A little over a month ago, MacMillan wrote an opinion piece for the Scotsman about Scottish Independence titled ‘Arts and the Referendum’. The article is part of a series of Scotsman articles where ‘influential’ figures give their view on ideas related to Scottish Independence.
The majority of the article has been lazily copied and pasted from another article MacMillan wrote for the Telegraph blog in November 2013.
In the new introduction to this old article, MacMillan states that while he is ‘interested in how the search for the sacred continues in our own time and culture’ he is keen to keep his views on independence private. He then goes on to shit all over National Collective (‘young, shouty, and completely unquestioning’, ‘their poetry seems risible and thin, and certainly light on nuance and subtlety’), Alan Bissett (for being a shite poet/rabble rouser) and finally Hugh MacDiarmid (for being a fascist, a supporter of Mussolini, and holding pro-Nazi sentiments during WWII – all of these claims have been lifted verbatim from his Telegraph blog article).
MacMillan’s ‘Arts and the Referendum’ basically says this:
– I’m a ‘political animal’ and I wonder if art should ‘reflect a political creed’
– I want to keep my views on independence private
– ‘The interface between art and politics has resurfaced in the debate about independence.’ (lol)
– National Collective are young, unquestioning and shite
– Alan Bissett’s writing about independence is shite rabblerousing
– MacDiarmid flirted wae fascism, supported Mussolini, and wis pro-Nazi
– Unsubstantiated comparison between Bissett & MacDiarmid
– ‘Youthful idealism or patriotism can sometimes give succour to dark, lurking forces in our collective psyche.’
And in conclusion:
– ‘Artists can be agents of good in society, but we can see that some of them end up supporting evil, blind to the roots and inevitable ends of their thinking.’
The criticism of National Collective feels unfair. He doesn’t really explain why he thinks they’re ‘unquestioning’ and the pejorative use of ‘young’ suggests that its somehow a weakness rather than a strength that younger people in Scotland are becoming politically mobile in the advent of the referendum. He criticises their poetry as ‘propaganda rather than art’ and ‘light on nuance and subtlety’. He suggests that both Nat Collective and Alan Bissett are putting people off taking part in the debate. Which is ironic because all Nat Collective and Alan Bissett are doing is taking part in the debate themselves. And in the case of Nat Collective they seem to be proactively trying to get more people involved. MacMillan then mentions that there are rumours that the Yes Campaign is embarrassed by them. He then goes on to reproduce a large section of the article he wrote for the Telegraph blog accusing Hugh MacDiarmid of being a pro-fascist Mussolini supporter, a Nazi Sympathizer – or worse pro-Nazi! – and then draws a highly questionable comparison between MacDiarmid and Bissett:
‘Some of you may be outraged that I bracket Bissett together here with MacDiarmid. Rest assured though that there is no attempt at false and mischievous equivalence on my part. The latter is a great artist while Bissett clearly isn’t. But politics can seduce artists in different ways and in different times, sometimes more dangerously than others. Some find the glamour and drama of political power and intrigue irresistible. Sometimes I am glad that music is the most abstract of the arts.’
This, like the article itself, isn’t cohesive. The whole piece moves disjointedly and lazily, but ultimately parallels Alan Bissett and by extension National Collective to a Hugh MacDiarmid characterized as fascist and pro-Nazi. Whatever your feelings about Nat Collective and Bissett may be, MacMillan accusing them of being unquestioning, seduced by dangerous (possibly far right?!) politics and the glamour of political intrigue in a thinly veiled attempt to discredit their pro-indy stance reads like little more than mudslinging. Fear mongering and misinformation are the calling card of the NO camp.
It’s probably worthwhile to unpack the section of this article (lazily copied and pasted) that shits all over MacDiarmid. MacDiarmid wrote two essays in the 1920s entitled ‘Plea For A Scottish Fascism’ & ‘Programme For A Scottish Fascism’. It is generally accepted that MacDiarmid had patched these sympathies by the 1930s, u-turned in his stance on Mussolini, and didn’t approve of Chamberlain appeasing the Nazis. MacMillan seems to have directly lifted his information about MacDiarmid from an article published in the Scotsman titled ‘Hugh MacDiarmid: Scots Would Have Been Better off under the Nazis’ which was reporting the unearthing of correspondence between MacDiarmid and Sorley MacClean where MacDiarmid suggested that Scots may be better off under Nazi rule than British rule. Here’s the extracts from the letters in question:
‘Although the Germans are appalling enough, they cannot win, but the British and French bourgeoisie can and they are a far greater enemy’
‘If the Germans win they could not hold their gain for long, but if the French and British win it will be infinitely more difficult to get rid of them’.
Hardly the pro-Nazi position MacMillan attributes to him. MacMillan goes on to quote a MacDiarmid poem that was unpublished in the writer’s lifetime, which suggest he doesn’t care about London being bombed in the war:
‘Now when London is threatened
With devastation from the air
I realise, horror atrophying me,
That I hardly care.’
(MacDiarmid, On the Imminent Destruction of London, June 1940)
A more measured analysis of this poem than James MacMillan’s actually echoes some of MacMillan’s sentiments from earlier in his article on independence:
‘Macdiarmid’s voice is not identical with that of his poems: his poetry’s first person is not synonymous with Macdiarmid the man (actually called Christopher Grieve). So, to argue as I have done about, about (sic) the “argument” – the line of reasoning – of a particular poem, is itself specious.’
A poetic persona isn’t necessarily outlining the poets own thoughts and feelings. A poem is not necessarily a manifesto. MacMillan may accuse National Collective and Alan Bissett of lacking nuance and subtlety and making propaganda that masquerades as art but he then goes on to read MacDiarmid’s poem as though it were mere political propaganda. MacMillan’s article relies on the conflation between MacDiarmid writing sympathetically about Mussolini and fascism in the 1920s – a stance he subsequently abandoned – and MacDiarmid writing about WWII in the 1940s (an unpublished poem and some private correspondence, both of which are really more anti-British than ‘pro-Nazi’) to stamp MacDiarmid a fascist and a Nazi sympathizer.
Suffice to say it’s not as black and white as that.
MacMillan adds a new conclusion to his old reading of MacDairmid:
‘Hugh MacDiarmid’s art and his wild, radical, “progressive” idealism can be difficult to disentangle.
Artists can be agents of good in society, but we can see that some of them end up supporting evil, blind to the roots and inevitable ends of their thinking.’
Supporting evil such as fascism or… Scottish independence!?
James MacMillan’s article(s) and his wild, conservative “not mischievous” equivalences and implications can be difficult to distance yourself enough from. The theme of the anti-independence lobby these last few months has been fear mongering and misinformation and MacMillan’s article adds to an already rich tradition of spurious analysis and bile coming out of the “no” camp.