EVERYONE who has written in response to the recent outburst by James MacMillan, first in US publication National Review and then in Mail on Sunday, has made the necessary distinction between the delicate, refined composer of genius, object of universal acclaim and rightful recipient of lavish public funds, and James MacMillan the grumpy and increasingly incoherent critic of Scottish affairs.

It is strange that two such personalities, the generous and the crabbed, can co-exist in the one human being. While no-one questions his right to proclaim allegiance to the British state as it currently exists, he should beware the impact of prejudice on the workings of the mind. I wondered at that clash of outlook when I heard him debate sensitively the history of sacred music with Cardinal Vincent Nichols at last year’s Boswell Book Festival. What reduces him to such narrow, spluttering, meanness of spirit that when discussing Scottish cultural development he ends up sneering at fellow artists for “bending over” in favour of the establishment?

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He has already been brought to task on errors of fact over the writing of the Declaration for Independence by Tom Devine and Ruth Wishart. He would find himself on firmer ground, shared across the political spectrum, when he deplores the lowering of educational standards in this country, but the connection between that fact and the status of cultural activity in Scotland is far from clear.

His thinking droops when, after regretting that in official documents no definition is offered of culture or art, he does not attempt any such himself. Notions such as these have been discussed since Plato, and agreement is hard to find. Why blame the Scottish Ministry for Culture, a department not peopled by philosophers, if they avoid attempting such definitions, and assume that everyone knows in broad terms what these terms signify?

His central objection is the failure, as he sees it, of artists “to speak truth to power”. Does that mean that they are not entitled to take a stance on issues where they may be in agreement with a wider movement of political thought, even of governmental policy? If an artist objects to Westminster’s rule and advocates a switch of power to Holyrood, why should he or she not be free to say so any more than Mr MacMillan is free to advocate the opposite? What was wrong with Val McDermid criticising Laura Kuenssberg, fellow Scot though she may be, over her attitude to Nicola Sturgeon? Ms Kuenssberg represents power in modern society, so is it unacceptable to speak truth to her?

The problem of art and power becomes trickier when artists proclaim allegiance to some political cause, as they have done throughout history, and there have been many, many instances of artists flattering holders of power to feather their own nest, but the fear of that fate cannot be so extreme as to stop artists, including composers, from taking sides. Mr MacMillan will be more familiar than me with Finlandia by Sibelius, a nationalist protest against Russian power. He will also have heard some of Verdi’s early operas in which, in arias like the Hebrew Slaves’ chorus in Nabucco, he expressed a nationalist sentiment in the age of the Italian Risorgimento. One could extend this overt partisanship to the willingness of poets, dramatists and novelists to use satire, as did Jonathan Swift, or other genres to aid movements they espoused, whether they were nationalist, socialist or others less deserving.

These works are now safely viewed as classics and so beyond criticism, but if they were judged as being beyond the pale, the repertoire of valued work would be much diminished.

I was told that in 2014 there was a proposal to tour twin works of theatre, one for and one against independence, but that no-one of any standing could be found to argue in favour of the status quo. Did that make the pro-independence playwrights cowardly seekers after public favour, as Mr MacMillan would have us believe? The relation between artistic work and power is a tortured one, but I cannot see Mr MacMillan’s recent sorties as assisting its clarification.

Joseph Farrell