Scottish independence essay: arts and the referendum

This is the latest in a weekly series of essays in which influential figures explore ideas related to the independence referendum

James MacMillan is keeping his views on the referendum private. Picture: Robert Perry
James MacMillan is keeping his views on the referendum private. Picture: Robert Perry

As someone who thinks of himself as a political animal, albeit one who has lost many of his youthful certainties, I have reflected a lot on how far the arts can or should reflect a political creed.

As a composer this can often be skewed by the fact that music is the most abstract of the arts. At a fundamental level, music is complete in itself – it does not need any explanation or purpose other than its own workings, its own stuff. In our world, dominated as it is by the visual and the verbal, this can be confusing. What is this thing which communicates its meaning and feeling without words and pictures? Why can I be so affected by the organisation of pure sound?

As well as this, music can indeed form collaborations with other art forms, such as in opera or film, or any time a text is set to music. There are a couple of my earlier works which are quite political – Busqueda, based on poems by the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina, and Cantos Sagrados, choral settings of Ariel Dorfman, among others.

At times I have been suspicious of the romantic myth of the uncommitted artist, living in his own bubble. To be truly alive in the world is to have beliefs and commitments, and this can embrace politics as well as religion.

But, as the poet Michael Symmons Roberts says: “This myth has left us with a terror of the imagination in thrall to a belief. Surely this could limit the scope of the work, may even reduce it to a thin pre-conceived outworking of doctrine or argument?”

To artists like Roberts and myself, interested in how the search for the sacred continues in our own time and culture, this fear seems unfounded, especially when you think of the great artists in the last century who were both religious and innovators – TS Eliot, David Jones, Auden, Moore, Berryman, Bunting, and in music Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Messiaen, Poulenc, Gubaidulina, Schnittke, Britten, Tavener.

The interface between art and politics has resurfaced in the debate about independence. There are artists like Nicola Benedetti, John Burnside and myself who are keen to keep their views on this private.

Others have signed up, mainly to the Yes campaign, such as the National Collective. A visit to their website shows them to be young, shouty and completely unquestioning about their cause. Some worry that their black-and-white perspective on things may damage the quality of their work. Some of their poetry seems risible and thin, and certainly light on nuance and subtlety. Are they simply producing propaganda masquerading as art?

That is certainly the impression that many have had on hearing Alan Bissett reading his monologue Vote Britain, described as a crude cartoon of a poem, stereotyping the English “Establishment” and Conservative voters. Some detect an unmistakable impression of crass rabble-rousing about this which is sad – his earlier work is far better than this.

Some feel that Bissett and others are putting artists off the whole debate and having a negative effect on everyone else too. There are rumours that the Yes campaign are now embarrassed by them and would prefer to put some distance between them. Others, like Kenneth Roy, maintain, alarmingly, that writers and artists, like political journalists, are the least trusted in the land.

Politics and culture have a chequered history here. Hugh MacDiarmid, widely regarded as the Scotland’s greatest 20th-century poet, admired Mussolini. He argued in 1923 for a Scottish version of fascism, and in 1929 for the formation of Clann Albain, a fascistic para-military organisation that would fight for Scottish freedom. Even as late as June 1940 he wrote a poem expressing his indifference to the impending German bombing of London, which was not published during his lifetime:

“Now when London is threatened

With devastation from the air

I realise, horror atrophying me,

That I hardly care.”

In 2010 the Canadian academic Susan Wilson unearthed some correspondence in the National Library of Scotland between MacDiarmid and Sorley MacLean, his friend, fellow poet and fellow radical political thinker. In these letters, as late as 1941, it is revealed that MacDiarmid regarded Hitler and the Nazis as potentially more benign rulers than the British government in Westminster.

He was known for his controversial views as a young man. In two articles written in 1923, Plea for a Scottish Fascism and Programme for a Scottish Fascism, he appeared to support Mussolini’s regime. But the revelation of ambivalent, even pro-Nazi, sentiments during the Second World War has come as a shock.

Like many radicals in the arts at the time, MacDiarmid flirted with fascism, regarding it as a doctrine of the Left. In the light of recent research this does not now seem so fanciful.

“Revisionist” historians have put their heads above the parapet to survey the origins and nature of fascist movements, drawing convincing links and parallels between Leninism and Mussolini.

Perhaps MacDiarmid had been influenced by the Futurists, a collective of radical creative artists who supported Mussolini.

In their manifesto of 1909 they stated that destructive conflict should be used as a means for the creation of a new artistic, social and political project. Political violence would aid revolution in art, culture and society. There were parallel movements in Russia and the UK.

There is some justification in the anxiety about artists huddling together and snuggling up to government politicians, whatever their political stripe. It’s not just their individuality and creative integrity that is at stake, but the potential for disastrous impact on the lives of ordinary people.

Youthful idealism or patriotism can sometimes give succour to dark, lurking forces in our collective psyche. History can teach us lessons so that we do not keep repeating the same mistakes.

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.

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.

• James MacMillan is a composer whose music is performed throughout the world. As a conductor this year he is directing orchestras in India, New Zealand and Brazil