by J Simon Jones
What were you doing on Saturday afternoon? I was in Rothesay, milling around the town centre. And why not? It’s not like there was a reason not to be. The sun was shining, the sea at its glistening azure best and a warmth in the air that didn’t threaten to dissipate at the first sign of clouds. I was there for the weekend. Which was fortunate as it turns out, for back home in Glasgow the Orange Order were holding 12th of July marches, lurching through Glasgow Green and other parts of the city’s centre.
It made headlines this year, again, for its associations with what we now call ‘anti-social behaviour’ but might better be called “anti-society behaviour.” Anyone familiar with the West of the Central Belt, and regrettably some other areas too, will be familiar with the Orange Order’s presence. It might start with one of their bands tuning up; the martial obviousness of their flute sections being undercut by the ominous thud of a marching drum. Later, a walk to the shops might be made more difficult by the throng of people, enough already visibly drunk at 11am to put you off sticking around too long. And, in the mid-afternoon, once the crowd is appropriately liquored-up you can take in the spectacle of Catholic churches being circled, the music and slogans now overtly sectarian and violent. It’s enough to make anyone thankful for being out of the city on the weekend it takes place.
Not everyone though, it turns out. This time a 12 year old girl was struck by a glass bottle (take a second, and think how it comes to be that someone at an organised event, with stewards and policing, could throw a glass bottle in the presence of a child). Eddie Hyde, the Order’s general secretary, managed to plumb new depths of insincerity and callousness. In one dazzling sentence he seemed to take the police to task for putting too many officers at the scene, before ending up in the same place we visit every year: “We have over 3000 stewards trained at this moment in time which allows the police perhaps to reduce their numbers and concentrate on any disorder that may arise from the followers of our parade.”
How civic of him. “Don’t worry about policing most of us, just the inevitable few…” Nobody asks why an event with 4,500 marchers and 4,000 spectators needs 3,000 stewards. A ratio of 2.8 participants to a steward? For context the ratio of primary school children: teachers is 16.5 to 1. The real sadness here should come from the fact that this will be forgotten by tomorrow. We’re used to seeing this on our streets, in our lives, every summer. It’s become one-of-those-things. Nobody’s in a rush to change it.
But they should be. It’s one thing for the Order to suggest they’re principally interested in commemorating history (I’ll leave it to historians to tell us whether or not this is the best means of commemoration they can imagine) but when they suggest they’re the voice of Protestantism in Scotland they should come in for more flak than they do. Which is to say, none. The body which should have most to criticise, the Church of Scotland, says nothing about this. And I don’t mean “not much,” I mean that when you search “Orange Order” or “Orange Lodge” on their website it tells you there are no results. No statements, no calls for change, no sermons excoriating violence and public drunkenness, or the feckless usury they lord over our shared culture and history.
The Order is no more the voice of Protestantism than the Provisional IRA is the voice of Catholicism, or ISIS of Sunni Islam. But its co-opting of something widely seen as such a significant part of Scottish history and culture, and the tacit admission of that through the Church’s silence, should chill us to the bone. Such is the passivity of our culture in Scotland that we’re willing to allow people with no substantive contribution other than aggression and fear to take centre stage in our biggest city, once a year, for a weekend which virtually always attracts trouble. And not just trouble, not just a few bad apples, but people who the Order themselves factor into their plans, along with a staffing complement that should raise eyebrows anywhere it’s seen.
When the Order tell us they’re celebrating culture and history they’re banking that our pervasive social apathy is going to outweigh any impulse to put out to pasture an anachronistic, bigoted fraternity whose vacuous celebration of the past is as hollow as their complete disregard for the country we live in today. Do we see education events from the Order? Or museums? Community engagement of any description other than drinking and brawling?
Since the weekend the Church of Scotland has taken another stride into irrelevance: it’s now almost at the horizon but that shouldn’t mean we give up on it. It still plays a role in society, even if only through the shame of its silence. Independence; its promise and its fulfilment, will hopefully be the social catalyst we need to engage people to take seriously what is one of the most pernicious facets of our history.