Anti-English artists are ‘fanning the flames’ of bigotry, warns composer

James MacMillan criticised Alasdair Gray's comments. Picture: Robert Perry
James MacMillan criticised Alasdair Gray's comments. Picture: Robert Perry
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LEADING composer James MacMillan has entered the “anti-Englishness” row engulfing the cultural scene north of the border, urging artists to be wary of “fanning the flames” of bigotry and calling for politicians to defuse the situation.

Mr MacMillan has attacked writer Alasdair Gray for his criticism of the appointment of English “colonists” to powerful positions in the arts in Scotland, saying people across the UK would be “astonished” by them.

He said most Scots were embarrassed about “anti-Englishness” and said anyone objecting to English people taking on prominent jobs at the head of arts organisations in Scotland should examine their conscience.

Mr MacMillan - one of the most outspoken critics of bigotry in his home country in recent years - spoke out as the Yes Scotland campaign for independence moved to distance itself from Mr Gray’s comments, insisting its cause was both “positive and inclusive.”

Mr Gray triggered a huge row at the weekend when it emerged he had written a hard-hitting essay - entitled “Settlers and Colonists” - for a new book on independence.

He expressed opposition to short-term colonists who come north of the border to advance their careers, then head back to England.

He added that some arts administrators, who were invited to Scotland by Scots, could be classified as colonists because “their work for institutions originally created to encourage art in Scotland actually depressed it”. He added that “these colonists were invited here and employed by Scots without confidence in their own land and people”.

Politicians, artists and critics have waded into the debate sparked by the essay, which has been heightened after Vicky Featherstone, the hugely-successful outgoing director of the National Theatre of Scotland claimed she had been the victim of anti-English bullying during her tenure.

Writing in The Scotsman, Mr MacMillan said: “I read in the press of the outgoing director of the National Theatre of Scotland, Vicky Featherstone, disclosing that she has endured anti-English bullying to such an extent that it briefly left her unable to do her job.

“I also read that this bullying had ‘really, really upset’ her and left her “paralysed” artistically.

“At a time when Scottish police figures are showing record racist attacks against ‘white Britons’, politicians are warning about anti-English rhetoric ‘creeping’ into Scottish society, and leading voices of our parochial chatteratti are railing against artistic colleagues from down south as ‘colonists,’ I would like to take the opportunity at this time of goodwill to offer a hearty Scottish welcoming embrace to the new director of the NTS, Laurie Sansom.

“The fact that he is English will only be a source of annoyance to the most incoherent bar-room scrooges in these parts. Some might want to use this Christmas period as a time for examination of conscience, to feel the appropriate shame for their lack of hospitality to Ms Featherstone and others, and move on in a more generous spirit in the New Year.”

Referring to Mr Gray’s intervention, Mr MacMillan told The Scotsman: “I think people, north and south, will be astonished that these comments have come from an intelligent person, let alone a prominent artist.

“This is now beyond politics. Personally I would rather not get involved in the political debate as I have friends and family on both sides of the ‘independence’ issue.

“I have written about anti-Englishness before, for Scottish and English readerships.

“There is always argy-bargy about it up here, because Scots are, rightly, embarrassed about this development in our society and having it explored under an English microscope.

“Although partisan voices will disagree with me, I know that this problem is now significant.

“Artists should not be fanning the flames, and politicians, of whatever stripe, owe it to their electorates to calm these troubled waters.”

The Scottish Government has already made clear its opposition to Mr Gray’s comments.

Blair Jenkins, chief executive of the Yes Scotland campaign, said: “Scotland is a very welcoming country.

“Yes Scotland has many supporters from many countries who have paid us the compliment of choosing to live here.

“We are running a positive and inclusive campaign.”

However one prominent supporter of the campaign, writer and publisher Kevin Williamson, has defended Gray.

He told his twitter followers that anyone interpreting his remarks as anti-English has been “poisoned by their own political bile.”

He added: “Time has come for a social audit of institutional Scotland. Who are these people? Who do they speak for? What class, demographic, ethos.”

But Glasgow Labour MP Tom Harris wrote on twitter: “Shameful revelations that Vicky Featherstone suffered anti-English bullying while she was serving Scotland. What morons behave like that?