England's former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, announced today that he is rescinding a rule he introduced in 1997 requiring judges in the U.K. to declare their membership in Freemasonry. Not in a stamp collecting circle, or a rugby club, or the Manchester and Sheffield Anarchist Federation, or an al-Qaeda sleeper cell, or a country club. Just the Freemasons.
Why was this again, exactly?
There was an investigation twelve years ago that made headlines, purporting to expose the dark and secret role Freemasonry was playing in law enforcement and the judiciary. The nebulous accusation was that Britain's plods were letting Masonic buddies get away with crimes, and that criminals only needed to stroll into court and make "Masonic gestures," and their brother judges would be required by our blood-soaked Masonic oaths to drop all charges and send them skipping on their Masonic way.
Anti-Masonic author Martin Short was out in front, tub-thumping over the issue, convinced the Masons had somehow caused a brain tumor to grow in the head of fellow anti-Masonic writer, Stephen Knight. To this day, Short is the BBC's go-to guy on Masonic stories. When a report on Freemasonry gets ready to air something kind about the fraternity, the Beeb rings up Short for his "on the other hand" take on it, you know, in the interest of "balance." Interestingly, they don't bring in a Holocaust denier when running Auschwitz stories for the sake of balance and compelling reporting. But I digress.
There was just one problem back in 1997. After spending months of investigative effort and a stack of the taxpayers' cash on an investigation, Jack Straw found precisely zero evidence there was any widespread Masonic influence in the courts or police stations. But that was okay, it was simply the accusation that was serious enough to warrant a new rule requiring Masons in these powerful positions to disclose their private membership in a perfectly legal organization for which there was no evidence of any impropriety.
Straw is a Member of Parliament for Blackburn, and currently is the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice these days under Gordon Brown. The onrushing elections may finally portend the end of the Labor Party's long reign. But what motivated Straw to rescinding the rule was the threat of a lawsuit by the United Grand Lodge of England. Citing a recent decision in a European Union Court of Human Rights anti-discimination case involving similar rules against Masons in Italy, Straw announced today that he'd had a change of heart.
From an article in The Guardian, Straw was quoted as saying,
"The review of the policy operating since 1998 has shown no evidence of impropriety or malpractice within the judiciary as a result of a judge being a freemason and in my judgment, therefore, it would be disproportionate to continue the collection or retention of this information."
According to the Ministry of Justice, there are 3,808 judges in England and Wales and 5.4% of them (205) are masons. There are also 29,702 magistrates, of whom 6.4% (1,900) are masons.
The government introduced the declaration rule after it was recommended by the Commons home affairs committee in a report published in March 1997. The committee said that "nothing so much undermines public confidence in public institutions as the knowledge that some public servants are members of a secret society one of whose aims is mutual self-advancement". At the time Straw said Labour supported the recommendation.
But, in his statement today, Straw stressed that the 1997 report "made no finding of impropriety in the conduct of the judiciary arising from membership of individual members of the judiciary of the freemasons".
He also said the existing safeguards, such as the oath, the availability of a complaints procedure and the independent appointments commission, were enough to support "the proper performance of judicial functions".
Note this only affects judges. The Home Office still has a rule in place which requires potential police officers and anyone working for the probation or prison service to declare whether they are Freemasons. Hopefully, this one will fall, as well.
Read Jack Straw scraps rule saying judges must declare if they are masons and Freemasons shake off ruling on judiciary.