Reply to James MacMillan’s Essay From 30th April 2014


Godwin’s Law: whoever is first to mention Nazis loses the argument. Sadly, composer James MacMillan, in a Scotsman piece yesterday, couldn’t help himself, rounding off with the startling implication that pro-Yes artists might ‘end up supporting evil’. This essay was touted on Twitter as a ‘must read’ by the head of Better Together, Blair McDougall. I’ll let readers draw their own conclusions about the stage the No campaign have reached.

If MacMillan believes art and politics shouldn’t mix, that’s up to him, although I would find it odd if Scottish artists had nothing to say about the seismic changes their country is undergoing. For me, the world would be a poorer place without the likes of Orwell, Steinbeck, Atwood, Zepheniah, Angelou, Morrison, Loach, Picasso and countless others politicising their art to challenge the official narratives of the powerful. In this case, the powerful is an increasingly cold, elitist and unequal British state, which the majority of artists believe Scotland, if given the chance, can improve upon. Should a Yes vote prevail, our scrutiny will turn immediately to the Scottish government. I fail to see how this amounts to ‘evil’.

What’s most disappointing about MacMillan’s piece, however, is his methodology. His essay contains the phrases, ‘Some worry that’, ‘the impression many have had is’, ‘some detect that’, ‘some feel that’ and ‘there are rumours that’.

As a former high school English teacher, I always told pupils: back up your claims with evidence. It seems no-one has pointed this out to MacMillan.

Alan Bissett
National Collective

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About Alan Bissett

Alan Bissett is a novelist, playwright and performer from Falkirk, who now lives in Glasgow. His plays, novels and short films have won numerous awards, including a Scottish BAFTA and the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Writer of the Year 2012. His YouTube poem 'Vote Britain' has become one of the key texts in the Scottish independence movement.

There are 6 comments

  1. RandomScot

    Just to be a pedant, Godwin’s Law say nothing about losing the argument. It is “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1″ 

    The idea that once you have reached that stage then you have lost the argument is merely one of the last remnants of Usenet traditions.

    In this case, though, I get the feeling James MacMillan has lost something, if only ‘the plot’

  2. moo

    “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?”

    I certainly think MacMillan is lacking in nuance and subtlety. He says he wants to keep his opinion private and then attacks the Yes campaign and derides the whole Scottish independence movement, from its roots, as akin to fascism? And then personally attacks a writer involved in the National Collective?

    I’m quite amazed. Is this what passes for neutrality? I don’t see this person questioning his clearly long held bigotries and allegiances, however much he may attack other people for not questioning “their cause”.

    Also, as a journalist, I’m embarrassed by this. Such lazy writing.

  3. stan

    There is nothing more revealing of parochial small
    mindedness than the small town man who worships the metropolitan establishment.
    Mc Millan’s life has been dedicated to producing the music of the European
    Establishment and he spends all his time rubbing up to them. He is completely
    out of touch with the people of Scotland, and is engaged in a “sustained
    belittling” of artists who dare to go against the establishment, in order
    to prove his own superiority. To equate this whole popular peoples movement
    with facism because one eccentric poet 70 years ago liked it, is clutching at
    straws. He is a committed catholic that does not make him a child molester
    because some priests were.

  4. Andrew MacGregor

    Alan, Well articulated as usual.
    Briefly, let me add this. Artists, whether through visual, oral or aural (my little joke), have been contributing to political debate for millennia.
    Shakespeare and Burns both, had incredible political influence and delivered pointed political messages through the medium of the spoken word. Painters such as Da Vinci and Michaelangelo could deliver both subliminal and overt political messages through paintings and sculpture.
    Musicians too, wrote songs – even some of the most celebrated composers – that delivered quite clear political messages.
    Go back far enough and you’ll find politics and artists finding common purpose – Ancient Greece, Rome, Japan.
    This stupidity by both Blair MacDougall – a man forced to wear slip-ons for fear of tying his fingers to his shoes and Ian MacMillan, who appears to live in a very one dimensional world, divorced from reality, historical context and logic is absolutely clear for all to see.
    Even before you get to referring to Godwins Law, you realise the paucity of knowledge and rationality in the Better Together camp is going to end up referencing the Nazi’s. It’s the only outcome for people whose thought processes are so tainted.

  5. Loki

    ‘There seems to be a misunderstanding about what it means to have an artistic voice. Apparently, all some artists have to do is move their lips and this constitutes an act of creativity. I appreciate any artist who intervenes in the debate, but let’s be clear about what constitutes a valid intervention.

    The real question is: What does MacMillan’s music have to say about the issues of the day?

    I’m a bit tired of the unquestioning failte with which we revere classical art. It’s time to demystify this whole pretence that somehow classical art is inherently important or valuable. With all due respect, James MacMillan’s output is the socio-political equivalent of non drowsy medication – it cures nothing and offers no interesting side effects. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine anything more innocuous in social function.’

    Read more here:

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