Neighbor to the North

By Black, Conrad | New Criterion, May 2014 | Go to article overview

Neighbor to the North


Black, Conrad, New Criterion


J. William Galbraith

John Buchan: Model Governor General.

Dundurn, 544 pages, $40

Admirers of John Buchan and his voluminous work--which includes The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, and other writings--will not find in this book much that broadens their understanding of him as a writer. But as the subtitle suggests, they will probably learn much that they never knew, because it has never been so comprehensively assessed, about his career as a public servant--specifically his occupation of the curious post of governor general of Canada in the critical period of 1935 to 1940.

Not many American readers, and not even most Canadian readers, would be aware of the evolution of that post. It began as a colonial governorship vested with effectively autocratic powers to operate the government and ignore the legislature, to (as Canada's contribution to the great political changes of 1848, which saw Metternich and Louis-Philippe sent packing) the constitutional chief of state with an autonomous democratic parliament in domestic matters, but a representative of the British government in foreign policy (i.e. with the United States), up to the Confederation and autonomy of Canada in 1867. Thereafter, the governor general represented the British monarch as chief of state in the monarch's absence, and no reigning British monarch set foot in Canada until 1939. Canada executed a long and intricate achievement of complete autonomy from Britain, while retaining Britain's unconditional guarantee of Canada opposite the United States, which as late as Theodore Roosevelt did not accept the permanence or legitimacy of Canada as a distinct entity (that is, distinct from both America and Great Britain). This was slightly parallel to the artistic American performance a century earlier, of persuading the British to evict France from Canada and then persuading the French to assist the Americans in evicting Britain from America. Canada was unfinished business for everyone, including the Canadians.

With the gallant performance of Canada in World War I--where it sent nearly half a million volunteers to fight although Canada itself was not under any threat at all, and it was an autonomous signatory of the Treaty of Versailles--Britain, Canada, and the United States were all friendly powers, and, as three-quarters of the activities of the British embassy in Washington were consumed with Canadian affairs, Canada took over its own relations with the United States and negotiated treaties with foreign powers completely autonomously. In 1931, the British voluntarily renounced any ability to influence Canadian legislation (and that of Australia, South Africa, or New Zealand), and the position of governor general of Canada was essentially that of substitute for a constitutional monarch, like the current president of Germany and Italy, except that they are standing in for deposed dynasties (the Hohenzollerns and the House of Savoy), and not an absent monarch who pays more residential attention to the United Kingdom than Canada.

This was the evolving position that John Buchan took over in 1935, after, as the procedure had become, the long-serving prime minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King (1921-26, 1926-30, 1935-48), persuaded the preceding prime minister, Richard B. Bennett, to recommend to King George V that Buchan should be offered the position. King was about to rout Bennett in the 1935 election and had known Buchan casually but cordially for sixteen years. King, as the grandson of an unsuccessful revolutionary, was pro-British but prickly about Canadian sovereignty, and while he would have preferred a Canadian governor general, as there have been since 1950, he was happy with an untitled British person who was a cultivated intellectual and a personal friend. John Buchan it was, but King George V determined that he had to be represented by a tided person and ennobled Buchan as Lord Tweedsmuir just before his embarkation for Canada. …

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