Chris Mullin MP a few days before the Craft hit the nation's headlines.
Millions saw it on television. The MP later dubbed "The Grand Inquisitor" sat in the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee and warned Grand Secretary Commander Michael Higham he could be in contempt of Parliament.
It was high drama and later the newspaper headlines screamed "Masonic Prison Threat" and "Leaders are told to name names in scandal probe." The Sun's usual in-depth probe offered its readers twenty reasons why masons are silly. Labour MP for Sunderland Chris Mullin was described in the Daily Telegraph as relishing his role as "The Grand Inquisitor exposing a secret society" whose skills as a former journalist were "tested to the limit" when as chairman of the committee he sought to obtain the names of masons involved with the disbanded West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad, the Birmingham Six bombings investigation and the Stalker affair.
A few days earlier, before the Select Committee had been reconvened, I had spoken to the man who the right-wing Daily Mail described as "one of Parliament's most dedicated crusaders". We met in the Central Lobby of the Commons, shook hands, exchanged pleasantries and found a room where we could talk. As we settled in, "The Grand Inquisitor" asked: "Are you a mason" There's nothing like getting straight to the point.
The 50 year old MP is a dedicated family man, an "older father with two children aged two and eight years by his wife whom he met in Vietnam." He likes nothing more than walking in the Lake District and gardening. Prior to his role as the crusading MP he was a journalist and author, travelling extensively in Asia in the 1970s and 1980s, briefly attending the Vietnam War. As he became less involved in journalism he begun to write novels and one, "A Very British Coup", was made into a television series and shown in 30 countries. It was about the election of a left-wing Labour government overthrown by the establishment.
My first point to the Inquisitor pointed to the fact that the Select Committee had some pretty strong words to say about Freemasonry.
"Well we haven't really", he replied. "The inquiry we conducted at the end of the last Parliament was into the role of Freemasonry in the police and judiciary: those were the terms of reference."
What prompted that?
"It was my idea, I suggested it to the other members of the committee which then had a Conservative majority and it was really to see if there really was any basis for the allegation that a number of those involved, prominently involved, in some of' the more celebrated miscarriages of justice had been masons. On that we reached no very firm conclusions. But where we did reach a firm conclusion was that we felt people involved in the criminal justice system, whether as police officers or as judges or magistrates, ought to be willing to disclose their membership of any organisation such as Freemasonry that potentially, although not necessarily actually. compromise their credibility."
There was a recommendation that names should be made public?
"The recommendation was that magistrates, judges, and police officers who are masons should disclose, yes."
Was there anything about any other organisation?
"Yes we had a certain amount of evidence sent to us in relation to now then, what were they? One of the Catholic organisations."
He appeared to be searching for names. I prompted: Catenians?
"Yes it was the Catenians. I haven't got the report in front of me but my recollection is the conclusion we came to - we didn't go into the Catenians thing although we published the evidence - which was quite interesting, we took the view that since there are 340,000 Masons in England and not more than 30,000 Catenians that they didn't represent a very big problem compared with, or potential problem, compared with Freemasonry. I ought to say to you I am not convinced that Freemasonry is necessarily a problem; it has been in one or two particular instances but I have nothing against Freemasons or Freemasonry."
I asked him about Opus Dei.
"Opus Dei. I think that is a very sinister and secretive organisation. I have no hesitation in saying that. It isn't very big in this country. If we were in Spain I might be taking a different attitude."
So no question of at the moment investigating those two?
"What I found is that masons often put up Catenians and Opus Dei in the hope of distracting attention from the issue that we are actually discussing, which is Freemasonry, and my response is that there may well be a case for looking at any organisation that doesn't disclose its membership."
Especially one you mentioned as probably "sinister"?
"Yes, but as I say, if we were in Spain where there are a lot of them, I think that would be the first place to start but we are in England where there are a lot of masons and very few Opus Dei members so we've started with masons."
"So is there a likelihood that perhaps in the future..."
"If someone could present a creditable case, yes, I mean people are suggesting subjects for inquiry all the time but nobody has, although I accept it is a very secretive organisation. It seems to me that what I saw about the Catenians there is an element of secrecy there, too, which looked unhealthy. The point I am really making is that my objection is to secrecy not to Freemasonry per se, then one gets into a lengthy philosophical discussion about the difference between a society with secrets and a secret society. I have already quoted what the Lord Chancellor said on this subject - he has got a formidable legal mind and he couldn't tell the difference. He didn't say he had got a formidable legal mind, I said that, but he couldn't work out the difference so I have no plans to go down that road."
When I asked: Have you any friends who are Freemasons? His face firstly looked quizzical, then his mouth began to show the signs of a smile as he replied:
"Mmmm. I can't say that I have, though they haven't told me if they are. But I have no... what consenting adults do in private is entirely up to them as far as I am concerned. My only interest is in openness in government and I do think people who are in positions of public responsibility are potentially compromised if they are members of a secretive organisation. I have no objections to public servants being Freemasons, let me say that. My objection is that I think it is unhealthy in a democracy for public servants or those who do business with the public sector to be members of a secret society, one of whose aims - now I know you will dispute this or most masons will - is mutual self advancement. Now I accept there are plenty of other objectives; I also accept that most Masons are entirely honest, honourable, straightforward citizens, I don't have (my problem at all with that. Unfortunately, one or two, as in any walk of life, have been caught using Freemasonry for other purposes and in the past, although I think it has changed a bit in the last few years, principally since the outsiders have started asking questions, Freemasons have become a bit more robust in dealing with those who misbehave in their midst, but one thing that did emerge in our inquiry was that in the years gone by not very much happened when you got caught, even if you went down to jail as some of the senior police officers in the 1980's did, it was many years - if at all - before Freemasonry started to ask whether your presence in the organisation was discrediting it or not. I think there has been some improvement there and I welcome that."
Do you feel the improvement has been because of yourself and the committee?
"Not because of me, no... all I can do is note the coincidence that it only seems to have happened since people who are not Freemasons started asking questions."
And you applaud that?
"I welcome it, yes. I think that is all to the good, and there has been some effort to make Freemasonry more open. When Commander Higham came to see us the last time he did concede that perhaps they had been their own worst enemies. I don't think he quite put it like that, so don't have me for misquoting him, but perhaps they haven't always been as open as they should he."
There is an apparent other side to Mr. Mullin. He actively campaigned to save the Queen Street Temple in Sunderland, built in 1779. 1 asked him about this campaign. He replied:
"There is a Grade One listed building - I think it is the only Grade One listed building in Sunderland - which is an old Masonic Hall going back several hundred years, maybe the oldest masonic building the country, but don't hold me to that, and the local masons here trying to get a grant from the Heritage Fund to restore it. Both Bill Etherington, the other Sunderland MP, and myself supported them."
Obviously you had no qualms about that because they were masons?
"No, not in any way. No, as I have said, I have nothing against Freemasons. My office is in the same building as the Durham County Freemasons, the same terrace of houses as the Durham County Freemasons. I have been in to see them. Lord Barnard himself came all the way from Raby Castle to see me and I emphasised to him that I had no objection to Freemasonry per se."
So where do you see everything leading to?
"Well, I think it is in the interests of Freemasons themselves that they get over this hang-up they have about admitting to membership of the organisation, because it isn't doing them any good. In my experience there is a lot of unjustified paranoia about Freemasons. A lot of people who are not Freemasons subscribe all the things that have gone wrong in their lives to masonic conspiracies which in my experience don't usually add up. The masons don't help by flatly refusing to come clean about who's a member and who's not, and often if they did it would become quite clear that whatever the explanation of whatever had gone wrong it doesn't have to do with Freemasonry. For example, we are now told that there are only three High Court judges out of about 96 who are masons; well obviously there cannot be much of a masonic conspiracy there, and indeed I think the three judges that are fairly open about it. So the problem is resolved as far as that is concerned. I think in the past it has perhaps affected the promotion system in the legal profession. But I think there are in some other circuits in this country an unhealthy preponderance of... there are quite a lot in the North East circuit - I would never suggest it affected the way they do justice, administer justice, but I do think there is at least an open question as to whether you stand a better chance of advancement within the profession if you are a mason."
Do you think this applies to the various police forces as well?
"I think there is some evidence to suggest, I don't put it any stronger than that, especially in some of the elite squads, that Freemasonry is a problem. I get quite a lot of policemen ringing me up and telling me that it is."
Not police masons?
"One or two ex-masons or, I note you never stop being masons, but one or two are no longer... and I note that certain professions appear to have what I would regard as an unhealthy preponderance in the higher... Northumbria Ambulance Service would be another example. There seem to be rather a lot of masons in the upper echelons. That does lead to the question - I am not asserting it - one has to be very careful here, but it does lead outsiders to ask whether or not the promotion system is in some way affected."
So what would you like to see? Would you like to see everyone in the Northumberland Ambulance Service for instance to declare that they are masons?
"I think public servants, particularly those associated with the administration of justice is the obvious starting point, ought to disclose various interests: I wouldn't say whether you are a mason, I would say whether you are a member of any society that swears you to some sort of oath of secrecy. And it would certainly bring Catenians in or anyone in Opus Dei but the section of the community most affected would be Freemasons because there are many more of them."
We are not talking about the Rotary Cubs, the Round Tables or anything like that?
"We are not, no."
I mused that they are certainly not secret societies and wouldn't say they promote self-advancement, to which he added:
"The argument could certainly be made that anything that was likely to affect either their chances of promotion or their judgement. It's not a big deal. MPs have to (although there was a bit of squealing to begin with) fill in a registry of interests which is public, anybody can look at it, and I don't see why judges shouldn't have to or magistrates come to that we needn't make a big deal of it. It's to be held in the case of magistrates by the chief clerk or whatever he is and is available for consultation if anybody wants to see it, but I have to fill in a form every Parliament listing my interests in a great deal more detail than anything I'm proposing for Freemasons."
You aren't suggesting that Rotarians, Round Tablers, etc. do so?
"I'm not, but I think I will leave the option open for any magistrate who was a member of any society who felt it would be better if he declared it to declare it. That's all he need do. It's no big deal . . ." He continued: "I am sure when you become a magistrate you have to fill in a form that says what your interests are and you would probably list all the clubs and things you are a member of. I think it is best to err on the side of openness rather than.... you have just confessed to me with no particular embarrassment that you are a Freemason and you don't have any problem, with that, do you? So I don't understand what the problem is." It is interesting you said "Confess" Why did you say I "confessed"? "Well, because of the difficulty I have in getting it out of other people who really ought not to have the same problem. No, don't read anything into it, you can always say you just "volunteered"."
We moved on to the issues of the Birmingham Six, the West Midlands Crime Squad and the Stalker affair I began to ask about the Birmingham Six.
Is there an implication in there that the officers were Freemasons and therefore...
He replied: "I carried out a very detailed investigation and I am familiar with most of the personalities involved and all I would say is this: that a number, I wouldn't put it any higher, I have no idea, of those involved both in the original investigation and subsequent events were Freemasons and that in one or two cases of which I am aware masonic contacts were utilised in the hope of heading off embarrassment, and so I wouldn't put it any higher than that. I certainly don't allege that what went wrong in that case is all the fault of Freemasons. I am not alleging that. either in that or in any other case. I simply don't know is the answer, the extent to which Freemasons were involved. Rather less than most people would like to believe I would imagine."
Does the same hold for Mr Stalker's case?
"In Stalker's it has been alleged by other people, not by me, that - and not by Mr Stalker I should add as well - that some of his difficulties were due to falling out with people who were masons, yet I have no idea whether there is any truth in that or not. The way to find out is to ask and that is what I have done. And the third case relates to the West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad which you will recall had to be disbanded and more than 30 people serving long prison sentences have had their convictions quashed so far as a result of the malpractices that some members of that unit got up to. Now again it is alleged that there was an unhealthy preponderance of Freemasons in that squad. Whether there was or not I don't know. The simple thing to do seemed to me to send Grand Lodge a list of the names and ask which were masons and which weren't."
Have you done that?
"I have done that in each of those cases. I have sent a list of seven names regarding Stalker: a list I think of 96 names, i.e. all those who were members of the squad at one time or another, and a list of I think 66 names of people from all professions connected with the Birmingham Six inquiry and I have warned them that there will be two or three other questions; a couple of them relating to local government and one relating to a magistrates' court, along similar..."
Involved with these cases?
"No, no. Unconnected. What I have done is taken three areas so far, half a dozen in due course, where people have made allegations and I have said let's see if there is any truth in these allegations and that's where we are up to at the moment; now some of these questions were asked in our initial inquiry in the last Parliament and Grand Lodge did provide us with figures which I did not find entirely satisfactory."
In what way?
"Well firstly the numbers in relation to the Freemasons in the Serious Crime Squad went up and then down and up again, I think, and I was not sure that they necessarily give us the whole picture - no doubt inadvertently - there are some difficulties one has got to recognise, practical difficulties you know, people have moved, died; but secondly, this is the main point, I didn't feel able to arrive at a conclusion one way or another until I saw which names, because there might be people who are entirely peripheral to the wickedness that went on or there might be people who are central to it, and when I can see which I shall be in a position to form a judgement, but I emphasise I have reached no judgement at the moment and I have said to Grand Lodge that we are not proposing to publish the names."
Where would the names go?
"Well they would come to the committee. The committee agreed they need only be disclosed to the clerk of the committee and myself."
I asked if this was the case for Thursday (19 February), a few days hence, when the Select Committee was to reconvene, and he replied that the purpose of Thursday's hearing was to get yes or no answers on whether Grand Lodge was willing to cooperate. Who, I asked, was it called by?
"By the committee. I am afraid I think they have quite badly misjudged the mood because as I said to Commander Higham, I am not looking for a confrontation but one can be organised if you insist, and if we were looking for ground on which to test the powers of Select Committees in general, I cannot think of (my better ground, where there would be all party support in the House here, for the position the committee have taken so if I were Grand Lodge or whoever, I would be looking for a way of avoiding this particular showdown and I am disappointed it has come so tear, as this is an easily resolvable dispute, and I think the odds are that the conclusions drawn - though I would not predict what they would be - would well be favourable to the position that most Freemasons take, namely that there may well be a few masons involved in all these cases but they have not had a determining effect on the outcome, but we cannot get to those conclusions until we can have the information.
"I am particularly disappointed because I know that Grand Lodge has in the past co-operated with serious inquiries - there was one on Hackney for example where a QC called Andrew Arden was given access to probably a much wider range of names than we are seeking access to and they cooperate with Ombudsmen I know, and one of the refrains most frequent whenever any criticism of alleged masonic involvement occurs in one thing or another there is never any evidence. Well, there can never be any evidence until we get straight answers to straight questions, and it is no use Commander Higham coming to inquiries and talking in generalities if he wants to be taken seriously and I am sure he does.
"Now during the course of our original inquiry - that's the one held in the last Parliament - a number of specific allegations were made. A large number of irrelevant allegations were made which I discarded, but half a dozen more serious points arose. We had for example a former clerk of a magistrates' court in the South of England writing to us and saying that he discovered on taking over - in 1980 this was - that more than a third of the bench were masons and he thought this was unhealthy and he contacted the local masons and they agreed it was unhealthy too, and so they agreed there would be a five year moratorium on recruiting magistrates who were masons. And instead, at the end of that period, there were more masons on the bench than there had been at the beginning, as they waited until they were recruited as magistrates then recruited them as masons. Now that is quite a specific example that I may be putting to them in due course. I had another one from a council in West Wales where it is alleged that the chairmen of five of the eight main committees are masons. That is an unhealthy preponderance if it is true. I am not suggesting this is very widespread but where specific allegations have been put to us I am seeking to check them out. Now I don't think that is an unreasonable position."
Could it be argued that where there are five or eight masons on the bench, there could be five or eight Rotarians or Church of England members or whatever?
"It could be argued and no doubt it will be argued if I was to prove that every single member of the West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad were masons perhaps your Commander Higham would still be in his seat arguing that this did not necessarily prove that there was anything wrong with Freemasonry. Well it doesn't necessarily, but it is a problem for those who are not masons."
So apart from naming names how else could...
"Well, I am interested in seeing whether there is an unhealthy preponderance in any particular organisation and since the one we are looking at is Freemasonry in relation to criminal justice, that is what we are looking for. Now I will give you an example; it is quite true that there are very few proven cases where masonic influence has been used. There are some in the Metropolitan Police in the 1970s and 80s and there is one fairly recent one in relation to a planning application at Castle Point in Essex which we put to Commander Higham in our inquiry, where the Ombudsman discovered with the co-operation of Grand Lodge, and I am speaking from memory here, that eight of the 16 members of the planning committee were masons and a ninth as married to a mason and a controversial planning permission had been Warded to someone who was also a mason. Now I am sure you will see that whether those people abused their position or not, and I am not alleging they did, it does not look very good from the point of view of someone who is not a mason. particularly if you are on the losing side of that planning application. So the obvious way round it is for everybody to know in advance where everybody is coming from and then there won't be any unpleasant surprises."
So would you therefore be advocating that people are very open and say "I am a mason" on any planning application or inquiry?
"Well what normally happens if you have got what is alleged to be a relevant interest you take no part in that decision. I think a couple of those guys were in the same lodge or something so they obviously should have said at once that they were not taking any pale in that decision, and then I suppose it would be up to the clerk to make a ruling on the others if the others wanted to carry on. They would be wise to err on the side of discretion I would have thought."
There have been a number of books written about Freemasonry.
"I have only ever read one."
Which one was that?
"Martin Short. "Inside the Brotherhood.""
Mr Short gave evidence to the committee?
What did you think of the book?
"There were a lot of serious allegations in there plus a lot of evidence."
Would it be safe to say that it influenced you in any way towards your views on Freemasonry?
"I would certainly say that it gives a prima facie case - it cannot be dismissed out of hand - for greater openness, and if I was a Freemason I must say I would be arguing (and I gather there are some who do) for greater openness but if you have nothing to hide then what's the problem?
"I have sometimes heard it alleged "Oh we would be discriminated against if we did, but I an not aware, and none has been drawn to our attention during the inquiry, of anyone who has been discriminated against because they were a mason, but let me say that if a constituent came to me and said he had been sacked because he was a mason, I would take up his cause just as in the same way I would take up the cause of the Grade One listed Masonic hall in Sunderland."
The allotted time span of one hour for the interview was rapidly coming to a close. I chose one final question: if you were ever asked to become a Freemason your answer would be... Again, he smiled:
"Not my sort of thing really, but I prefer gardening and hill walking but I have no wish to spoil the enjoyment of those who do, providing they don't misuse the privileges that Freemasonry confers upon them or the contacts that they make."
I was left with the opinion that much of what had been said was not levelled at anyone but Commander Higham. I may be wrong but that is the impression I received. There were veiled warnings within some of the replies, I thought, looking ahead towards the "showdown" on that coming Thursday, 19 February 1998. Chris Mullin has, I believe, started a campaign that he is determined to finish. The same may very well be said of Commander Higham. I can speak for neither but I think both make formidable opponents.
This article is copyright Freemasonry Today, 1998 and is reproduced on the Internet Lodge website with permission.