Bonfire of the vanities
I saw a rather grim face friend of mine approaching in Glasgow city centre back in the 1990s. We met by the old C&A corner and I asked him why he was looking so down. He fished his light summer jacket out of a carrier bag and pointed out the copious amounts of spit on the back of it. He had walked into the tail end or an Orange Parade and the followers of the bands had apparently decided that his jacket, being green, was fair game for their ire. It was sadly not uncommon to hear such tales or see my fellow Glaswegians zip up jackets to hide Celtic shirts or tuck crucifixes out of sight when they heard the drums booming. Is this the society we want?
There are several pubs I’ve been in over the years which can boast a ‘Celtic end’ and ‘Rangers end’ of the bar. One in Glasgow I used to frequent on occasion had just this set up and although it sounds a little odd to any outsider it was actually a fairly friendly place. Folk mixed and chatted away and only when Glasgow’s two big teams met was there any discernible tension. A few years back I was in this pub and found myself beside a seemingly nice chap and we discussed football and related matters. It was no problem to me that under his arm was a carrier bag containing his Rangers scarf which he intended to wear to the match that afternoon. I’m open to talking to anyone as there are few people we meet in life we can’t learn something from. We chatted about football and both had our differing views on the state of the game. I held my peace as he explained why he, a working class man from a peripheral Glasgow housing estate, voted Conservative. He then moved on to his membership of the Orange Order and I was genuinely interested in his reasons for being part of the organisation which to be honest I hold in some distain. ‘The glorious revolution was the beginning of civil and religious freedom in this country.’ he informed me.
As I listened to his extolling of the virtues of King William and the golden era of peace and harmony he brought, I got to thinking of the power of myth over factual history. Rather than ushering in a time of ‘civil and religious freedom,’ William’s victory over King James led in the end to the penal laws and institutional discrimination against the Catholic majority (and to a lesser degree, dissenting Protestants) in Ireland which to modern eyes seems appalling. Among a long list of restrictions designed to keep them in the lower echelons of society, Catholics could not vote, hold office, own a weapon, own a horse worth more than £5, attend school, practice their religion or serve in the army. Presbyterians suffered, albeit less severely, under such laws too and this led some to throw their lot in with the United Irishmen in the 1798 rebellion. The Penal laws were described by Edmund Burke as being…
‘’As well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.’’
It took over 200 years for the last of the penal laws to be rolled back and the last of the restrictions were finally legally abolished in the ‘Government of Ireland Act. (1920) The man I spoke to in the pub seemed oblivious to all of this as I chatted to him. Indeed his eyes glazed over and he seemed to filter out anything which might challenge his world view. I don’t know if it’s lazy thinking or simply a refusal to consider the values he had been brought up with might be wrong but either way he was disinterested in any facts I had to offer. He seemed genuine in his outlook although looking back the words of Martin Luther King seem apt…
‘’Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.’’
Of course all communities and countries have their myths and folk narratives which seek to bind the group together. Often historical reality is left behind or ignored in the name of creating a narrative which suits the group. We have seen this in Ireland where the 200,000 Irishmen who fought and suffered grievously in World War One were airbrushed out of history at a time the focus of much attention was the nation’s struggle for independence from Britain. So too with the ‘brethren’ of the Orange Order who like to portray themselves as doing nothing more than exercising their right to celebrate their history and culture. Alas the celebration of this ‘culture’ is often seen as little more than empty triumphalism and the sort of exclusivism most of Europe left in the history books long ago.
A week or two ago residents of the town of Falkirk received a leaflet through the door about the upcoming Orange Parade. The leaflet started with the phrase ‘Everybody loves a parade’ and went on to describe the event which virtually brought the town of Falkirk to a standstill as a celebration of ‘religious tolerance.’ For those of us who live with these ‘celebrations’ on an annual basis, tolerance is not the word which springs to mind. Glasgow currently hosts more Orange/Loyal Order marches than Belfast and the spectacle is not edifying. This year’s event saw Orange bands playing the racist ‘Famine Song’ on Dumbarton Road as drunken hangers on sang along. We may not yet allow the burning of Irish flags and Catholic statues on bonfires as occurs each year in the north of Ireland but nonetheless seem to allow open exhibitions of racism at the parades. Indeed ‘Lodge Blairgowrie’ in Perthshire held its opening night a year back and had a flute band playing the Famine Song. It isn’t hard to find scores of such videos on YouTube and other examples of a culture which seems to define itself by what it stands against rather than what it stands for. The reformed branch of Christianity they claim to represent is hard to discern amid the drum banging and triumphalism. Surely the followers of Christ are meant to practice forgiveness, tolerance and love not denigrate their neighbours beliefs with displays of boorish bigotry? But then these events are less about Christian fellowship and more about that ‘We are the People’ mentality which so tediously rears its head in our land.
Scotland has changed greatly in my lifetime and much of that change has been positive. Some though cling to ideas of who they are which are increasingly out of step with the modern world. Most Scots have no time for such outdated and divisive displays of tribal identity and see them as unnecessary and even embarrassing. A new idea of what being Scottish is has grown and it has nothing to do with religion, skin tone or ethnic background. It has to do with accepting values such as inclusion, fairness, decency and respect for others and their beliefs. Some may say this article doesn’t show respect for the beliefs of those attracted to Orangeism but I would say that when it divests itself of its more overtly sectarian aspects and becomes a positive force in our society it may earn respect.
I don’t consider myself to be a bitter man and like to think I call out bigotry wherever I see it but it really is hard to make a case for our town centres grinding to a halt so a noisy minority can celebrate long gone battles with no relevance in modern Scotland. In a free society we are bound to support the right to peaceful assembly but we are no bound to support such divisive demonstrations with tax-payers money nor pay the huge Policing bill which accompanies them. Nor should the disruption to people’s lives and businesses be tolerated.
These marches have shrunk hugely over the course of my lifetime as their relevance in people’s lives has diminished. Orangeism no longer has any real political influence and is sustained as a mostly working class sub culture. Most of the men and woman marching each summer are in the fifty plus category and that decline will surely continue. Instead of burning people’s flags or religious statues some would do better to throw silly ideas of supremacy and triumphalism onto the bonfires and accept we can be different and still be friends and neighbours.
How I’d love to see a colourful, noisy Parade each summer which celebrates Scotland and all its cultural diversity rather than this rather depressing mono-culture. A parade we could take our children to and celebrate being Scottish no matter our origins, beliefs or culture. One which doesn’t shout ‘We are the people’ but rather reinforces the fact that we are all the people and celebrate that fact.
Is that too much to ask?