One of the more dramatic, and sorrier, literary hangovers from the Scottish Independence Referendum has been the so-called “Makargate” controversy, when Liz Lochhead, celebrated poet and reigning Scots Makar (the Caledonian poet laureate), joined the Scottish National Party. A pro-Unionist body of opinion promptly declared that this new allegiance disqualified her from being a national poet for Scotland, and she should resign.
It probably didn’t help that the SNP greeted the news with a somewhat triumphalist press release, quoting Lochhead at length on the party’s policies. “I’ve been inspired by Nicola Sturgeon talking about a new style of leadership and a new inclusive type of politics; I think she has a very real chance of achieving that,” said Lochhead. “The referendum campaign was amazing and now only the SNP offers a prospect of challenging the establishment and the status quo. I’ve voted SNP in the previous half dozen or so elections so I felt it was about time that I joined.” All the same, as this suggests, the Makar hadn’t exactly made a secret of her views in the past, and no one had felt before that these disqualified her from her role.
The tone of the more strident reactions to the news was typified by Colette Douglas Home, writing in the Herald Scotland. “If the Scots Makar is the poet for the entire country, is her publicly funded post consistent with being a member of any political party?” she asked “Or is the problem that she is a high-profile and active member of the SNP, the governing party? Or is there no problem at all?” And, protesting Lochhead’s claim that as a private citizen she was entitled to her political allegiances, she continued “Would she have attracted the same attention without her title? Isn’t it as Makar that she is such a feather in the party’s cap? And, if she is joining as a private citizen, should she have requested no publicity and asked that her role as Makar be down-played?”
Others, more sensibly, called for Lochhead’s merit as a poet to remain the true test of her fitness for the role. And indeed, given the depth of nationalist feeling among Scotland’s greatest contemporary poets and writers, above all Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Morgan, any effort to weed out pro-independence allegiance from the national corpus would gut it. Lochhead herself called the whole controversy “bonkers.”
One of the other striking revelations from the whole debacle, though, is the level of virtual paranoia persisting in the No camp since the Referendum – which, after all, they (narrowly) won. It seems that certain ideas just don’t have the decency to lie down and admit defeat…