Was John Buchan a Tory or a Conservative?

Posted by Tory Historian Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Of course there can be no doubting of John Buchan as a Conservative. He was one of Lord Milner’s young men; he was a great Empire man, believing in its future as well as its past; he was, of course, a Unionist; he was Scottish Unionist MP for Edinburgh University from 1927 to 1935.

Beyond that he was a man who believed in public life, in ambition, in bettering oneself for one’s own good and that of one’s country. A son of the manse, he became a successful lawyer, writer, politician and, finally, Governor-General of Canada.

The question of whether he was a Tory or not arose in Tory Historian’s mind on re-reading the splendid “Huntingtower”, first of the Dickson McCunn stories. Mr McCunn is a highly successful Glasgow grocer, who sells his business and retires at the beginning of the novel.

Being an incurable romantic he decides to celebrate the beginning of his retirement by a jaunt and runs into remarkable adventures that severely test his intellectual and physical stamina. The adventures involve a Russian princess on the run from a particularly evil Bolshevik who had been a rather unpleasant Tsarist officer, the Tsar’s jewels (though this is a side issue), an English poet by name of John Heritage, Sir Archie Roylance, one of Buchan’s reappearing heroes, slightly lame as a result of dare-devil behaviour as a Great War pilot and, above all, the Gorbals Die-Hards.

The latter is a group of tough boys who live on the streets and survive by their wits until they are taken under Mr McCunn’s wing. Uncared for and discarded by society they show their courage, intelligence and superlative morals in the fight for Princess Saskia.

The novel, like many others by Buchan, have little time for authorities. The police in “Huntingtower”, as everyone keeps repeating are of little use and will arrive too late as they always do. It is up to the disparate individuals to win the tremendous battle with the forces of evil. They do so through steadfastness and intelligence, although they are severely outnumbered.

It is not society or the authorities who understand the goodness of the Gorbals Die-Hards but a particular individual, himself a grocer, a bourgeois, not a man highly regarded by the average Tory squire but greatly admired by Buchan.

Nor are the views about the Russian Revolution expressed in the book entirely what one would expect. The Bolsheviks are power-crazed criminals but the worst of them had had a bad reputation in Bokhara in 1912 as Archie Roylance makes it clear. He is simply evil and goes with whoever will let him exercise control. (Oddly enough, there is a note of compassion even for him.)

While Russia and Russians are seen as victims of the most terrible historical tragedy, there is a clear indication that Buchan and his characters feel strongly that the tragedy was brought about by the carelessness and thoughtlessness of the Russian aristocracy.

The man Saskia marries, the erstwhile Prince Alexis Nicolayevich, now Alexander Nicholson, an Australian engineer and budding businessman, makes it clear that he had left Russia because he was disgusted by the behaviour of his own class, going back only to fight in the War and then joining the Australian divisions. He it is, who explains to Saskia that Dickson McCunn, far from a figure of fun, is the real strength of a country and a nation. Russia will not become truly great until she has people like him. (Sadly, that remains true to this day.)

Interestingly enough, Richard Usborne, in his highly entertaining “Clubland Heroes” shows himself to be far more of a Tory than Buchan. In fact, he does not exactly like Buchan, partly because his were the “clean” adventure stories that parents and teachers always approved of but partly because of his tendency to write about outsiders who make good. Usborne prefers the upper class thugs of Sapper and Dornford Yates, characters who have long been forgotten, while in one form or another (usually the wrong one) Buchan’s heroes and heroines go on, appealing to generation after generation of readers.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. I recently read Greenmantle. The sympathy is certainly with the outsiders and those who work around the margins of the established powers of government. The depiction of a poor German family, during the war, amazingly, is very sympathetic and may be the most moving part of the book. Buchan was, it seems, a humane person whose patriotism was tied to higher values -- a belief that the Germans stood for and were doing evil things, and that it was right for Britain to try to stop them.

  3. Let me endorse Lex's comment about "Greenmantle". An excellent book, fully as good as the better known "The Thirty-nine Steps". I might write a really angry posting about various dramatizations of the latter. Grrrr.

  4. Anonymous Says:
  5. Buchan's sympathies seem entirely natural to me, brought up in a Scots burgher family. I suspect that an "average Tory squire" would have seemed as exotic to the young me as an "average Mid-Western tycoon". Not the "Tory", but the "squire", would have seemed odd. Nor was I brought up much to admire the "average" anything.

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