The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, December 05, 2014

The Makar Stooshie

The best small country in the world is ringing with the jangle of high horses being saddled up. Liz Lochhead, who succeeded the late Edwin Morgan to the office of Makar -- something like Poet Laureate of Scotland, though not as far as I know required to pen ceremonial verse for the openings of swimming pools and supermarkets -- has put the seal on her long-standing and well-known Scottish nationalism by joining the Scottish National Party in a flash-bulb of publicity.

Cue much contrived chin-stroking, lip-pursing and finger-wagging. The opening punt that someone paid out of the public purse should not be party political was lost in a breeze of derision. The carping then turned to the claim that our national poet should represent the whole nation, and that by planting her colours so publicly on one side of an almost evenly divided land, Liz Lochhead was turning her back on over half the country, which must now reconcile itself to being unrepresented in rhyme. Finally and most portentuously, we're told that by joining the party currently in government, the Makar can no longer speak truth to power. We're pointed to the SNP's rules, which lay down that party members may not disavow the party's aims, in whole or in part, and invited to contemplate the ethical cleft stick in which the Makar must henceforth writhe. Suppose she were to disagree with some legislative measure from Holyrood! One sees the poet's fingers tremble above the keyboard, as her eyes dart guiltily between her subversive lines on the screen and her signature on the party card.

What sanctimonious drivel!

Leave aside that most people in Scotland are barely aware of the post of Makar, and even more haven't read a line of Liz Lochhead's writing since they left school, if at all. Entertain only long enough for a guffaw the notion of the Scottish people as a huddle of intellectuals under a censorship so oppressive that they must snatch what comfort they can from dissident hints in public verse.

No, there really is a serious point at issue here. It would be hard to name a poet of any distinction in Scotland, past or present, who doesn't publicly -- however quietly -- avow a political, philosophical or religious view that puts them in a minority on some divisive topic. Poets are seldom turned to for judicious balance in matters of opinion. That is very much not their calling. Scottish nationalism and Scottish poetry have a lot of previous, and plenty of present. And not just the cause in general, but the party. Hugh Macdiarmid helped to found the SNP. Edwin Morgan bequeathed it a fortune. That the party is now in government changes nothing. To raise the abstract possibility of a conflict of conscience over policy is to insult the integrity of the Makar. If poets are free to take out party cards, they are also free to tear them up.

Not that Liz Lochhead should. The Makar is not a civil servant, nor a tribune of the people, nor a national shoulder to cry on. Political neutrality is no part of the job description. If someone in the post of Makar is not free while holding that post to join a party like any other citizen, he or she is not free to show a serious and sincere commitment to their beliefs. Those of us who disagree with the present Makar's political commitments have a special responsibility to defend her right to them.


"the notion of the Scottish people as a huddle of intellectuals under a censorship so oppressive that they must snatch what comfort they can from dissident hints in public verse."

This reminded me somewhat of the Scotland of 1650-1700 and the intellectual atmosphere of the Covenanters through to the Act of Union

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