THE English poet AH Clough seemed a decent enough guy. He was an unpaid secretarial assistant to his wife’s cousin Florence Nightingale, and the brother of the famous suffragette, Anne Clough. So far so right on.

Throughout most of his life Clough was a man who liked to challenge religious ­orthodoxy. He once published a satirical alternative to the Ten Commandments, which included a variation that has since been taken up by advocates of euthanasia: “Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive officiously to keep alive:”

Ironically, it was another one of Clough’s many concepts that was in widespread ­circulation when Scottish Labour took the bizarre decision to allow Henry Dunbar, one of Scotland’s most senior Orange men to become a local election candidate.

Dunbar has risen to the heights of his preferred organisation and for that alone he cannot be dismissed as just a bar-room bigot. He was once the most ­powerful ­Orangeman in the world, becoming ­Imperial President of the Orange Order and he has also served as Grand Master of the Lodge from 2010 to 2016.

Nonetheless, given the volatile dynamics of Scottish politics, it is astonishing that his candidature has been accepted, trapping Scottish Labour leaders in ­another quandary and exposing them to accusations of sectarianism, divisiveness and rank hypocrisy.

Many Labour supporters, desperate to wriggle away from embarrassment, reached for a phrase that Clough had coined in the 19th century, at the height of wars within the Anglican movement. He described his congregation then as a “broad church” capable of ­housing ­different and divergent views. It is a phrase that has been passed down over generations and is now widely used and not only within the Labour Party.

The National: Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar speaking during the Scottish Labour conference at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Picture date: Friday March 4, 2022. PA Photo. See PA story POLITICS ScotLabour. Photo credit should read: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

“Broad Church” is a fascinating and highly pliable concept used to contain ­internal disputes that threaten to fracture party unity.

I vividly remember a neo-Stalinist ­meeting of the Perth City Soul Club in the back bar of the Corrina Hotel, when an errant DJ, appealed to the ­committee to allow him to play Bowie songs. In his defence used the term “we’re a broad church”.

It shames me to this day that I was a leader of the Hezbollah faction at the soul club insisting that only black ­music was permissible. The so-called broad church did not extend to playing Bowie songs ­featuring his greatest backing singer ­Luther Vandross, because ideological ­purism won the day.

I voted that the scandalous DJ be cast into our equivalent of the Gulag archipelago, which was the front bar in the ­Salutation Hotel.

Since its origins in industrial Scotland the Labour Party has always been a broad church, albeit within strictly defined ­parameters. It grew out of the trade union movement and 19th century socialism and has always pitched itself as a party of ordinary people, mainly working-class but also seeking the support of teachers, ­doctors and the caring middle-classes.

At the height of the Home Rule Crisis in 1913, in deference to the Irish Labour Party, the Labour Party decided not to stand candidates in Ireland, a policy that has been maintained since partition. ­Labour was to be a British (not a ­United Kingdom) party. A broad church but ­British nonetheless.

Those that supported home rule for Scotland were a very vociferous presence in the early days of the Labour Party in Scotland, but with time their voice and their influence faded, overwhelmed by the war effort, the rise of the welfare state, the institution of the Barnett ­formula, and more recently the need to provide a meaningful alternative to Thatcherism and industrial decline.

Throughout those years, Labour Party was a broad church of sorts, capable ­under duress of hoisting a canopy to ­shelter, socialists, feminists, anti-nuclear sympathisers and even home-rulers.

Last week did significant damage to that benign idea. Hollie Cameron, a ­supporter of a second independence referendum, was rejected as a Labour candidate for Glasgow Kelvin, on the basis that there was no confidence in her willingness to accept the whip. Meanwhile, a mere 15 miles away, the North Lanarkshire branch were endorsing the candidature of a loyal Orangemen.

Although the Labour Party has ­attracted its fair share of idiosyncratic characters over the years, it is not known as the party of the Orange Order. Crude as it may seem, that is how it will now be portrayed by its critics.

Many were baffled by last week’s ­decision and two factions in ­particular raised their voices. Firstly, those old ­Labour members who have since ­defected to the Yes movement, if not to the SNP, and secondly those who supported ­

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership whether they were part of the Momentum faction, or not.

I have heard numerous shrieks of ­disbelief from people who felt that ­traditional socialists had been purged out of the party under Keir Starmer’s centrist leadership, only to have a senior figure from the Orange Order ushered in the door.

The Scottish Labour Leader Anas ­Sarwar tried to defend the “broad church” theory in a catastrophic interview with Martin Geissler on BBC Scotland last Sunday morning. It came at a moment of maximum pain for Sarwar who had spent the previous 14 days unveiling a new look with an emblematic Scottish thistle ­replacing the conventional red rose.

Sarwar wriggled around what was ­clearly an enormous own goal. He tried the feeble defence that candidates are ­ chosen by their local branch, arguing through gritted teeth that it would have no bearing on the wider Labour Party.

Sarwar’s body language conferred it was a horrendous mistake which risks ­undermining the Labour Party’s once special relationship with Catholic ­communities.

Conventional wisdom once claimed that the Labour Party offered a haven for immigrant communities from Ireland, Italy and Poland, at a time when they were the persecuted minorities.

In the electoral battles of the past, ­Labour made some progress ­convincing worried Catholic families that the SNP were a Protestant threat to their ­community.

Those ties have loosened significantly over the decades but perceptions linger and last week’s decision proved to be ­another reversal for Scottish Labour’s ­declining fortunes.

The announcement that a leader of the Orange Order was an acceptable ­candidate whilst left-leaning ­supporters of ­Corbyn are being purged and ­independence ­supporters are discouraged from standing for election in ­Scotland, ­seriously risks ­injuring Labour’s ­credibility as a ­proverbial “broad church” and also as a centre left party.

Labour seem to believe they can go blithely into the future still beating the drum for the Union whilst espousing the values of social justice, imagining that in some fantasy future they will amass enough votes to become the majority party in England, and that a reawakened Scotland will carry them back to ­power. Then having re-shaped Britain as a ­federal dreamland, they will return home to save Scotland from the spectre of ­independence.

It is an arcane and massively ­convoluted script but that is what we are expected to believe might happen.

It is fair to say that perceptions can be just as electorally damaging as policies and the uncritical unionism that lurks at the heart of Scottish Labour runs the risk of dealing it another brutal blow.

When someone as grandly mainstream as Jackie Baillie admits that the Better Together partnership of 2014 was a huge mistake, then you wonder what next for Labour.

To answer that you have to question where power really lies. Does Anas ­Sarwar have the conviction to warn Starmer that this knee-jerk opposition to Scottish self-governance is actually ­hurting ­Labour?

And if Sarwar does have the strength of character is London even interested in listening?