In his classic autobiography Memory Hold-The-Door,
published shortly after his death in February 1940, John Buchan, the 'shocker' author and historian, writes that history 'is a science, but it is a great deal more. It is an art, a synthesis rather a compilation, an interpretation as well as a chronicle'. With his signature and almost unparalleled ability to combine a rich, fluid and often romantic writing style with historical rigour, Buchan produced over 100 books, including some 40 works of fiction. The most notable of which remains the ever-popular 'shocker' The Thirty-Nine Steps
, which has famously never been out-of-print since its publication in 1915 and continues to sell over 10,000 copies a year.
In addition to his brilliance in fiction, poetry and biography, Buchan was an austere and dutiful public servant whose unassuming personality contrasted with those of his most famous characters and an active participant in the events and processes whose frenzy he was seeking to distil, to borrow from contemporary British historian and Buchan-enthusiast Peter Hennessy. As one of the earliest intelligence officers in the First World War, to his interwar term as Member of Parliament for the Combined Scottish Universities, to his final posting as Governor-General of Canada, Buchan was a pivotal figure in the politics and diplomacy of his time. In his relatively short tenure as Governor-General, Buchan steered the British Crown in Canada through the death of George V in January 1936, the abdication crisis that followed, the eventual coronation of George VI in May 1937 and Canada's Declaration of War in September 1939.
On the advice of Conservative Prime Minister Richard Bennett, Buchan was selected Governor-General by King George V, who died three months into his tenure, and was the first King's Representative to be appointed after the passage of the Statute of Westminster (1931) which gave Canada and its fellow Dominions (including Australia and New Zealand) constitutional equality with Great Britain. Whilst the Statute – which can be seen as the foundation of the present-day Commonwealth of 53 countries and over two billion people – is primarily recognised for its contribution to reshaping the macro-constitution of the British Empire, it also fundamentally reformed the Governor-Generalship, mandating that the Governor-General would no longer act as the representative of the United Kingdom's Government and would instead serve as solely the Sovereign's representative.
At a Canada Club dinner in London in May 1935 to mark his appointment – and held some five months prior to his departure for Canada – Buchan recognised the severity of the world situation, arguing that Canada would be tasked with 'help[ing] to stabilise the world' as 'the task of restoring a slightly lunatic world to sanity, of safeguarding the bulwarks of liberty and civilisation, must fall mainly upon the British peoples'. 'JB', as he was known to friends and family, also tasked his new fiefdom with pioneering a 'fresh economic and social mechanism' in the aftermath of the Great Depression, forecasting that 'its successful solution depends upon how far a nation brings to the task a disciplined spirit, a stout heart and a clear head'.
Buchan had been aware of Canadian national life since meeting Lord Byng, the-then Governor-General in 1924, but his speech at the Canada Club marks the start of his personal transformation into what could loosely be dubbed a 'constitutional Governor-General', with him seeking to be a figurehead who could subtly guide Canadian politics without interfering in its autonomy. Whilst the Governor-Generalship marked Buchan's first (and only) senior posting, he had already considered the nature of Canadian administration a decade before his appointment, penning a biography of Lord Minto, the eighth Governor-General who served from 1898 to 1904, concluding that a 'Governor-General in an autonomous Dominion walks inevitably on a razor-edge' with powers akin to those of 'a constitutional monarch, brittle if too heavily pressed, a shadow if tactlessly advertised, substantial only when exercised discreetly in the background'.
Eighty-five years ago this month, a little under a year into his tenure and a week after receiving Franklin D Roosevelt, the President of the United States in Quebec, Buchan embarked on a 'goodwill' tour of Western Canada. Travelling by train from Winnipeg to Calgary via Saskatoon, Victoria, Vancouver and the suitably Scottish Banff, Lord Tweedsmuir, as he had been ennobled on his appointment, was received at provincial legislative buildings, unveiled First World War memorials, and visited First Nations' settlements as well as opening the Canada Pacific Exhibition and overseeing Vancouver's Caledonian Games.
For the complex and undoubtedly patrician Buchan – who was born on 26 August 1875 and, typically for a man of his generation, pronounced Canada as 'Kenada' and happily as 'heppily' – the tour was an opportunity to visit 'small outland places' and remind disaffected Canadians that 'they are not forgotten'. As a dedicated naturalist and talented 'sportsman', Buchan was keen to 'do good' in provinces whose harvests had been 'completely burned up' for the fifth year in a row and stress the importance of safeguarding the 'assets which nature has given us, both in flora and fauna and scenic beauty' which he believed could 'disappear with tragic rapidity' because of 'the carelessness of one generation'. In a speech to the Vancouver Jubilee Exhibition, Buchan praised Vancouver's 'wonderful metropolis' which he believed possessed 'the noblest natural background in the world' and had the potential to 'become the strategic vantage point in the economy of Canada'.
Buchan completed official engagements and salmon fishing at Campbell River in British Columbia, and the tour allowed him a better understanding of the complexity of Canadian life and the country's disparate politics. In the first week of September 1936, in his monthly missive to the King written from the Governor-General's train which had stopped in Medicine Hat, Buchan reflected on the 'vigour and optimism' of Alberta, which he believed had 'acquired the tradition of an older land' by crowding 'an immense amount of history into its short life'.
As well as informing the King about the politics of Canada's provinces, chronicling labour shortages and unrest on the Pacific Coast and the 'chaos' and 'crude' amateurism of the first Social Credit Government in Alberta in 1935, the Governor-General also penned succinct and sometimes amusing accounts of Canadian settlements. At the tail-end of his tour in September 1936, Buchan reported to Edward VIII that Vancouver Island appeared to be an 'English colony', with Victoria – where he reportedly met a 95-year-old soldier wearing the Indian Mutiny medal – being a 'combination of Bournemouth and Cheltenham… chiefly inhabited by retired colonels'.
In addition to his industriousness – writing over 100 volumes in just 64 years – Buchan's most abiding and admirable quality remains his diligence and commitment to public service. JB's unassuming and austere personality, as well as his reverence for the dignity of the written word, may appear to be somewhat twee in 2021, but I believe that his example remains something for us to collectively aspire to in a polity characterised by apathy, waves of serial incompetence and a generation of lacklustre and lightweight politicians who have risen to the top.
His ennoblement as the hereditary Lord Tweedsmuir disguises his relatively modest Presbyterian background as the eldest child of a Free Church minister, lacking the 'grand ancestry and storied family', as well as the 'clanking chains and rattling sabres', which Janet Adam Smith argues characterised previous Governor-Generals. However, Buchan undoubtedly possessed one of the fundamental components missing from British politics today: what Mackenzie King, the longest-serving Prime Minister in Canadian history, once called an 'aristocracy of mind and wealth of imagination'.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly