Every summer, the west of Scotland comes under an invasion of LOLs. There aren’t many laughs to be had though, as the LOL here is the Loyal Orange Lodge, a pretty stern bunch with long held traditions of pissing people off, doing what they want and ethno-religious chauvinism. Essentially a social club for people still clinging on to a white British Protestant identity that resolves around fancy dress, Rangers Football Club and loving the Queen, the Lodge take to the streets near enough every weekend through the summer. In Glasgow, having your hangover disrupted at 9AM on Saturday mornings because there’s an ear-splitting parade of silly outfits becomes a fact of life for several months each year. If you want an idea of what the marchers look like, think last days of Empire meets Easyjet flight crew, banging away at oversized drums and whistling cheerful ditties about being up to their knees in "Fenian blood".
This summer, things are a bit different. With the referendum on Scottish independence taking place in September, the Lodge – also known as the Orange Order – are out campaigning hard for a No vote. At stake is the future of the very institutions that the organisation was founded to support and celebrate some 218 years ago, namely the United Kingdom and, potentially, its Protestant throne. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Orange Lodge officially registered as a participant for the “Naw” side of the referendum in June. However, with their divisive reputation preceding them, they’ve been frozen out of the official cross-party Better Together campaign and have had to settle for their own formation, the inventively titled “British Together”.
The first two Saturdays in July are the height of the Lodge calendar, with big marches taking place across Scotland and Northern Ireland to commemorate the Boyne, a 17th century battle that saw off any Catholic threat to Britain’s Protestant monarchy. Contrary to common misconception and a few cheap jokes, ancient battles haven’t really played much of a role in Scotland’s independence debate to date, with the recent 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn notable only for no one giving much of a shit. But holding parades about ancient battles is just about the only card the Orange Order have to play, so with that in mind, I headed down to one such event, to see how their campaign to save the union is shaping up.
The Orange Order don’t really do A to B marches. Instead, each individual Lodge marches in from its own area, collectively waking up most of an entire municipality as they go. So while they may have had less than 20,000 out on the streets, it can feel like they’ve taken over the whole city, especially as they then parade home in every direction at the end. I caught up with the march as it spilled into Glasgow Green, a park currently being turned into a Commonwealth Games “fan zone”.
The upper ranks of the Orange Order aren’t taking the referendum lightly, so it’s a shame that no one at Glasgow Green was really bothering to listen to them. Most in attendance seemed to prefer sitting around, slyly swigging bottles of Mad Dog, singing songs about the Irish Famine and enjoying the sunshine, rather than getting fired up by political rhetoric. Not that the Lodge leadership had been particularly ambitious, cordoning off a tiny section of the park for the rally, all tucked away behind covered seating for their pensioner contingent.
On the platform, various grandees, each with a title seemingly more pompous than the last (Imperial Grand Master anyone?), were taking to the stage. After tedious tributes to one another, they would get to the serious matter of laying into the “megalomaniac” Alex Salmond and his “delusional” plan to tear apart the UK. Independence is the “biggest threat to the Loyal Orange Institution in 216 years” said one, while another warned that the Nationalists “are trying to destroy the liberties won during the Glorious Revolution of 1788”, meaning the year when Protestant King William (of Orange) kicked the Catholic Stewarts off the crown. Familiar buzzwords were thrown around when it came to mounting a defence of the union, like strength, security and social justice, but shouts to the guy whose speech ended with a call to arms that Scotland “doesn’t need an independence revival, it needs a Gospel revival”, which is surely something we can all get on board with.
A big concern for those on the march was the idea that independence will stoke the cause of republicanism, with implications for the situation in Northern Ireland and maybe even for the role of the Royal Family in Scotland. Although the SNP leadership are pro-monarchy, with plans to retain the Queen as Head of State after independence, many within the Yes camp aren’t and there were some stirrings recently about a “Republican plot to ditch the Queen”. Inevitably any such move would rupture the identity, culture and traditions that the Lodge are so dedicated to preserving. Whoever it was that spent last week decorating parts of Glasgow in the flags of dissident loyalist terror groups probably isn’t going to take it too well either.
As predictable as every summer’s Orange spectacle is, a lot of people get wound up about it on the internet. On Saturday, an image of a 12-year-old girl who was struck on the head by a bottle at the event went viral on social media, providing ample confirmation bias for those who view the parades as nothing more than a day out for boozed up bigots. Petitions demanding that the authorities clamp down on the Order’s right to march tend to momentarily appear, picking up a few thousand signatures and then disappearing so that it can all be done again the following year. Glasgow City Council have made a lot of noise about cutting down on Orange marches in the past, although this was slightly undermined when the Labour council leader met them just before the last election and performed a volte face.
The Orange Order are showing no signs of letting up ahead of September’s vote, with their Grand Secretary Eddie Hyde telling the BBC this week that their critics simply “don’t understand” them and that anyway, “[religious] sectarianism doesn’t exist in Scotland”. Their efforts to save the union will culminate in a mass parade through Edinburgh on the final Saturday before the vote, just when referendum hype will be at its peak and Scotland the centre of a global media frenzy.
Pro-independence campaigners can barely contain their glee, while the official No side would rather the Orange Order just shut up and disappeared.