OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Orange Order is planning a march through Edinburgh five days before the Scottish independence referendum. Norman Bonney writes that the march makes manifest a significant dimension of the referendum campaign that has received little attention, the religious dimension. The UK state is, in terms of current law, a Protestant Christian one. Whatever the result needs to be a fundamental reassessment of whether a Protestant Christian UK constitution can provide coherent unity for a state with a religiously diverse and increasingly secular population

News that the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland is to organise a march through central Edinburgh on Saturday 13 September, five days before the referendum on Scottish independence, raises a number of interesting and potentially significant issues that so far have not been prominent in the debate over the referendum to establish a separate Scottish state.

According to the Observer journalist Kevin Mckenna ‘Henry Dunbar, grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, which he said has around 40,000 members, insisted the march would have a “carnival atmosphere”, and would promote a positive image of Britishness. “It will be very much about promoting the union: we’re proud to be Scottish but we’re also very proud to be British,” Dunbar said. “Our members feel very strongly [about a No vote] and our members are really up for it.”

There have been occasional Orange Lodge marches in Edinburgh in recent years but involvement in them has been on a modest scale. The proposed event will be of a much greater size and significance and will occur almost a year since a very large pro-independence rally in the city was preceded in the morning, likely by design, by the installation of the new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Edinburgh and St Andrews. The previous incumbent, now in disgrace and exile from Scotland, had in 2006 declared in favour of independence.

The Orange Order in Scotland

The consummate timing of the 2014 Orange Order march makes manifest on the eve of the referendum a significant dimension of the referendum campaign that has heretofore not received attention. The Order is not held in high esteem by most Scots. In much of the country its concerns do not resonate highly but in Glasgow and the central industrial belt, there are concentrations of the Protestant population that are attracted to the style of socialising, public display and ceremony, even though there is an equally large Roman Catholic population there which is indifferent or actively rejecting of it. The Boyne parades in Glasgow, that happen annually in July, are an important feature of the annual calendar. The police in 2013 handed over the management of the processions to stewards and marshals of the Order, while the constabulary focused on associated misbehaviours such as public drinking, social disorder and ‘uncceptable’ displays of ‘sectarianism’.

The fact that the annual July celebrations, this year on the 12th of the month, in Glasgow are invoked in the name of the Battle of the Boyne on 1 July 1690 in Northern Ireland might suggest that the event has only significance for that province. But paradoxically, a group that is generally out of favour with the general population in Scotland and incomprehensible to much of the UK population because of its association with sectarian religious conflict and violence in Northern Ireland, can in many ways be said to be in conformity with the official religious and constitutional values of the union state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Protestant United Kingdom

Conflict in Northern Ireland has its origins not exclusively in that province. It derives from the very structure of the UK state and its monarchy and the difficulties of sustaining these arrangements in a province of the state where the population is split 45/48 per cent respectively between Roman Catholics and Protestants. According to still prevailing legislation dating from 1688, 1700 and 1707 the UK monarch has to be Christian and Protestant. No Roman Catholic can ascend to the throne. The monarch has to swear, according to the Acts of Union of 1707 to ‘maintain and preserve the True Protestant Religion and the Presbyterian form of church government in Scotland’; he or she has to swear before the UK Parliament, or at the coronation clearly to reject the doctrines and authority of the Roman Catholic Church, and at the coronation to uphold Protestantism, the gospel and the establishment privileges of the Church of England.

Despite the many overtures in recent times by the monarch and the UK and Scottish Government to other Christian denominations and other faiths, the UK state is, in terms of current law, a Protestant Christian one. In celebrating the Protestant victory of the Battle of the Boyne, Orange Order parades in Northern Ireland, Scotland and in cities such as Liverpool, which has 92 lodges, are actually celebrating the very religious and constitutional basis of the UK state, whatever the perceptions that may be held about these events by numerous other interests. (Interestingly there are also substantial lodges in Ghana and Togo!)

The Orange Order stresses that it is a profoundly Christian organisation and has a unique affinity with the UK state. Uniquely among the ‘Churches’ the Grand Orange Lodge in Scotland is pledged to the continuation of Scotland’s membership of the UK parliamentary union. The Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland are holding debates in the May general assemblies but are not expected to take an official position one way or another. The Church of Scotland is seeking to retain its existing unique privileged status in a continuing UK or an independent Scotland and proposes a Scottish coronation of a new monarch which it would be best placed to conduct – just as it has recently asserted national primacy in suggesting a service of reconciliation following the result of the independence referendum this September.


What will be the effects of the Edinburgh parade so late in the campaign? There are those who argue that it will toughen up the disposition of Roman Catholic voters, some 16 per cent of the electorate, in the Yes direction. Support for independence is already higher among Roman Catholics than among Protestants and the parade might increase that. To avoid association with Northern Ireland ‘loyalist’ para-militarism, the Order is encouraging certain elements not to be present, but Orange Order representatives are likely to be there from that province and from England alongside the Scots as part of a public demonstration of British unity. In all likelihood, late in the campaign, when electors are exhausted by months of challenging debate, the parade is not likely to change many minds but at least it will make public an undertow of little known and understood deep loyalty to the UK state in Scotland and other parts of the union.

After the referendum in Scotland and the UK, whatever the result, there needs to be a fundamental reassessment of whether a Protestant Christian UK constitution, shaped in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, can provide coherent unity for a state with a religiously diverse and increasingly secular population.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Homepage image credit: Ninian Reid

About the Author


Norman Bonney – Edinburgh Napier University

Norman Bonney is emeritus professor at Edinburgh Napier University. His ‘Monarchy, religion and the state; civil religion in the UK, Canada, Australia and the Commonwealth’ was published by Manchester University Press in December 2013.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email