Alan Riach takes a look beyond the titles of two of Hugh MacDiarmid’s most controversial essays.

IT was disappointing to read Fintan O’Toole describing the origins of the Scottish National Party like this: “The SNP itself was a strange beast. Its roots lay in a semi-fascist 1930s racialised nationalism.” (‘Nicola Sturgeon’s staunch ally in her push for independence – Boris Johnson’, Irish Times, January 16, 2021).

And it was characteristically encouraging to read Joanna Cherry promptly correcting him gently but firmly in the same newspaper. O’Toole’s words, she said, were “not accurate”: “The founders of the SNP were a diverse group who included writers and intellectuals from the left, as well as those who were keen to preserve our country’s culture and traditions in much the same way as those who founded the Irish Republic.” (‘The SNP and Scottish nationalism’, Irish Times, January 19, 2021).

Among the founders in 1928 of the National Party of Scotland, which became part of the newly-founded SNP in 1934, were Hugh MacDiarmid, Compton Mackenzie and Florence Marian McNeill, each one worth studying in his or her own right, but it’s MacDiarmid who remains the major, and too often misrepresented, figure.

Writers of much less value and character than O’Toole have characterised MacDiarmid as “sympathetic” to fascism as if saying such a thing were enough to condemn him and direct readers away from his work altogether. We know this tactic: “Don’t read him for yourself, it’s not worth it.” (Or: “Stay ignorant, just believe what you’re told. We know better than you do.”)

Follow that advice and you’d miss out entirely on the quality of the poetry of Ezra Pound, TS Eliot and WB Yeats – they’ve all been described as fascists, to a greater or lesser degree. Here’s Pound in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” (1920) condemning the First World War:

There died a myriad,

And of the best, among them,

For an old bitch gone in the teeth,

For a botched civilization,

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,

Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,

For two gross of broken statues,

For a few thousand battered books.

Anti-imperialist? Yes, for sure. But “fascist”? Well, with Pound there’s always more to be said. But with MacDiarmid, the neon sign starts flashing with two essays from 1923: ‘Programme for a Scottish Fascism’ and ‘Plea for a Scottish Fascism’.

Lurid titles today, 100 years later. But what did that word mean then? It’s high time the spurious opinions of erroneous commentators were fully expunged and their pernicious influence eradicated. What exactly did MacDiarmid say in these essays, with their provocative and horribly eye-catching titles? Many people can’t find a way past those titles and some people would like readers not to get past them at all. So come on, pilgrims! As good readers, as good historians, we have to ask: What’s in them?

Let’s take a look. The thrust of those two essays is that Scots should prioritise Scotland, and not be ruled by England, and that there should be (I’ll quote): “a wide agrarian policy to restore the land to the people”. MacDiarmid advises we should do away with absentee landlords and “English plutocrats”, the big landowners, and replace “material values by moral ones”.

He declares Scotland must begin at the point to which “Italian Fascism must gravitate – the Left!”. He insists the priority is “the guardianship of the nation” and that “fascism is not synonymous with reactionary conservatism”.Remember: this is 1923. Well, we all know now that fascism was to become the most violent enactment of reactionary conservatism, or worse, a massively destructive kind of futurism, a futurism of genocide, death and devastation, but that was clearly and emphatically NOT what MacDiarmid was endorsing in these essays.

He wants, he says, “the intensification of everything in contemporary Scottish life that sets the spiritual above the material” and to “preserve our distinctive national culture”.

NOW, none of that really concurs with what most people nowadays think of as “fascism”. The first thing a good educator should do is define the terms, and the word “fascism” in 1923 signified different things than it does today. People who describe MacDiarmid as a fascist have got it wrong.

They have not done their homework. And those who characterise MacDiarmid as no more than an eccentric do an equal disservice to those of us who read his poetry seriously, for what it is.

So what is it? How to describe it? It is a continuing exploration of the possibilities of the world. He never settled into a form and stayed fixed. He was possessed of the intrinsic optimism of curiosity.

His dedication to expressing the ways things may be seen from different perspectives meant that his writing life was always taking him into new territories. Many of these territories were shunned by more timid artists and forbidden entry by establishments protecting their own security. This made him extremely vulnerable. That’s one reason I feel sympathetic towards him. But it would not be enough if he didn’t also actually deliver the goods. And the poems and his other writings are so voluminous and varied and rich that nobody but a fool would say that he didn’t deliver.

The effort of culture is towards greater differentiation

Of perceptions and desires and values and ends,

Holding them from moment to moment

In a perpetually changing but stable equilibrium ...

And as for nationalism: that word is fraught with the nastiest of histories and it’s been used to stigmatise him. But would you call the French Resistance “nationalist”?

MacDiarmid was absolutely committed to the independence of Scotland from England’s domination. And in exactly the same breath he was absolutely committed to Scotland taking its negotiated place as one of the nations of the world. His politics were ruled by a profound understanding of what should be protected and what should be opposed.

Only a few years after those sensational essays, MacDiarmid set up the Scottish branch of PEN (the international union for Poets, Playwrights Essayists, Novelists – writers of all kinds) and during the 1930s right up to the present day, Scottish PEN has been explicit in its opposition to the rise of fascism in Europe and the oppression of writers.

When MacDiarmid established the Scottish branch,it was the only recognised unit of the PEN organisation that was distinctively not that of a defined nation-state, but rather represented a stateless nation. Not only individual writers and artists but nations, cultures and languages too can be oppressed.

Throughout the 1930s, the developing ideals of Scottish nationalism explicitly defined themselves in opposition to Nazism, racism, persecution of minorities and fascism, not least through the periodical The Modern Scot, edited by James H Whyte.

In that journal, to which MacDiarmid and many others contributed, the political priority was a deliberate cultivation of a commitment to Scottish independence that would have absolutely nothing in common with European fascism, and in fact to oppose it, emphatically.

Fintan O’Toole isn’t the only person who should keep that in mind as we go forward.