On a bank holiday Monday I'm borrowing wholesale from the West Highland Free Press books column for a guest blog by Roger Hutchinson.
For a few weeks now, after a passing reference to Hugh MacDiarmid's fascist background in a book review, the Free Press has been inundated with letters from nationalists denying the facts about Grieve's sympathies for Mussolini and Hitler, even as WWII raged.
At each turn Hutchinson has taken a shinty stick to the deniers by simply by quoting MacDiarmid's own arguments in support of the fascism back at them. As you'd expect that has only increased the tempo of denial about the background of this nationalist icon.
Having been accused of everything from "inventing" facts about the poet to the more ludicrous charge of letting his "hatred" get in the way of Scottish "libertation", Hutchinson has issued another devastating response.
What is striking, apart from the subject itself, is that in another country the continued sterilisation of a national poet's murky politics would be a raging debate for the great cultural commentators of the day , not the provenance of a local newspaper.
But then, in another country Roger Hutchinson would be a columnist on The New York Times or the London Review of Books. All of which makes you kind of thankful for the good old West Highland Free Press, which is quoted below:
The Shady Politics of Hugh MacDiarmid
Seven weeks ago I reviewed in this column a book by Trevor Royle about Scotland and the Second World War. At the end of the review I quoted from Hugh MacDiarmid’s 1940 letter to his fellow poet Sorley Maclean, in which MacDiarmid said that the British and French bourgeoisie were “a far greater enemy” than Hitler’s Germany.
Such views, I pointed out, echoed the fascist sympathies that MacDiarmid had displayed for the previous 20 years. He had even written that fascism offered the best model for a future independent Scotland.
What surprised me was not that MacDiarmid was a fascist (all countries have them), but that so many Scots so quickly chose to forget his repulsive views, and even preferred to pretend he never expressed them. Instead, I wrote, in the post-war years MacDiarmid was allowed to re-write his own legend, and that sanitised story has now stuck.
There followed a series of letters to the Free Press (and a small flurry on Twitter). The letters confirmed my original point. A lot of people are either ignorant of Hugh MacDiarmid’s political views or choose to deny them.
In his re-election address as First Minister last May, Alex Salmond read fulsomely to the Scottish Parliament from Hugh MacDiarmid’s poetry. The American poet Ezra Pound was also a fascist sympathiser before and during the Second World War. His views were equivalent to those of Hugh MacDiarmid. It is impossible to imagine a President of the United States quoting Pound approvingly in any context, let alone at his or her inauguration address. MacDiarmid has become a national icon. Across the Atlantic, despite being the greater writer Pound is a national embarrassment. Why the difference?
Can we start again from the matter of fact that while, as I wrote seven weeks ago, MacDiarmid was undoubtedly flaky, he was equally undoubtedly attracted to dictatorships in general and fascism in particular?
Three weeks ago John Manson wrote to accuse me of inventing those facts. I offered in return three quotes from MacDiarmid himself which called for a “Scottish Fascism” and which explained in his own words what he admired about Adolf Hitler.
Mr Manson writes again this week to acknowledge that he was aware of some of those statements (although he does not, to my slight disappointment, apologise for accusing me of inventing them). John Manson then picks up the goalposts and moves them on to another pitch. Okay, he says, MacDiarmid supported fascism — but only because he thought that fascism would eventually swing from the far right to the left.
This is worse than flaky, on both Manson’s and MacDiarmid’s part. Neither John Manson nor I were around when Mussolini’s Fascists seized power in Italy in 1922. But Hugh MacDiarmid was. He was a grown man of 30 years. I wish he had been able to run his “fascism with a human face” theory past those Italian communists, socialists and moderate democrats who opposed the Blackshirts’ March on Rome, and were consequently maimed, imprisoned or murdered by Mussolini’s thugs.
That kind of sly qualification, that sweetening of the poison, was typical of MacDiarmid. Almost 20 years later, in 1940, he implied to Sorley Maclean that he hoped Nazi Germany would win the Second World War, not necessarily because of Nazi Germany’s current merits (although MacDiarmid had admired Hitler’s “vital force… resourcefulness and colour”), but because the bourgeoisie of Britain and France “are a far greater enemy”.
A year later, in 1941, he wrote in the same vein: “On balance I regard the Axis powers, tho’ more violently evil for the time being, less dangerous than our own government in the long run and indistinguishable in purpose.”
The Nazis were “less dangerous” to whom? It is worth noting those dates. By 1940, a year into the war and two years after Kristallnacht, what MacDiarmid called the “purpose” of Nazi Germany was well known. We are entitled to ask the shade of Hugh MacDiarmid — or more practically, his modern apologists — how many Jews lived in Scotland in 1940?
The British bourgeoisie might have discouraged Jews from joining their golf clubs. But they were never likely to burn down their homes, synagogues and businesses, make them wear yellow stars while they licked the pavements clean, and force their old men, women and children to dig their own mass graves before being shot in the back of the head.
In 1940 the British bourgeoisie, as well as the British working class, was sacrificing its sons to ensure, among other things, that never happened to the Jews, tinkers and homosexuals of Scotland. Their thanks from Alex Salmond’s favoured poet was to be described as a “far greater enemy” than Nazi Germany. Their government, which included Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison, Ellen Wilkinson and Tom Johnston as well as Winston Churchill, was “indistinguishable” from Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Hugh MacDiarmid could hardly be clearer. He hated the union so violently that he would have preferred Scotland to become a colony of Nazi Germany, and Edinburgh a British Vichy, than remain in its democratic engagement with England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Scottish political nationalists are naturally anxious to forget, if not erase, their poet laureate’s sympathies. So, to its greater shame, is much of Scotland’s commentariat and cultural intelligentsia. MacDiarmid’s attraction to the totalitarian right is an uncomfortable reminder of the horrors that were inflicted on Europe by political nationalism during the 20th century. We are tribal creatures and nationalism is an easy sell until it grossly misbehaves, which it habitually does. As I wrote, unoriginally, seven weeks ago, “the Second World War gave nationalism such a bad name that it made the Scottish National Party unelectable for two generations”. MacDiarmid had personal experience of that phenomenon. When he stood as the SNP candidate for Glasgow Kelvingrove in 1950 he collected just 639 votes, lost his deposit and finished last. But those two generations are passing away, in Scotland and elsewhere. They are taking their life lessons with them.
Judging from the correspondence so far on this matter, somebody somewhere will at this point be striding to a keyboard and preparing to accuse me of equating the Scottish National Party with the German National Socialist Party and Alex Salmond with Adolf Hitler. Let me spare you the trouble. Alex Salmond wants to destroy my country — the United Kingdom — but he is a democrat, and he has no aggressive ambitions elsewhere. They have just one predisposition in common, which they share with other demagogic nationalist politicians around the world and throughout time. They tell their compatriots that they are the victims of alien forces. When that narrative fails to stand up to reasonable examination, they reduce the labyrinthine threads of history to a cartoon strip.
Which brings us back to the rehabilitated legend of the fascist/nationalist/Anglophobe writer Hugh MacDiarmid. Can, as elements of cultural Scotland want to believe, MacDiarmid’s terrible politics be forgotten because he was a very good Scottish poet — because he may have been a nasty old talent, but at least he was our nasty old talent?
Of course we must compartmentalise his utterances, as far as the poetry allows. If I was to read only the work of people who share my political views I would deny myself not only the writing of Hugh MacDiarmid, but also that of TS Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Larkin and countless others, and I am too hungry for pleasure even to consider such abstemiousness.
But a good writer should no more be excused from the ordinary decencies than should a good bricklayer. It is important that we know the true face of an influential poet. Hugh MacDiarmid’s version of Scottish nationalism has been submerged in Scotland, largely by people who have inflated him far above his value as a national sage, and who in their own interests must now protect him from a long, hard fall from public grace.
John Manson says in this week’s letters page that a former lecturer at Ruskin College is working on a monograph about the politics of Hugh MacDiarmid. I don’t envy him, but I applaud the project. Its natural sequel would be a monograph on how so many educated Scots either deny or are genuinely ignorant of the politics of Hugh MacDiarmid.