Controversy has erupted at the Oxford Union after members alleged that a group of Freemasons were present at a socio-economic access event. Their appearance in white tie caused particular upset, since a similar incident last year was supposed to have led to the Union planning events to avoid conflicts with the masonic lodge’s calendar.
The event was claimed to have taken place on Saturday 22nd October, when Freemasons came into the Union Bar wearing white tie during an access social with the 93% Club, Oxford University’s state-school society. This event was intended as a way for students from underrepresented socio-economic backgrounds to enjoy the Union in a less formal capacity, introducing its potential to be an accessible and welcoming space for all.
Freemasons are members of social organisations which originally promoted freedom of religion and speech, but now mainly serve a social function. Their use of secret handshakes and rituals, as well as of formal dress at social events, has led to accusations of elitism. Masonic lodges also prohibit members from discussing their rituals with non-members, which has led to the spawning of conspiracy theories about their practices.
The social was originally held in the Goodman Library, but relocated to the bar when only four members of the 93% Club attended. One member of the Union Committee described the event as “Quite underpopulated compared to expectations, but everyone present seemed to enjoy it”.
However, the appearance of suspected Freemasons, who bought drinks at the bar before walking out again, sparked outrage among some members of Committee, who objected to the fact they were wearing white tie, which they considered elitist.
The incident caused particular distress by recalling an event last Hillary, when Freemasons allegedly walked into a larger socio-economic access event, and ate some of the food being served. Members of committee who were present described the Freemasons’ appearance as a display of entitlement and a “fuck you” to people from under-represented backgrounds.
In light of this, those responsible for organising events at the Union were expected to account for the Masonic Lodge calendar when planning access socials. Failure to do this satisfactorily caused the current Union Secretary Matthew Dick to come under fire in a Standing Committee meeting on Monday 24th. When questioned on his commitment to access, he said, “I apologise for the lapse in checking the Lodge calendar,” adding, “if I didn’t care about making the society more accessible, I would instantly resign.” However, it was also noted that the masons present on this occasion arrived unannounced and are also Union members, with one committee member telling Cherwell they were “powerless to remove them” for that reason.
Other members of the committee raised concerns about messages Dick sent during the summer vacation, seen by Cherwell, where he joked: “I am a Freemason. I will crash the social this year in white tie”.
Dick told Cherwell: “It is disappointing to learn that excerpts of private messages from many months ago that were exchanged privately have been misused and taken out of context to drive a false narrative. I would also like to reassure members that this sort of behaviour does not represent what most people in the Union stand for and would encourage members to attend Consultative Committee and other events where they can freely ask questions and make up their own minds.”
In the meeting, he added: “access is absolutely not a joke to me. Why would I crash a social event that I organised?”
One Committee member told Cherwell: “[Matthew] is in no way a Freemason, which made this joke particularly funny. It was understood at the time and in the context by everyone in the group chat to be a joke and is still very much seen as [a] joke.”
There is also fear among committee members that the 93% Club may reconsider further partnerships with the Oxford Union as a result of this incident. However, President Ahmad Nawaz said of the Freemasons, “Being a fair president, I cannot remove people because they are in white tie.”
Another committee member added: “the notion that working class students would get perturbed by four men in white tie getting drinks at the bar is deeply patronising towards our working class members. It is a shame that some members of Committee are weaponising the disadvantaged for political gain.”
The Union plans to issue a formal apology and send formal emails to the Freemasons to “100% ensure” this does not happen a third time.
A spokesperson for Apollo University Lodge said: “Members of the Lodge couldn’t have been present at, or ‘crashed’, the socio-economic social hosted by the 93% Club. The Union term card says this took place between 14:00 and 16:00. The photo in the article was clearly taken in the evening, and our dinner didn’t finish until 21:30, so members of the Lodge would only have arrived several hours after the event had ended. What’s more, members of the Lodge who go to the Union after meetings are members of the Union in their own right, and are permitted to use the facilities unless there is a private event (e.g. a ball). There may also have been people present in the bar who had previously been at the 93% Club event, but this is not the same thing, as members of the Union meet in the bar all the time.
We are three organisations, two of which are exclusively for women. The two leading women’s Grand Lodges with whom we have the closest relationships are Freemasonry for Women and the Order of Women Freemasons. These two groups only admit women because that is the choice of their memberships. Both women’s organisations and UGLE prefer to practise our Freemasonry in single-sex environments. Due to our mutual respect and close relations, the United Grand Lodge of England regularly allows the two women’s Grand Lodges to hold meetings in our headquarters.
“Moreover, kindness and charity are deeply ingrained within the principles of Freemasonry. For example, in 2020, Freemasons donated over £1 million to Covid-19 related causes. We have also committed a further £2.1m to support the ongoing Covid-19 crisis response. Of that £2.1m, £850,000 has been allocated to help homeless people through several charities with which UGLE partners, while £715,000 is earmarked to support adult, young and parent carers. And closer to home, Apollo University Lodge supports seven annual bursaries for students who are already in receipt of the Oxford Bursary or a Crankstart Scholarship.”
Additional reporting credit: Charlie Hancock