ALAN Riach looks at the paradoxes of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham responding to the urgencies of the First World War and afterwards to the rising of the movement towards Scottish independence

BEFORE the First World War, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham’s stories and sketches transform into art his experiences of South America and other parts of the world and his encounters with so many different kinds of people from various countries and cultures. They warrant closer attention. I’ll return to them after we’ve mapped the trajectory of his life.

The essential development was from Graham’s commitment to socialist ideals in the 1890s to the 1900s; then what Lachlan Munro, in his book RB Cunninghame Graham and Scotland: Party, Prose, and Political Aesthetic, forcefully calls his “volte-face” on empire as he supported the First World War; and then, in the aftermath of that war, his growing commitment to Scottish independence. Let’s look at that development.

Munro tells us: “In January 1914, several newspapers announced Graham’s selection as the ‘socialist’ candidate for the rectorship of Glasgow University, and the Marxist, John MacLean was full of enthusiastic praise: ‘We congratulate the students on their choice of the worthiest Scot to hold aloft the Red Flag of Socialism, knowing that thereby an increasing interest will be taken in our views and principles by students old and young throughout the land; and we trust by November we can again congratulate them on electoral success, knowing that victory would bring a wealth of grist to the Socialist mill.’ “At this time in Scotland, MacLean was the leading light of the loosely constituted British Socialist Party (BSP), and at some point, Graham had joined the party. By 1916, the Manchester Guardian described him as among the ‘leading members’ of the BSP.

The National: Robert Bontine Cunninghame GrahamRobert Bontine Cunninghame Graham

“This involvement was never mentioned by Graham, nor by his biographers, but it fits the now familiar pattern of inconvenient facts being omitted. Two days after The Guardian article, at their annual conference at Caxton Hall, Manchester, the BSP acrimoniously split between the pro and anti-war faction. The party leader, Hyndman, led his ‘Pro-Ally’ group out, both sides vigorously singing ‘The Red Flag’ at each other. For Graham, who previously had been anti-war, but who was one of those who had signed the BSP pro-war manifesto, this was his last direct involvement in purely socialist politics.”

Munro continues: “On Sunday August 2, 1914, two days before Britain declared war on Germany, Graham, together with Hardie and other socialist leaders, addressed a tumultuous rally of an estimated 20,000 people in Trafalgar Square.

“According to Hardie’s biographer, William Stewart, Graham’s speech ‘was said to have made the most profound impression, and to have been the best he had ever delivered, which was saying a great deal’.

‘Do not,” he implored, ‘let us do this crime, or be parties to the misery of millions who have never done us harm’.

“Graham had long held an anti-war position, and had described uniforms as ‘a thing to be ashamed of’, but within two weeks of his Trafalgar Square speech, at the age of 62, he volunteered for unpaid military service. In November 1914, the Glasgow Herald reported that he had been given a commission by the War Office. On November 20, a letter from Graham appeared in the Daily News and Leader in which he said Britain had been forced into war by Germany, and that ‘we, perhaps by accident, have been forced into the right course, and that all smaller nationalities as Montenegro, Ireland, Poland, and the rest, would disappear on our defeat’. Shortly afterwards, he departed for Montevideo where he spent six months buying horses for the war effort on behalf of the government.”

The National: John MacLeanJohn MacLean (Image: unknown)

In this we have a reason to understand what Graham thought he was fighting for. Where others argued for pacificism, and others too for the solidarity of the working classes opposed to imperialist war, and yet others would champion imperial glory, Graham saw the British war effort as a defence of small nations.

As Munro puts it: “Graham strongly opposed the government’s attitude to war. In 1914, however, convinced that this was a war against tyranny, and because of his passionate love of liberty and keen sense of honour, he volunteered to go to South America on a horse-buying mission.”

He was not alone in believing there was just cause here. Compton Mackenzie, in an address on his installation as rector of Glasgow University in January 1932, was to say that many supported the war “not because Germany was an imperial rival, but because a prepotent Germany seemed to us a menace to what was left of individual freedom. To us the triumph of Germany meant the triumph of bureaucracy.”

The last story in Graham’s 1916 collection Brought Forward is “Bopicua”, describing the round-up of 500 horses, each of them covered in “shades and markings, unknown in Europe, but each with its proper name in Uruguay and Argentina”. Once branded, they will become “the property of the British Government” and “be sent off to the battlefields of Europe to die and suffer, for they knew not what, leaving their pastures and their innocent comradeship with one another till the judgement day”.

It’s a desperately moving, understated account. Graham notes the amazement of the gauchos at the pains taken to select horses that would be killed within months.

It ends with the horses in a glorious gallop to water, “manes flying, tails held high” as the riders keep back, letting them drink their fill, then turn to pasture. At the end, “I think it was Arena, or perhaps Pablo Suarez, spoke their elegy: ‘Eat well,’ he said; ‘there is no grass like that of La Pileta, to where you go, across the sea. The grass in Europe all must smell of blood.’”

Munro takes us to the aftermath of the war, when Graham believed Sinn Fein would be faced with British imperial might if they threatened separation by force. He became opposed to the threatened bloodshed and prejudiced “against the Irish point of view”. His revulsion from bloodshed had deepened so much more over these years.

But something else was beginning to stir once again, and Graham would rally to its cause whole-heartedly. John Barbour acknowledged the developing movement in the Edinburgh Review in 1929: “A Scottish literary renaissance is in the air, fighting hard to break through the long mists of national self-denial. Scotland today swarms with minor poets – heralds, let us hope, of some new ‘surpassing spirit.’ Mr. Cunninghame Graham, Mr CM Grieve [Hugh MacDiarmid], the Hon Erskine of Mar – these are typical figures in the Scottish literary renaissance.”

Munro is sceptical about MacDiarmid’s recruitment of Graham to his literary cause but again the conflation of the political and the cultural is characteristic of Graham and undeniable in MacDiarmid’s life’s work. If Graham had been writing since the 19th century about the regeneration of cultural identity and the viability of small nations, and if his conviction that such nations could only be preserved by opposition to German imperialism in the First World War, is it not unlikely that he would have been sympathetic to MacDiarmid’s cultural-political vision of a Scotland regenerating herself in the aftermath of that war.

In any event, Munro records: “Graham’s speech at Elderslie, on August 21, 1920, where he was described as ‘the leading speaker’, was the first recorded speech on home rule for Scotland since he spoke in support of a Scottish Home Rule Bill in 1889. As in that speech … he declared he wished to see a Scottish Parliament that would make up for what he saw as a democratic deficit in the way that Scotland was governed.”

Graham was to write in the Scots Independent in 1932: “[T]he enemies of Scottish nationalism are not the English, for they were ever a great and generous folk, quick to respond when justice calls. Our real enemies are among us, born without imagination.”

The continuity between Graham and MacDiarmid is their decisive commitment to the cause of Scotland. Munro tells us: “MacDiarmid wrote that he had first met Graham in the early 1920s. It was from this meeting that he decided ‘to make the Scottish Cause, cultural and political, my life work dates from that moment’, and he had ‘lamented Graham’s long absences from Scotland’, writing in 1926: ‘He began well: but for those of us who are connected with either the Scottish Nationalists or the Socialist movements he has become like a curious and unseizable dream by which we are tantalisingly haunted but which we can by no means effectively recall’.

"These were highly significant statements, and reflected on the unquantifiable impact that Graham had on at least two generations, who themselves would go on to inspire others. The sources of MacDiarmid’s attraction to Graham were obvious: Graham’s radicalism, his elitism, his polemics, his anti-bourgeois sentiments, his socialism, his internationalism, and his nationalism.”

But perhaps the deepest affinity was in this understanding that political and cultural identities were intrinsically connected.

To separate one from the other would be fatal to both. It’s not just these men who have been written out of Scotland’s party-political history, it’s the sense that culture and politics are inseparable that has been erased from modern politics – and most modern culture too. It’s time for reclamation.

MacDiarmid himself was to become caricatured and scorned by the establishment, just as he believed that Graham had been before him: “The Anglo-Scottish press were dead against him, as were the stuffy yes men of the status quo of the university authorities. He was never given his due in Scotland.”

Munro reminds us however that Graham was not without a sense of humour, even in these conditions. “The English author Ford Madox Ford [in Return to Yesterday, 1931], recalled the following incident: ‘Once, driving with Mr. Graham from Roslyn Castle to Edinburgh I heard a politically minded lady say to him: ‘You ought, Mr Graham, to be the first president of a British Republic.’ ‘I ought madam, if I had my rights,’ he answered sardonically, ‘to be the king of this country. And what a three weeks that would be!’.”

Imagine it!

Coming to his conclusions, Munro’s book helpfully sums up Graham’s character: “Instinctively anti-authoritarian, confident, and self-willed, he sought out and co-opted idealistic socialistic doctrines to advance what was a naively optimistic but deeply reactionary conservatism, opposing overwhelming tides of economic, technological, scientific and social change.

“Graham stood against the modern world wherein the rise of industrialism and capitalism during the 19th century had brought with it huge social disparity and dislocation, the triumph of the commercial classes, the enlargement of an impoverished and often destitute urban proletariat, and the near-destruction of traditional rural life.”

He was “inspirational to many, particularly the young. Equally, to the more conservative elements, opponents of home rule, and those with long memories, he would have been the recognisable face of a lunatic fringe whose stated aim was to dismember the British state with potentially disastrous consequences for the monarchy, the political establishment, the landowning elites, and the empire – the same institutions that he had so fervently attacked throughout his political career.

“Graham’s politics transcended conventional economic and social models; the source of his discontent, the source of his contradictions, and the primary and universal driving force behind all of his political and literary activities, notwithstanding his personal vanity, was overwhelmingly moral”.

And it is this moral capacity that prevails. Munro’s study, he confirms, “has asserted that his writings were, like the basis of his politics, intrinsically moral, and just as fundamentally conflicted in their irreconcilable desire for change and for historical continuity. With many others, this also defined his Scottish nationalism”.

Munro adds: “He possessed an extraordinary facility for recollection, and a felicity of expression that could conjure convincing, often startling exotic settings and incidents. However, such works, even in anthology, were never going to achieve wide popularity … Graham wrote as he remembered, but through the prism of partiality. He was a raconteur in the original sense of the word, a recounter of events that had stirred his imagination, events through which he could perceive, or attach, a deeper moral meaning, or at least make his readers reflect.”

How he engendered such reflection, the quality of his writing, is what we’ll return to next week.