The Rose and the Sash

By Liam Payne

On 4th March, the Scottish broadsheet newspaper The Herald published a story revealing that the Scottish Labour Party were standing a former leader of the Orange Order as a candidate in the May local elections. The candidate, Henry Dunbar, is the former Imperial President (world leader) of the Orange Order and Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland. He will stand for Scottish Labour in the North Lanarkshire Council area of the West of Scotland.

Next door in the Airdrie South ward, the current executive director of the Orange Order in Scotland is also standing as a Scottish Labour candidate for local government. The Herald categorised these selections as being part of Scottish Labour’s battle to win British Unionist votes from the Scottish Tories in this part of the country. As an explanation of why this situation has courted controversy, the report continues: “The Order describes itself as a Protestant fraternity united by faith, but it is regarded by some as being hostile to Catholics.”

The Call It Out campaigning group, which focuses on anti-Catholic bigotry in Scotland, responded to the news by stating: “This is a slap in the face for every Catholic/Irish Catholic who has ever voted Labour – and there are many. The Scottish Labour Party can no longer speak credibly on bigotry, hatred and inequality.”

This sordid story has both historical and political resonance for Labour in Scotland and is a further episode in the shedding of the Party’s ideals and character for the sake of shifting constantly to the political right, and further slipping into utter irrelevance in Scotland.

If you know your history…

In their illuminating 2012 study The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, academics Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw identify three key pillars of Labour’s dominance of Scottish politics for most of the 20th century – council housing, trade union density and the importance of local government in an un-devolved country. Added to these, the authors pinpoint a further strength of Labour in Scotland:

“Supporting the three pillars was the issue of religion. The Catholic vote was a powerful part of ‘Labour Scotland’, a cross-class constituency concentrated in the West of Scotland and Glasgow, which acted as a barrier to the challenge of first the Conservatives, then the SNP. Labour’s relationship with the Catholic community went back to the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act, which brought Catholic schools into the state sector, with Labour seen as the main advocate of what was then in large part a poor immigrant community with little voice or influence. The Protestant working-class Conservative vote began to wither from the late 1950s, but Labour’s Catholic constituency remained through the first challenges of the SNP in the 1960s and 1970s, before weakening in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. This process of religious de-alignment altered one of the supposed certainties of Scottish politics: that there was a reliable Catholic majority vote for Labour.”(p.9).

On the Labour left, this story of Catholic loyalty to Labour has a slightly different genesis. Independent Labour Party stalwart and proud Irish Catholic John Wheatley was a highly successful pioneer in convincing the overwhelmingly working class Irish immigrant community in Scotland of the virtues of the socialist message. A local councillor, campaigner, agitator and polemicist, Wheatley took the message of socialism to this community in direct conflict with the Catholic Church in Scotland at the time.

Wheatley was elected as a Labour MP for Glasgow Shettleston in the watershed 1922 election – when Labour’s rise in industrial Scotland was confirmed electorally. Known as the ‘Red Clydesiders’, this intake of new MPs from the West of Scotland was made up of socialist firebrands such as James Maxton and Davie Kirkwood. Wheatley played an integral role in this group and the broader left as a socialist intellectual of wide repute.

In Labour’s first minority government of 1924, Wheatley was appointed Minister of Health. Through this role, Wheatley contributed the major piece of legislation from this short-lived administration: the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act 1924 – opening central government funding for a massive expansion of council house building by local authorities. It is estimated that over half a million quality dwellings were built for British working people under the provisions of this act. Thus, John Wheatley can be considered to have seriously contributed to two of Labour’s institutional pillars in Scotland.

If the bowler hat fits…

The reactionary nature of the Orange Order should be plain for all in the labour movement to see and comprehend. The Order was formed to protect and promote an idealised and triumphalist version of ‘Protestantism’. This aim implicitly sets its face against all who are not of the same faith – in the Scottish context, predominately the country’s largest immigrant community, the Catholic Irish. The politics of democratic socialism are anathema to such a conservative and staunch defender of an imagined ethno-religious status quo.

That the Labour Party in Scotland has found itself in this situation is less than surprising, however. The Party has long been in thrall to a rump of disgruntled centrist extremists who wouldn’t know the principles of socialism if they marched passed them banging an oversized drum.

This gang long ago sacrificed council housing and trade union rights to the altar of their ephemeral ‘third way’, so why not the loyalty of Catholics and immigrants in Scotland? The fact that this latest act of kamikaze politics is ostensibly to compete for Conservative voters really tells the true nature of this tale.

For a Party establishment that is hell-bent on proscribing socialist organisations and retroactively punishing anyone who looked in their direction, shutting down internal democracy at an impulsive whim, and smearing or expelling those who stand with victims of oppression and racism in Palestine, to stoop to the inclusion of high-ranking members of an organisation such as the Orange Order in potentially elected positions under the Labour banner is yet another damning indictment. It’s also ideological and electoral farce: another shameful episode all round. 

Liam Payne is a Labour Party member based in Edinburgh.

Image: Orange Parade in Larkhall, Scotland. Source: DSC_7318. Author: Ross Goodman from Scotland, United Kingdom,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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