James Buchan

The Scot who became more Canadian than the Canadians

By focusing on one man in John Buchan: Model Governor General, J. William Galbraith casts a clear sidelight on a dying British empire

Lord Tweedsmuir and President Franklin D. Roosevelt Photo: Time & Life/Getty

When John Buchan was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1935, the country was deep in depression, the western provinces a dustbowl and a quarter of a million people on public relief, while the prospect of war in Europe threatened great stresses in a newly independent country and its relations with Britain. Many or even most Canadians wanted one of their own and a commoner. They were given a Scot and a Lord Tweedsmuir.

In his four and a half years as Governor-General, Buchan/Tweedsmuir had to take care. Canadians, from Prime Minister Mackenzie King downwards, were alert to any sign the self-governing cominion was being put back ‘into any colonial status’. King, a fellow Scot who dreamed of sitting with Buchan at Rideau Hall in Ottawa and arranging the affairs of church and state, found his hero was ‘a Tory [with] a sort of royalty complex’ (King liked to be known as ‘Rex’ and was not immune to the second of those failings.)

Buchan’s friend, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, beset by a clamour for neutrality in old-world quarrels, could not openly consort with such a notorious imperialist. From across the water, Buckingham Palace disliked Buchan’s journalism; and as the King’s representative acting as ‘a publicity agent for boosting a particular dominion’, Buchan also had to discipline his romanticism. This was best seen in his plan to establish a secret society of 11 men from the pinnacles of Wall Street, journalism, business and politics to further British interests in the US or to slip down, incognito, to Hyde Park to plot with FDR. Above all, Buchan had to fight his own mortality.

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