THE Orange Order has vowed to mobilise its 50,000 members in Scotland to oppose the SNP at the next general election and shore up the vote to retain the Union.
The staunchly sectarian group announced it would renounce its traditional dislike of the Labour Party to provide practical support for Scotland's biggest pro-Union political force.
The order will encourage its members to volunteer for election campaigns, to act as footsoldiers for unionist parties and help with everything from leafleting to licking envelopes. It will also support unionist parties with pro-Union campaigns of its own.
In its strongest reaction to the rise of Scottish Nationalism yet, Grand Master Ian Wilson said the order would do anything in its power to save Scotland's 302-year-old union with England, even if that meant "getting into bed with Labour".
The move could have a major impact on the election – the order has more members than the political parties – and is bound to open rifts and cause controversy.
Wilson said that local lodges in Fife had played a key role in campaigning for Prime Minister Gordon Brown's party in last year's Glenrothes by-election, which Labour won comfortably despite an expected SNP victory.
He said the order had now made political overtures to both Labour and its traditional allies, the Conservatives, and would back unionist candidates on a constituency by constituency basis without overtly endorsing any single party.
Both Labour and the Conservatives yesterday insisted they had never discussed election strategy with the order. But Labour in particular is expected to struggle to mobilise its often disillusioned membership, officially just under 20,000, to fight off the SNP challenge next year.
One insider said the party, which has a strong base among west coast Catholics, would be reluctant to turn down practical support from "a disciplined and easily mobilised force" like the order, but would be even more reluctant to acknowledge help from such a quarter.
Wilson said: "There is no question in my mind that the biggest problem facing Scotland at the moment is the growth in Scottish nationalism. And the order – as one of Scotland's biggest unionist organisations – has got to get real about protecting the Union.
"The reality is the only party you can do that through in Scotland is the Labour Party."
Wilson believes the next big election battles in Scotland – for Westminster next year, and Holyrood the year after – will be between Labour and the SNP and will be fought in the lowland industrial constituencies where his order is strongest.
The order, which mustered between 8,000 and 12,000 people to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Union in Edinburgh in 2007, has already printed tens of thousands of pro-Union leaflets and plans to distribute more.
The Orange Order declaration will open up fault lines in traditional support for political parties in Scotland. Yesterday, Nationalists said they were relaxed about the prospect of Orangemen – and women – campaigning for their opponents.
Privately some welcomed the move, hoping to embarrass their opponents by association with a movement often held in contempt by many Scots of all faiths.
The SNP's John Mason, a devout Baptist who narrowly prised Glasgow East – one of the most religiously divided constituencies in Scotland – from Labour last year, said: "There really is a funny side to this when you bear in mind quite a few senior Labour politicians, while backing the Union of Scotland and England, are openly Nationalist in an Irish context, which is what animates the order."
Political commentator Gerry Hassan said: "Such an alliance could have disastrous consequences for both sides," he said. "It's a relationship the Labour Party is going to want to body swerve for all sorts of obvious reasons. And it's a relationship lots of Orangemen are going to find hard to stomach too."
The Orange Order, after decades of gentle decline, has made a slight recovery in its membership in the last three years, it claims. Wilson believes this is partly a response to the threat of Scottish independence. But it is also, he concedes, the result of a perception that some in authority in Scotland have an agenda against the movement.
Many rank-and-file order supporters believe both the SNP and Labour would like them to "curl up and die", Wilson said. Labour-controlled Glasgow City Council, for example, has said it would like to see an end to nine out of ten of the hundreds of Orange Order processions through the west of Scotland every year.
Historian Tom Devine, Scotland's foremost scholar of sectarianism, said: "The constitutional issue has prised open old loyalties, causing some to be reversed and transformed.
"For all the talk of the order being a religious organisation, its political root is unionism. And in much of Scotland, Labour are the dominant party of the Union.
The order sees the Union as being in mortal danger. So even if it takes a very long spoon, they would be prepared to sup with the devil to save it."
A spokesman for Labour said he was unaware of any Orange Order support for the party, in Glenrothes or since. He said: "We welcome support from people of all faiths who agree with our policies.
"Individual MPs and MSPs speak regularly to church and religious organisation on matters of concern to them when lobbied by such organisations.
"However, we have had absolutely no discussions whatsoever with the Orange Order, or any other organisation, about our election strategy."
A spokesman for the Tories said he had no knowledge of discussions and denied any direct links or meetings on strategy with the order.
He said: "We take the view that it is up to each individual to decide how to vote and in seats across Scotland we will be fighting to win in the British General Election."