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Scottish High Tory and Patriotic Imperialist

by William King

Imagine that you have entered a room full of distinguished people from a wide variety of walks of life:- from the armed forces there is a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Intelligence Corps; beside him the Director of the ‘Department of Information’ - a man who is effectively in charge of Britain’s wartime propaganda and who reports directly to the Prime Minister. From the literary world there are a best- selling writer of unabashedly sensational thrillers, like The Thirty-nine Steps, the author of serious works of historical fiction, a prolific biographer and a military historian.

Looking round you observe a prize-winning poet, a major publisher, a barrister, a war correspondent, a director of Reuters, a tax expert and a Conservative MP with a huge majority in a Scottish seat (!). A Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland is in the improbable company of a concentration camp administrator, the Governor-General of Canada and a former member of Lord Milner’s famous South African ‘kindergarten’.

A crowded room, you might think. But no, only one person is present - John Buchan, who despite ill-health, managed to cram several lives and around 100 books into his sixty-four years as a writer.

Buchan was born in 1875. His father was the Free Church minister in the small Fife town of Pathhead; later he moved to a demanding ministry in Glasgow’s Gorbals. The family was poor and since his parents were highly principled, most of what they had they gave to those even poorer. They were however highly learned and the young Buchan was raised in a ‘bookish’ atmosphere. The family was as intellectually and culturally rich as it was materially poor.

This background helps to explain the wide social range of the characters in Buchan’s novels, from aristocrats to Borders shepherds and the sympathy for and insight shown into those characters. As a ‘son of the manse’ he was raised in the company of farmworkers, miners and industrial workers, but in terms of intellectual cornpetence and erudition he was the equal of anyone. It also shaped his views on class: “I lived close to working-class life and knew that it had its own humours and compensations and that it nourished many major virtues like fortitude and charity. I respected the working-classes so profoundly that, like William Morris, I did not want to see them turned into middle classes, as some of their patrons desired.”(1)

He studied philosophy at Glasgow University, then went to Brasenose College, Oxford. He had already started to write, which greatly eased his modest financial position. On graduating he turned to law and became a barrister. Then in 1901 occurred an event which was to change his life: Lord Milner invited him to join his administrative staff in South Africa.

It was an eventful period. As the Boer War ended Milner’s staff were landed with a number of emergency tasks in order to smooth the transition to peace. Buchan’s first responsibility was to take over the civilian administration of the concentration camps into which Boer women and children had been herded. Under Buchan’s control the hideously high death rate amongst concentration camp detainees was greatly reduced, primarily due to much improved health practices.

It was in South Africa that Buchan first “came into touch with the men of the Dominions”, something that was to shape his views on Empire. Over the years Buchan has been subjected to substantial criticism from the liberal pseudo-intelligentsia over his views on ethnicity, imperialism and alleged ‘jingoism’, criticism often based on erroneous assumptions as to what Buchan’s ‘Imperialism’ amounted to. It is an area of his views that we must now explore in some detail.

His ideal of Empire is outlined fairly specifically in the semi-autobiographical Memory Hold- the-Door. Britain “had as much to learn from them (i.e. the Dominions) as they had from Britain...They combined a passionate devotion to their own countries with a vision of a great brotherhood based on race and a common culture...I began to see that the Empire...might be a potent and beneficient force in the world.”(2)

This ideal of Empire is further defended: “Today the word is sadly tarnished. Its mislikers have managed to identity it with ugliness like corrugated-iron roofs and raw townships, or, worse still, with a callous racial arrogance...”(3) Bearing in mind that this was written around 1939 it is not too difficult to imagine at whom the “callous racial arrogance” comment was aimed. Yet there was another side to Empire:

“I dreamed of a world-wide brotherhood with the background of a common race and creed, consecrated to the service of peace; Britain enriching the rest out of her culture and traditions, and the spirit of the Dominions like a strong wind freshening the stuffiness of the old lands. I saw in the Empire a means of giving to the congested masses at home open country instead of a blind alley...Our creed was not based on antagonism to any other people.”(4)

Buchan’s views were most fully set out in A Lodge in the Wilderness, a treatise on Empire written in the form of a novel. Its omissions are as significant as its inclusions: India, the most populous colony, is so little a part of Buchan’s imperial vision that it does not even rate a mention. What are mentioned here are the ‘White Dominions’ and Africa where, it is argued, among many other points, that South Africa should be developed as an all white country, a perfectly possible option when the book was written in 1906.

A picture emerges of Buchan’s ‘imperialism’ and ‘racialism’. It is a very different thing to that condemned by his detractors. It is not based on a desire to exploit or dominate other peoples. Rather it is based on the idea of brotherhood across the world between peoples of a common ethno-cultural identity: between the British and those of British stock settled in the hitherto ‘open spaces’ of the world: Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Southern Africa. The result would be a bloc of nations with tremendous solidarity, united by feelings of kith and kin, with a common history, language and identity, nations that could rely on one another in times of need.

Obviously we now live in a world rather different to that for which Buchan worked, but that does not make his views irrelevant to-day: it is only when we consider what might have been that we can fully appreciate the good and bad of what is. Since the end of the last war, our politicians have chosen to minimalise and marginalise our relationship with the old Dominions. ‘European Union’ has replaced imperial federation as an ideal. But what has the result been? The EU lacks any sense of common national identity, any sense of ‘brotherhood’; consequently it is but a collection of squabbling nations, each of which is in it for what it can get out of it, dictated to by a centralised bureaucracy.

On the controversial issue of ethnicity Buchan also offers us a fresh perspective. Since the 1960s a false dichotomy of race has been postulated by the Trotskyist ‘New Left’ and gladly taken up by our broadly liberal political, media and academic establishments. It is that there are only two possible views on race; either you accept unreservedly multi-racialism and multi-culturalism, believe that all racial groups are basically the same in all respects and that any observable differences are due to the environment, or you are a ‘wicked racist’, motivated by racial hatred.

Buchan eschewed such narrow thinking. He clearly believed that different ethnic groups had their own distinct qualities and attributes and that these qualities are inherent in the race and not due to environmental factors. Indeed in some of his fictional works the plot turns around “the persistence of race qualities”. But in no way does Buchan have any innate hostility to other races because of these differences. Rather he has a positive attitude to race, evidently believing that the world is enriched by the great variety of differing talent and abilities inherent in different ethnic groups.

Buchan returned to Britain late in 1903 in order to continue his legal practice. Over the next decade he also developed his writing career with works as diverse as the thriller Prester John, his first bestseller and the somewhat less thrilling Law relating to the Taxation of Foreign Income. Then came the next event to change his life - the War.

In 1914 Buchan was ill and thirty-nine, too old and unfit to be conscripted. As he put it: “In the spring of 1915 I was convalescent and was able to act as Times correspondent at the Front until after the Battle of Loos. Then I was annexed for a short season by the Foreign Office. In 1916 I was at last commissioned as an officer in the Intelligence Corps, and was in France until the early part of 1917, when I was recalled to a post under the War Cabinet. I...was engaged in intelligence work at home until after the Armistice.”(5)

Concurrent with these heavy official duties Buchan shouldered a massive extra task: from 1915 to 1919 he wrote the twenty-four volume, 1,200,000 words Nelson’s History of the War, penned almost as the conflict was happening.

From the outset Buchan clearly appreciated that the War would have cataclysmic social consequences: “I was clear that an old regime was passing away. That I did not regret for the radicalism which is part of the Tory creed was coming uppermost, and I looked to a clearing out of much rubbish, but I realised that we were at the point of contact of a world vanishing and a world arriving, and that such a situation was apt to crush those who had to meet it.”(6)

The idea that conflict could easily shatter pre-war security was put more vividly in a well-known passage in a 1916 novel: “You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a pane of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.”(7)

Consequently much of his writings of this period have a war-related purpose. As Keith Graves put it in his recent excellent article on A History of the Great War:

“Buchan was anxious to convince public opinion that the moral content of war - that is, the nobility of intent and the search for justice with which the nation went to war - should not be a casualty of its conclusion.” He continued: “the more important underlying influence...was the firm conviction that a conservative, interpretative mode remained relevant in an era of attritional, industrialised warfare. The eventual literary reaction against the scale and human consequences of the war, expressed in the vocabulary of modernity, has become such an all-embracing perspective on the ‘war to end all wars’ that the survival of moralistic idealism in relation to the origins and course of the war has remained neglected and its philosophical roots reinterpreted as propagandist purposes.”

Graves concludes by rightly describing the History as “an influential, profoundly conservative, and highly accessible contribution to the literature of national survival”.(8)

After the War Buchan worked hard, both in his capacity as a publisher with TA Nelson & Sons and as an active Tory to ensure that those who had striven for Britain in the trenches would be rewarded by a just social and industrial system. Thus, for example, he supported the creation of Whitley Councils and published a series of works on industrial policy to counter the then growing threat of socialism.

After the War and its immediate aftermath Buchan settled down to a comparatively uneventful life - by his standards. In 1927 he was elected MP for the Scottish Universities; he remained an MP for eight years. In 1933-34 he was appointed Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. And of course he was continuing to write up to five books almost every year, including in 1932 a biography of Sir Walter Scott, like Buchan a good Scots Tory.

Then in 1935 came his last major honour. The position of Governor-General of Canada had become vacant. Buchan and his works were popular there and King George V duly appointed him to the position, first awarding him a peerage. He travelled to Canada as the first Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield.

In 1939 there came a duty that must have been particularly unpleasant to one who had lost so many friends in the Great War: as Governor-General he had to sign the Declaration of War that formally brought Canada into World War II. But Buchan was not to witness much of this second carnage. His health had never been good and early in February 1940 he collapsed and died with cerebral thrombosis. In the words of G M Trevelyan, “I don’t think I remember anyone whose death evoked a more enviable outburst of sorrow, love and admiration.”(9)

He left behind him a remarkable corpus of published works, “enough to fill two bookshelves, one to entertain, the other to inform”. But all Buchan’s works were thoroughly imbued with his deeply conservative values and attitudes.

Fundamental to his beliefs was his patriotism, not the empty flag-waving jingoism to which some politicians become addicted at election times; rather the ideal of service and duty to one’s nation, a devotion that transcends any mere economic dogma of capitalism or socialism. This was central to his thinking. Another aspect of his patriotism was his belief in the value of rootedness. The man who lives in the land of his forefathers, who is a part of a settled community with a rich heritage, is to be preferred to the sterile rootlessness of cosmopolitanism.

Although many of his novels were set against the backdrop of British conflict with Germany - ‘German-ness’ as such is rarely negatively portrayed. Instead, as Buchan scholar Dr David Daniel has pointed out, “Buchan’s villains...succumb (to evil) not because they are Germans or whatever, but because their origin is mixed. They are the result of no settled tradition, which means that they cannot identity the well-trodden path. This happens to be British because...Buchan was British, and because he could appeal to centuries of Anglo-Saxon agreement about cultural, and specifically spiritual, background.”(10)

Buchan was too broad-minded ever to be a party-political partisan. Many of his closest personal friends in the Commons were red-blooded Glasgow socialist MPs. But he liked them as individuals rather than for their creeds. As he put it: “For socialism I had the distrust I felt for all absolute creeds, and Marxism...seemed to me to have an insecure speculative basis and to be purblind as a reading of history...(but) I had more in common with socialism than with orthodox liberalism, which I thought a barren strife about dogmas that had...only an antiquarian interest.”(11)

In conclusion, let us look once again at Buchan’s views on the effect of the Great War, for the consequences on society he feared have an uncanny resemblance to our present era:

“My fear was not barbarism, which is civilisation submerged or nor yet born, but de-civilisation, which is civilisation gone rotten...In my nightmare I could picture such a (de-civilised) world...New inventions and the perfecting of transport had caused the whole earth to huddle together. There was no corner of the globe left unexplored and unexploited, no geographical mysteries to fire the imagination. Broad highways crowded with automobiles threaded the remotest lands, and overhead great airliners carried weekend tourists to the wilds of Africa and Asia...What once were the savage tribes of Equatoria and Polynesia were now in reserves as an attraction to trippers, who bought from them curios and holiday mementos...In such a world everyone would have leisure. But everyone would be restless, for there would be no spiritual discipline in life...Everyone would be comfortable but...everyone would be also slightly idiotic. Their shallow minds would be easily bored, and therefore unstable. Their life would be largely a quest for amusement. The raffish existence led today by certain groups would have become the normal existence of large sections of society...Art would be in the hands of coteries, and literature dominated by petites chapelles...It would be a feverish, bustling world, self-satisfied and yet malcontent...Men would go everywhere and live nowhere; know everything and understand nothing.”(12)

That was written over half a century ago, yet it seems all too appropriate to today’s ‘consumer society’. In Britain this ‘de-civilisation’ process has occurred despite (because of?) the Conservative Party’s hold on power for all but 17 years since the end of the last War. Dare we suggest that what is needed to restore genuinely civilised values to Britain is a ‘return to basics’ - a rediscovering of genuine British values, the values of John Buchan?


1. Memory Hold-the-Door, Hodder & Stoughton, (1940) p 40.

2. Ibid - p 116.

3. Ibid - p 129.

4. Ibid - p 140.

5. Ibid - p 172.

6. Ibid - p 174.

7. The Power House, Blackwood & Sons, (1916) Ch 3.

8. John Buchan Journal No 13. (1993/4) pp 8-10.

9. John Buchan, by Janet Adam Smith, Rupert Hart-Davis, (1963) p 471.

10. The Interpreter’s House, by David Daniel, Nelson & Co, (1975) p 129.

11. Memory Hold-the-Door, p 151.

12. Ibid - pp 297-299.

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