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Beyond the city

Talk of the town

A city lawyer by profession, Sir David Wootton is the new Assistant Grand Master. He talks to Luke Turton about his time as London’s Lord Mayor and why he likes to perform

You’ve been an alderman, chairman, Liveryman, almoner, chancellor and Lord Mayor of London. Would it be fair to say that you like to keep busy?

Most really good things that have come my way haven’t come from some master plan, but because I’ve said yes to something that has led on to something else. I do say no to a lot of things, but I always think twice because you’re not just turning down that opportunity, but all the things you can’t see down the line that it could lead to. 

What connects all the different kinds of activities you’ve been involved in?

If I try and work out a pattern to my life, it’s where there’s been a job that involves performing in some way – whether it’s ritual, making speeches as Lord Mayor or talking to clients of the law firm. I’m less successful at debating in a big crowd, so I wouldn’t be particularly good as a Member of Parliament.

How do you balance all your responsibilities?

I’ve had a career as a city lawyer in the field of corporate transactions. That requires you to operate on a tight timescale, invariably set by other people, which is often halved. In comparison to that high-pressure environment, the collection of jobs I have now is fairly relaxed because on most occasions the dates of things are known in advance. I’ve got masonic events in my diary for the next five years. That’s a great help and far easier than my life as a city lawyer, where most meetings in my diary are suddenly cancelled or come out of nowhere.

What was it like being Lord Mayor?

You operate on a different level. We all have a normal level at which we live – I’m a solicitor with a family living in Sevenoaks. We go to the shops and plan holidays. 

If you envisage that as living on the twentieth floor of a building, being Lord Mayor is like being put in a lift and being sent up to live on the eightieth floor for a year, where people operate on an entirely different plane.  

The people who work on the eightieth floor have normal concerns like everyone else, such as worrying about whether their ties are straight or not, but they’ve also got something special about them – an ability. Moving at that level was an interesting experience, but I’m really happy being back at the twentieth floor again.

‘When I was elected in 2002 to the City Council, someone said that I‘d have to come to Guildhall Lodge, No. 3116. There have been close connections for a long time between it and Freemasons’ Hall, with the Rulers attending. I liked doing ritual and I must have been noticed.’

As Lord Mayor of London, in the wake of the recent financial crisis, did you want to help change perceptions about the City? 

The City isn’t good at fighting its PR battles. City businesses don’t like getting involved in public arguments; they don’t like politics and prefer to do things quietly behind the scenes. Therefore, when there’s a big crisis, other people who are much better at getting their story over heap all the blame for everything on the City, which is weak at replying. Part of the job for me as Lord Mayor was to try and re-address that, to help recognise that part of the criticism was rational and objective, but also to see that part of it was emotional. 

How did you counter the emotional arguments about the City?

With the emotional part, there’s nothing that you can do – you can’t rebut it with a rational argument. If you say the City’s good, that’s not going to convince people. You also look a bit foolish if something else comes out in the press. When I was in office, the story about Libor came out, which was portrayed as an attempt to rig interest rates. Subsequently, there have been revelations about misconduct in the foreign exchange markets, where things were going on that shouldn’t have been. So if you mount a full-throttle defence of the City as being a very good place, and that’s followed by bad publicity, then you lose credibility. You therefore have to be careful about picking your ground, so I decided to draw attention to the good things that the City was doing – pointing to things like the jobs outside of London that depended on it, and hoped that, in due course, I could change the climate. 

Why did you become a Freemason?

I rowed at university and in my last days there I was asked by one of the rowing coaches if I was going to work in London. He said that there was a society that I should consider joining. It turned out to be Argonauts Lodge, No. 2243, which was a rowing lodge. They met in the Lloyds Building in the City, which wasn’t too far from my office. Most of the people there had coached me on the river at university; I think the Craft works well when there’s an outside interest shared between its members.

How did you become Assistant Grand Master?

I went on for years only being a member of Argonauts Lodge as I didn’t have enough time to do much else. It’s only in the past ten years that I’ve been able to become more involved in Freemasonry. When I was elected in 2002 to the City Council, someone said that I’d have to come to Guildhall Lodge, No. 3116. There have been close connections for a long time between the lodge and Freemasons’ Hall, with the Rulers often attending. I like doing ritual and I must have been noticed. I was offered the chair of Guildhall Lodge, started to get to know people and became aware that the then Assistant Grand Master David Williamson wanted to retire. One thing led to another and I was asked if I wanted the position.

‘The principles of Freemasonry are very useful – they provide strong guidelines about your life. At the most basic level, they teach you that if you say you’re going to do something, then you should do it. Life operates better if you follow those rules.’

How does Freemasonry connect with the rest of your life?

The principles in Freemasonry are very useful – they provide strong guidelines about your life. At the most basic level, they teach you that if you say you’re going to do something, then you should do it. Life operates better if you follow those rules. I deal with people on the basis that I’ll come across them again and I want to be thought of in a positive way. In the business world, people often perceive that it’s to their advantage to do something that another party won’t like. I don’t want a reputation like that. 

I think this approach is largely down to Freemasonry.

What do you hope to achieve as Assistant Grand Master?

I’m encouraged to attend the major events at the Hall, the Quarterly Communications, the Annual Investiture and the Festivals. I’ll take over the Universities Scheme next year, as well as looking after overseas districts, but those are the set tasks. What I also want to do is to make sure that Freemasons outside London, outside the Hall, feel they are part of a United Grand Lodge. 

I’d like to make a contribution to improving the relationship between masons and non-masons, to counter the idea that people who practise the Craft are somehow a little bit different. There are also masons who are hesitant about admitting it as they’re worried others might not think they’re normal. We need to address both these internal and external perceptions.

I’d also like to help with improving recruitment and retention, to get younger members to join and to keep them. It’s a big undertaking, but I’m not alone and I see it as a fantastic opportunity – I’m looking forward to getting out and about in the country.