Book reviews: George Malcolm Thomson| Hugh MacDiarmid

George Kerevan assesses studies of two of the leading figures in early 20th century Scottish Nationalism

Emilio Coias drawing of George Malcolm Thomson
Emilio Coias drawing of George Malcolm Thomson

George Malcolm Thomson: The Best-Hated Man by George McKechnie

Argyll Publishing, 286pp, £15.99

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Hugh Mac-Diarmid: Black, Green, Red and Tartan by Bob Purdie

Welsh Academic Press, 146pp, £29.99

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George Malcolm Thomson is not a name that rings bells today, but in the 1930s he earned the sobriquet of being Scotland’s “best-hated man” while still only 28.

A crusading journalist, literary publisher, novelist and playwright, Thomson was the epitome of a thrusting new class of Scottish intellectuals who emerged out of the ruins of the Great War.

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Global carnage, then catastrophic slump, destroyed the rigid Victorian order. Result: the rise of Modernism, an eclectic vision that sought a break with the past – in politics, in morality and (above all) in art.

Modernism erupted in the Scotland of the 1920s, triggered by the collapse of the great Clyde shipyards, and unprecedented mass emigration to Canada. Leith-born Thomson (son of a Scotsman journalist) was fresh out of Edinburgh University and, like his generation, angry at the state of Scotland.

In two short, polemical books that were widely read – Caledonia, or the Future of the Scots (1927) and The Re-Discovery of Scotland (1928) – Thomson pinned the blame squarely on a decadent Scottish middle class and a national Kirk that had forgotten its Presbyterian radicalism: “Scotland is a land of second-hand thoughts and second-rate minds. The first fact about the Scot is that he is a man eclipsed. The Scots are a dying people”.

Thomson went further. He argued that Scotland was doomed as a nation because of the mass immigration of the Catholic Irish.

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The curious thing about Thomson’s anti-immigrant invective is not that he was seduced by it, but that the early Scottish nationalist movement – true to its Modernist roots infused with good Scots Enlightenment humanism – comprehensively rejected racism against the Irish.

Compare the forgotten Thomson with Hugh MacDiarmid, the nom de guere of fellow early nationalist, Christopher Murray Grieve. In a scholarly and affectionate book, Bob Purdie makes a good fist of trying to rehabilitate MacDiarmid’s nationalist vision and giving it a semblance of coherence. This is the first work on MacDiarmid to concentrate on his politics and deserves to be read for that reason alone.

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Correctly, Purdie dismisses the absurd calumny that MacDiarmid was a proto-fascist, though like many left-wing intellectuals in the early 1920s he was attracted to the notion of marrying socialism to nationalism.

By way of proof, it is fascinating that in MacDiarmid’s riposte to Thomson – Albyn or Scotland and the Future (1927) – the poet goes out of his way to argue that the Irish immigration was wholly positive, as it had the potential to “re-Celticize” Scotland.

The two writers were to clash over the formation of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in 1934 from a merger of MacDiarmid’s separatist National Party of Scotland (NPS) and the right-wing Scottish Party (SP), in which Thomson played a central (if shadowy) role.

The tiny SP was a curious beast: essentially a breakaway from the Scottish Tories that espoused Home Rule (think “devo max”). For a minority in the SP, like Thomson, Home Rule was seen as a way of preserving the “purity” of the Scottish race, while taking radical action to end the economic crisis. I can’t think of a better definition of genuine fascism.

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Where Thomson’s meticulous biographer, George McKechnie (a former editor of the Herald) gets it wrong is to treat the rise of the Unionist version of Scottish Home Rule purely as a cynical plot to undermine the infant nationalist movement. He depicts Thomson as a sort of eminence grise who uses the SP to capture the NPS, in a conscious attempt to drive out radicals like MacDiarmid.

On the contrary, the vision of a Home Rule Scotland becoming a dominion like Canada, with all the dominions sending elected representatives to an Imperial Parliament in London, was popular before the First World War. A Scottish Home Rule Bill twice passed its second reading at Westminster – only to be shelved by the emergency of 1914. Far from being anti-Irish, Scottish Home Rule was seen in the Liberal Party as part of a package that would facilitate similar freedom for Ireland, fending off inevitable civil war in that island.

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MacDiarmid was not a member of the newborn SNP, effectively having been expelled by the NPS leadership under moderate John MacCormick, who was fed up with the poet’s disruptive antics. But as Purdie shows, MacDiarmid was a utopian rather than a practical politician – a visionary who saw a new Scotland being forged through culture rather than party. As for the infant SNP, under MacCormick it became studiously moderate. Some things never change.

The explanation for Thomson’s disappearance from Scottish literary history is that he left for London in 1926 and never came back – a reflection of his overblown pessimism about the nation’s future, and his platonic relationship to political nationalism.

Thomson died in Hampstead in 1996, transformed into the sort of Anglicised Scot he once denounced. He had a fascinating second career as confidant and factotum the press baron, Lord Beaverbrook. Sadly, this later life is underplayed in McKechnie’s book. Nevertheless, McKecknie deserves credit for rescuing George Malcolm Thomson from undeserved obscurity.