Unionist Labour Party in Scotland courts the Orange Order- fun and games ahead

Political Fun and Games

The Unionist press and media made claims that a resurgence in the fortunes of the Tory Party in the last Council elections was part-attributed to a transfer of the protestant Orange Order away from the Labour Party to the Tory Party which had courted the Order by changing its title back to the “Conservative and Unionist Party.”

The Torys benefited again in the next General Election when the Labour Party voter base in Scotland collapsed due to in-fighting over the political direction the Party would commit to.

The polarisation of Scottish politics appeared to be established. The Conservative and Unionist Party claimed the right to defend the Union and the influence and role of Labour and the Liberal Democratic Party had been reduced to that of political spoilers.

But the Tory Party is well capable of “shooting itself in the foot” and Boris Johnson’s government duly did so with its mishandling of Northern Ireland post-Brexit where the Republican voter base now marginally exceeds the Unionists increasing the likelihood of an early referendum and the reunification of Ireland.

The article that follows provides a detailed history of the Orange Order in Scotland and its capacity for disruption.


The Orange Order in Scotland

The Orange Order first surfaced in the north of Ireland in 1795. Its constitution commits members to the defence of Protestantism and the British Crown. It provides a focus for Protestant ethnic groups in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Although its promoted activities are focused on social and religious matters the political dimension has always been considered to be of prime importance and the Order has provided a number of political activists and leaders at many levels of Scottish political society.

The Order is not exclusively an Irish import to Scotland since the politics of native Scots in the West of Scotland is historically sectarian in nature.

This ensured the political growth of the Irish-Protestant working class in Scotland would be influenced by native Scots who were more inclined to embrace socialist ideology as opposed to confrontation.

The loss of many thousands of young Scots soldiers and the depression after WW1 changed the mindset of Irish immigrants and their descendants who became more reliant on the Order to ensure their place in Scottish society. This brought with it a significant increase in membership and a much enhanced Order presence in the politics of Scotland in the 1920-1939 period.

At the end of WW2 and up to the late 1950’s the Order was influential in ensuring the political direction of the Protestant working-class vote in the Central belt of Scotland.

The industrial downturn and slum clearance programmes in Scotland brought about the establishment of overspill areas, such as Easterhouse and Castlemilk. Expansion of town and village living; Coatbridge, Airdrie, Motherwell, Hamilton and the new town of Cumbernauld.

Similar programmes were completed in Edinburgh and the East of Scotland forming overspill areas such as Muirhouse, Sighthill and the new towns of Glenrothes and Livingston.

The impact of the changes on the Order was significant. Membership fell sharply as the population of the Central belt of Scotland became more dispersed and the influence of the Order was lessened markedly.

But although much reduced in numbers the Order in Scotland is still influential in Protestant communities.

Membership has remained consistent in the West of Scotland (in or around Glasgow) and North Lanarkshire

West Lothian, in the East of Scotland, is an Order stronghold and there are a significant number of lodges in Renfrewshire, Wigtownshire and Ayrshire.

Conversely, there are few lodges in Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen and the Highlands and Borders regions.


Male members of the Order

The highest ever male concentration of the Order in Scotland was recorded at 10% in Govan and Rutherglen, but overall Scottish male membership density rarely exceeded two per cent. In 2017 the figure is reduced to less than 1%. For comparison male membership of the Order in Belfast routinely peaks at around 20%


Membership Patterns

In Glasgow, at the Ward level, pockets of the Order are to be found in; Govan (Kingston), Ibrox, Kinning Park, Fairfield, Kingston, Rutherglen, Cowcaddens, Drumchapel, Maryhill, Possil, Cowlairs, Baillieston and Bridgeton.


Causes of Membership Change

Order membership improved following the introduction of licensed social clubs coupled with an ever-increasing appeal of soccer and paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. Spikes and fluctuations in membership are also attributed to a number of factors:

Threats to Protestantism: marked decrease in Scottish Protestant church membership and increasing secularisation resulting in declining church attendance and Pastoral influence.

Threats to the Union: e.g. a visit to Scotland by the Pope


The Northern Ireland Troubles of 1969-90

In the 1960s and throughout the troubles the policies of the Order in Scotland became ever more militant answering the perceived threat to the Union by Nationalists.

“Scottish” Lodges and their bands travelled to Northern Ireland in increasing numbers during the “Marching” season. Over time the distinct “Scottishness” of marching lodge members was replaced with “Ulsterness”. Scottish saltires were replaced with the Red hand of Ulster and the Union Jack. Surveys identified that Order members claimed their identity to be “British” and it was the protection of the “Union” that drove them to go to Ulster each year.

The Grand Lodge of Scotland which supported financial contributions to Ulster was also heavily involved politically, throughout the period with the many different factions in Ulster and UK governments. The Order benefited from the troubles achieving the highest ever level of membership in many years.


The Sea Change

The 1982 visit of the Pope proved to be the turning point for the Order and its steady decline in membership and influence. Hard-line “Ulsterised” rank and file members demanded militant action preventing the visit but were not supported by senior Order officers or the Grand Lodge.

A number of small groups ignored instructions and went ahead with protests causing an amount of disruption. The failure of the Grand Lodge to establish control encouraged lodges to ignore instructions forbidding them from introducing Sunday opening, the sale of alcohol and singing and dancing. An added impact was the increasing militancy and unruly behaviour of marching bands and their supporters. Bands had evolved from the Scottish pipe bands of the 1960s, first to the accordion, then to “blood and guts” flute bands whose average membership age was under 30y. Despite suspensions, the bands continue to perform at many “Orange Walks” in Scotland and Northern Ireland.



The Order in Scotland can be credited with the establishment of a working-class Unionist Tory base through the lodge system and its influence over political events in Glasgow up to the start of WW2 was substantial resulting in a number of Tory Orange Order MPs being elected to Westminster. The Order had little purchase however in the rest of Scotland since there were no other significant Orange Order clusters.

The Scottish Unionists’ successful political recruitment and retention strategies up to the early 1960s were centred on cultivating the votes of the Order membership without compromising its aims and ideals. But the Tory party alienated many members of the Order when it turned away from Unionism retaining only “Conservative” in its title. Many Order members drifted away to the Labour party.

Thatcher’s agreement to support the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement proved to be the catalyst that severed links between the Order and the Tory Party in Scotland. Disillusioned Order members, supported by the Grand Lodge formed a political block to the Tory Party using their votes tactically making claim to a reduction in the number of Tory MP’s in Scotland.

Political observers have inclined to the view that the withdrawal of their support had less impact on the fortunes of the Tory party in Scotland blaming other Thatcher actions against Scotland.


Freemasonry in Scotland

The Scottish Protestant tradition of Masonry stretches back to the middle ages and the organisation of Freemasons in Scotland is broadly similar to that of the Orange Order. Indeed there is a school of thought that supports the view that the Order first adopted the rules of Scottish Freemasonry and amended them to suit their own needs. It is of no surprise that the Orange Order has done so well among Scottish Protestants.

Scotland’s total of around 170,000 Masons is the largest Masonic membership rate worldwide making it a Protestant institution guaranteed its place in Scottish society.

The stability of Scottish Freemasonry is attributed to its “articles of association” which require members to be strictly apolitical and non-religious, unlike the Orange order, (with 70% of its Scottish membership clustered in Central Scotland.)

It is also important to draw attention to class differences between the two groups of Protestants in Scotland. In Glasgow, Masonic Lodge halls are primarily located in the more affluent West of the City and in the satellite villages and small towns on the city’s outskirts. Major concentrations of Masonic lodges are also to be found in the Borders, Highlands and the Northeast. Other lodges are located, in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Perth. Conversely, Orange Order Lodge Halls are located in working-class areas of Glasgow and similar locations in other towns in the West of Scotland.


In the last 30 years, Scottish Protestant church membership and attendance have fallen significantly and the Grand Lodge is increasingly impotent in the control of younger, often more militant members who challenge its right to dictate policy in regards to the support of Ulster Orange men.

The continued presence of the Order is directly attributed to the past influx of Irish-Protestant immigrants and their descendants and its power is only retained in areas of historic Irish-Protestant immigration such as Larkhall, Airdrie and parts of West Lothian. Overall however the strength of the Order, (even in the West of Scotland) is relatively weak.


6 thoughts on “Unionist Labour Party in Scotland courts the Orange Order- fun and games ahead

  1. Do we know what the rate of joint membership is in Scotland of these two organisations?
    That is:

    1. % population
    2. % Free Masons that are also Orangemen
    3. % Ornagemen that are also Free Masons


      1. I agree CJ, but I really wasn’t making any kind of point.

        I was simply interested in the crossover between the two groups and proportion of society they represented of the population as a whole.

        A genuinely innocent question.


      1. That maybe true . But the point is , there is no ban on RCs joining the Masons from the actual Masonic institution itself , and plenty are members . It’s became somewhat of an urban myth that they don’t allow Catholics . The RC church however frowns upon membership . I do however believe that the Orange and the other “loyal “ institutions ,may use a similar structure of organisation within their organisations as the Masonic , as several of the original founders may have been masons also 🤷🏻‍♂️ But there is no official link between the two


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