With the Scottish independence race set to go right to the wire, everyone is desperate to have their say. On Saturday, it was the turn of the Orange Order, a last bastion of British Protestant values who spend most weekends marching about in military style fatigues, getting pissed in the street, fighting each other and singing songs about ancient battles and killing Catholics.
With the Order venturing out of their usual west of Scotland setting, Edinburgh wasn’t quite sure what had hit it on Saturday, with around 10,000 Orange marchers and another 5,000 supporters cramming into the city’s Old Town. This was easily the biggest single gathering of No supporters in the indyref so far, but Yes campaigners could scarcely contain their delight. Topping off a week which had seen a bunch of hated Westminster politicians and celebrity Little Englander Nigel Farage arrive in Scotland, they reckoned that a march by thousands of marauding Orange bigots would be enough to swing the polls firmly in favour of independence.
Billed as a “Proud to be British” parade, it was full on celebration of British nationalism, the marchers bedecked in union jacks, clutching pictures of the Royal Family and carrying banners commemorating the First World War. For the Order, self-proclaimed defenders of Protestant culture and religious tradition, it was a final push to save a crucial part of their own identity ahead of Thursday’s vote. Because the Orange Order really, really love Britain – almost as much as they love woodwind instruments, big drums and marching through suburban streets at 9AM on Sunday mornings, waking everyone up.
Defying expectations, the Orange Order gamely demonstrated that they can get an impressive turnout. It was roughly double what they’d had in Glasgow when I went along to their annual "Battle of the Boyne" commemoration in July, typically their biggest event of the year in Scotland. While their usual marches are far from sedate affairs, they’re also incredibly ritualistic in form, held on much the same dates and routes each year, and with the same marching bands endlessly blasting out the same four tunes that make up the Loyal Orange songbook.
This time, the circumstances were slightly different. While their main concern is usually just ensuring that everything passes off peaceably enough that they can still get permission for their next march to go ahead, in Edinburgh there was much more at stake. Thursday’s vote could see the demise of the very institution, the United Kingdom, that’s been integral to the Order from their beginnings.
The Order’s gaudy colonial-chic stylings may make them look like something from 200 years ago, and that’s mostly because they are. Their emergence, originally in Ireland, was underpinned by the British state to counteract growing republicanism there, the same tactics of divide and rule that the Empire utilised to quell counter-insurgencies across the globe. Creating an army of loyalists, clearly demarcated along sectarian religious lines, would prove highly effective in buttressing British rule in Ireland.
Times have changed, however, and these days the British establishment have more subtle methods of projecting power than deploying unionist mobs. Senior figures in the No campaign had blasted the Orange Order as “unsavoury” and called for the march to be shelved, following violent scenes that marred a Glasgow parade in July. Yet the Order were insistent it would go ahead, and on Saturday took to the streets in a dazzle of badly fitted suits, union jacks and “Vote Naw” banners, amid an ear-splitting cacophony of Lambeg drums and flutes.
Despite the novelty of the world’s media being there to film it and an abundance of “No Thanks” stickers and signs on display, the atmosphere felt much the same as any of their other marches. As they gathered on the Meadows, there was no real sense of urgency. The marchers, not least the many who’d travelled from Northern Ireland and the north of England, seemed to be treating it as a fun day out rather than a life or death political decision.
As the march progressed to the centre of town, there was little attempt to reach out to other voters either, probably to the relief of the official No campaign. Although other than Orange supporters, who lined the route with flags and banners, the rest of those looking on were a mix of disorientated Edinburgh Uni freshers and foreign tourists, struggling to understand what was going on. Still, the uniforms, Union Jack blazers, waistcoats, scarves and sunglasses made a slight change from the tartan kitsch and bagpipes that are usually to be found on the Royal Mile.
Most of the “outreach” work at the march seemed to be emanating from a crack division of Britain First activists, who spent the day loitering outside the Parliament. Here, they passed the time by posing for pictures with Orangemen and handing out leaflets warning about Islamic Extremism, although their leader Paul Golding seemed pretty psyched about getting the chance to meet a guy pretending to be Mel Gibson too. The English far-right have been trying, and failing, to make a breakthrough in Scotland since the 1930s. They have never grasped the dynamic of bigotry north of the border, which tends to exert itself through “legitimate” organisations like the Orange Order than fascist fringe groups. When you’re already in an Orange Lodge and have a uniformed march proclaiming your ethno-religious supremacy every weekend as it is, joining some wee sect who run about looking tough in green pac-a-macs doesn’t have quite the same appeal. Incidentally there was a guy sieg heiling at the start of the march, but I'm not sure if he was mocking the Orange Order uniforms or was himself a Nazi.
If you’re from the west of Scotland, just about the only redeeming feature of Edinburgh is its lax alcohol laws, which – unlike most of the country – mean that drinking on the street is tolerated. This meant that by lunchtime the Orange supporters, who were under strict instructions to be on their best behaviour, were pissed enough to start belting out whatever song the flute band nearest them was playing. This was about as rowdy as it got though, with Yes campaigners or republican opposition nowhere to be seen, much to the disappointment of any march hangers-on who’d come looking for a scrap.
Everyone on the parade seemed to be having a great time, to the extent of almost seeming complacent about the fate of the union. But I got chatting to Pearl and a few of her friends, who were hanging around draped in union jacks outside the Parliament, and it was clear that they were deadly serious about saving the UK. They had come along to support their local band, the Larkhall Purple Heroes. They were perhaps overly confident of a victory for the union this week and rubbished claims that the march would only be beneficial to the pro-independence cause, because “it’s all the Catholics that are voting Yes” anyway. I asked them how they’d react to a Yes vote, and responses ranged from predictions of war, “neighbours fighting with neighbours”, to “packing up and moving to Carlisle”. Larkhall, in Lanarkshire, is one of Scotland’s loyalist heartlands and a town that won’t even tolerate the colour green, famously forcing Subway to change its store livery, so the reaction there will be keenly observed if there is a Yes vote.
When it came down to it, the march was a show of tribalism, a chance to bolster the morale of the Orange Order’s own supporters, boost the turnout of the Orange vote on polling day, and remind everyone else that they still exist. We’ll only have to wait a few days to see if it’s made any impact on how Scotland votes.
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