- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 23 Oct 1924, p. 273-284
- Buchan, John, Speaker
- Media Type
- Item Type
- First, a word about British socialism. Difference from the continental variety. British socialism more an economical idea than a political creed. The British talent for compromise, with example. Characterization of British labour. The British Labour Party: nominally socialistic, but in practice only a very small number of its members actual socialists. The large anti-socialist majority amongst the British workingmen. British labour today representing far more a class than a creed. What the appearance of a Labour Government means. Remarks about this new class which has merged into public life. A characterization of its members, with instance. The pre-dominant type of man in the Labour Party a conservative. A typical example in his attitude towards the Royal family. The nature of this new class, one with the British talent and genius for politics of national patience and good humour. The imagination of the Labour Party. The Labour Party's acceptance of the Empire as a basis of all British policy. Some comments on the British Empire. Criticism against the Labour Party. The speaker's personal hopes for the Party, the Government, and the British Empire.
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- 23 Oct 1924
- Language of Item
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SOME NEW ELEMENTS IN BRITISH POLITICS
AN ADDRESS BY MR. JOHN BUCHAN, LL.D.
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto,
October 23, 1924.
PRESIDENT BROOKS introduced the speaker, who was received with applause.
MR. JOHN BUCHAN.
Mr. President and Gentlemen,--I feel it a great honour and privilege to be with you today. I have often heard of your luncheon clubs. They always seem to me the last word in hospitality, for at them you not only entertain and feed the casual stranger but you allow him to inflict his views upon you. (Laughter)
Your president has very kindly introduced me in words which are flattering. I ought to tell you that there is a very different and much darker side to that question. I remember when I was a candidate for my own county in Scotland. My predecessor was a young Etonian of most delightful manners but who did not know the language and the people as well as I did, and at a certain sheep sale an old shepherd, a strong supporter of mine, came up and patted me on the back. He said, "Mr. Buchan, we have gotten the right sort of candidate in you.
Mr. Buchan was educated at Glasgow University and Brasenose College, Oxford, (First Class, Lit. Hum.) He was Secretary to Lord Milner, 190103; on the Headquarters Staff of the British Army in France, 1916-17; and Director of Information under the Prime Minister, 1917-18. As an author he has many books to his credit. These include history, biography, poetry, economics, novels, etc. He is a barrister, and is a member of Thomas Nelson & Sons, publishers, and Deputy-Chairman of Reuters.
Your predecessor was an awfully nice man, but he was far too much of a gentleman and far too honest." (Laughter)
Now, having put things upon a proper basis--(laughter)--I am bound to confess that I found it rather difficult to decide what to talk about today. You see, if I were to give you my hasty trivial impressions of your great country, you would rightly regard them as impertinence. I have the fortune, or misfortune, to still have a good many different professions. So I was in doubt as to whether as a lawyer I was to talk to you about law, or as a kind of soldier to talk to you about war, or as a Scotch business man to talk to you about business, or as a kind of man-of-letters to talk to you about literature--but I think I will stay on that safer ground which is common to everybody, the government of our country. I mean "our country"--mine, not yours. (Voices: Yes, ours too)
I have an extraordinary privilege not to be a member of the British House of Commons, but all my life I have been compelled to be a fairly close student of politics.
I found when I was in the States a great deal of misapprehension existing about the present position in British politics caused by the appearance in office of the Labor party. I know that, of course, here you are infinitely better informed than those across the southern border, but I thought perhaps it might be useful if I gave you my impressions of the meaning of labor's advent to power and short tenure of power.
As you know, it is a thing unheard of in our history. It has had many immediate interesting results. One result has been to stimulate into politics many of the younger men. Three years ago the ordinary young man who, fought in the war would not have touched politics with a ten-foot pole. Today he is keen to go into Parliament. There seems to be more sporting interest, better chances, a wider horizon than under the old rule of the orthodox party machines. Then, again, I think that the labour ministers with their simple humour and their often unconventional outlook have introduced a very pleasant element of humour in our political life. For example, a very distinguished minister last summer announced one day that he intended to appoint a head of committee. Nobody had any idea what he meant by the "head of committee," because the subject had nothing to do with fisheries, but after he had been talking about this committee for a fortnight some genius suddenly discovered that he meant "ad hoc" committee." (Laughter).
I can assure you it is rather a pleasure in the House of Commons after the ordinary classic language of Oxford and Cambridge to listen to the full and interesting and honest dialect which you hear from the labour members. But the paradox remains; here is a government whose creed is definitely socialistic which has been put into power and maintained in power by two parties who abhor socialism. Moreover, here is a government which, in spite of its creed, has conducted affairs with very considerable success and very much in the same line as the older governments. If socialism is red ruin and the breaking up of laws, surely all this looks very like playing with fire.
Gentlemen, I want to say first of all something about British socialism. I think it is quite different from the continental variety. It is much more an economical idea than a political creed. I mean by that, that while a British socialist believes that things would be very much better if all capital and means of production were socialized, he has no very great zeal to put his creed into practice. He may hold this or that theory but before he takes action he wants to be very sure of his ground.
You know, the British people have a most astonishing talent for compromise. A very good example happened--you probably remember it--in the case of the Military Service Bill which became law in the beginning of the year 1916. When that bill was before the House of Commons, it appeared that the workingmen of Britain were altogether opposed to compulsory service. First of all, you had a conference of labour delegates who by a majority of more than a million discarded the principle. Then you had the South Wales Miners, who announced "down tools," who passed a "down tools resolution" to give effect to their opposition. Then came the miners' conference which by a majority of half a million instructed the miners' members to oppose the bill. Then came the labour conference, when the bill had actually passed the House of Commons. That conference by a majority of more than a million approved of the war. By a small majority it disapproved of the bill. By a quite a large majority it agreed that it would not oppose the bill once it were passed into law and by an enormous majority it instructed three labour ministers to remain in the cabinet. That is British labour all over! They cannot give up in a moment the fake creed they have preached on a thousand platforms, but they are practical men and Englishmen and they can recognize compelling facts. If they cannot formally discard their theories, they can neglect them. (Laughter)
I want to say something further about the British Labour Party. Nominally it is socialistic, but in practice only a very small number of its members are actual socialists. I believe there is a very large anti-socialist majority amongst the British workingmen. British labour today, to my mind, represents far more a class than a creed.
The appearance of a Labour Government does not mean the emergence of a new policy or even a new ideal so much as emergence of class. It means that a class that has not heretofore been used in the government of the country is now coming into power.
Now, Gentlemen, I think that a very admirable thing. No country can afford to limit its election of rulers to one small social circle. Social rank has nothing whatever on earth to do with public competence. It is as absurd to make a miner a cabinet minister because he is a miner, as to make a duke a cabinet minister because he is a duke, but if duke or miner has requisite talent it does not matter a straw which you have. (Applause) Every country has now and then to have a pretty wholesome breaking down of class barriers if it is to be properly governed.
What made the Elizabethan age! Not the grandees, not the historic families, but the sea captains of Devon, who were mostly sons of small yeoman and farmers. (Applause) It looks to me as if the soil in the national garden every now and then becomes exhausted and you have to bring in virgin soil. (Hear, hear)
I want to say one or two things about this new class which has merged into public life. The first is that its members as a rule are well educated, but as a rule, also, they are ill-informed. I mean by that, that their minds have been well trained but their actual knowledge of things is scanty from a lack of conventional education.
Take the ordinary labour member who goes into parliament and becomes a minister. He has specialized as a rule in economics-not the most fruitful kind of economics-and he has also had, usually, a very fine administrative training in handling the affairs of a big union. After all, that is no slight training. A man who does that has very large funds to administer. He has consequently complicated questions of law to face and, above all, he must know how to handle men. But this labour minister in power very suddenly finds himself handicapped with lack of conventional knowledge. He will find whole regions of information entirely shut to him. He will have to get rid of many dogmas and discard many prejudices, but he is extremely quick to learn, for, as a rule, he suffers from his ignorance, lack of information, and decision of mind. He has very little of what Plato called the lion's soul.
I will give you an instance. The late Baldwin government left behind them a Scottish Conveyancing Act designed to remove some of the anomalies attending real property in Scotland. Well, at first the labour members would have nothing to do with it. They said, "It deals with property, a capitalistic thing; we are not going to touch it." But my friend, the Scottish Lord Advocate, got them together, including the stalwart brotherhood from the Clyde, and for the space of two hours he explained the bill to them. They listened with intense interest; they asked the most intelligent questions, and in the end they gave him a hearty vote of thanks. When the bill came up in the House of Commons there was a most extraordinary spectacle. One labour stalwart after another got up and defended it hotly and described its critics as ignorant men who did not know a good thing when they saw it. (Laughter) The result was that a Conservative bill dealing with question of property was passed into law in the teeth of Conservative members and Labour opposition by the more extreme members of the labour party. (Laughter)
The second thing I want to say to you, this new class, representing a class rather than a creed, contains every type of mind, but I believe that the predominant type of man is conservative. It is perfectly true you have a certain number of dreary intellectuals who make themselves very vocal in the papers, but are wholly unrepresentative of the British workman and cut very little ice with him. The ordinary labour man is curiously conservative. I do not believe you will ever have much chance to see any real Bolshevism amongst the British labouring classes. (Applause) The Bolshevist wants to pull things up by the root. He is what the French call derecine; he wants to have no links with the past. The ordinary British workman wants to get his own roots down deeper-an aspiration with which I have every possible sympathy. He wants curative measures, as any man must, with the spectacle of unemployment before him. I think that on all moral matters his bias is really more conservative than the ordinary member of the Conservative party.
A typical example is his attitude towards the Royal family--the Labour party as a whole are enthusiastic about the throne. They are not sentimental about the throne--they have a sincere respect for their majesties. This is due to the extraordinary sense of strict constitutionalism of the king and queen. (Applause) Their majesties are persons who are understood by the ordinary man, and I think I may say that the ordinary man is understood by their majesties.
There is a story that the late Secretary for War, Mr. Welsh, when he was first appointed to the war office summoned a meeting of the Lieut.-Generals at the head of the army and told them, with some ferocity, that as long as he was in office he would tolerate no disloyalty to the throne. (Laughter) Now, the story may be an invention, but it is typical of a real attitude.
The other day I was talking to a distinguished Liberal statesman whoa like many Liberal statesmen, is rather contemptuous of those simple human relations and he said to me with some bitterness that the attitude of the Labour party towards the throne was not merely royalist, it was Jacobite, but I personally see very little harm in that.
The third thing I want to say about this new class is this: I think a very large part of the secret of the British talent and genius for politics is national patience and good humour. You remember Clarendon in the 17th century talks about their good nature--a good word which cannot be translated into any other language and scarcely practised by any other nation. (Laughter)
Now, just because the Labour party are so essentially English, I think they have a very large share of this good humour. They can laugh at themselves. They have not got the bitter asceticism of continental socialism, and as long as a man can laugh at himself, I am really not very much afraid of what he is going to do. I think you will find that humour everywhere, even in unlikely places. Even the labour colleges, which contain the most solemn intellectuals, are not without it. I remember being present at a Christmas entertainment at one of them, and it consisted of an elaborate and really funny parody of Karl Marx.
One thing more I want to say, the Labor party as a whole have imagination. They suffer from restricted outlook and very often inadequate education. A whole province of life is sealed to them, but once the doors are opened it is extraordinary how quickly imagination is to kindle. One result is, I think, that the Labour party as a whole may be said to have really accepted the British Empire. I do not mean that I may not differ--we all may differ from their Imperial policy. That is not the point. The point is that I think they have really accepted the Empire as a basis of all British policy.
Many a man, who in opposition used to rave against Imperial schemes as a device of the rich for obscuring social reform, is now enthusiastic for Imperial development. I saw the other day that the Bolshevist congress at Moscow had condemned the British Empire on the ground that it was pacifist and democratic. One of the very few instances I think in which Moscow may be said to have spoken the truth. (Laughter) I entirely agree. The British Empire is the best defence against their half-witted schemes, and I think British labour is coming around to the view, or has come around to the view, that the Empire is the cause of peace and democracy. (Applause)
As Imperialists they have a great Empire. They do not take things for granted. The Empire is to them a new discovery and they have all the enthusiasm of pioneers. I would far rather leave the security of our Imperial possessions in their hands than in the hands of some of the mid-Victorian disciples of the late Mr. Cobden. I would far rather leave India in their hands than in the hands of such a man. When Mr. Macdonald the other day was asked to surrender the Soudan to Egypt he gave answer which every honest British man would have given--"Not one single acre." (Applause) And, moreover, they do not take things for granted. They are sincerely interested, the best of them, in discovering the right kind of Imperial machinery which is necessary under the new and true view of Empire--an Empire of independent nations. I do not say that the late Secretary of State for the Colonies, Mr. Thomas, had not his faults, but I do not think that any man brought to his task a more practical, a more enthusiastic and a more vigorous mind since the late Mr. Joseph Chamberlain.
Now, Gentlemen, what I have been saying has been high praise. I could say a great deal on the other side. I altogether differ from the economic doctrines of the Labor party, and some of the elements in it, I detest.
The other day I had the honor of talking with the President of the United States and he said: "What strikes me from reading the papers is that our political campaigns are conducted here in a more gentlemanlike spirit than yours in England." (Laughter) I suppose he was referring to these constant reports of rowdies at meetings. Well, that is all very scandalous, but I do not honestly think you can saddle the Labour party, as a party, with those misdemeanors.
There is a great deal to be said against the Labour party. I am not going to prophesy about the result of the election, but I most sincerely hope they won't come into power with a working majority, but I do emphatically believe that their short time in office during the last six months has been a most fortunate and fruitful event. For one thing they can never again be a purely propaganda party. They know now some thing of the difficulties, of the intricacies of the practical task of government. In the second place, their coming has released for our benefit a great reservoir of new talent for public life, and in the third place, as I have said, I think the Labor party have definitely committed themselves to a sound Imperialism, to the view that the Empire is the basis of all policy.
I am speaking now not as a British Conservative but as a believer in the Empire, and that to me is really the vital point. In this great Commonwealth of Nations of ours, governments must come and go, and very often the government of one unit may be very antipathetic on some social or economic issue to citizens of another community. This is bound to happen. You cannot have true economic unity without real variety and difference. It is no real concern of mine whether liberal or conservative is in power in Canada, or whether labour or liberal is in power in Australia or whether Jahn Smuts or Jahn Hertzog governs South Africa--nor is it any real concern of mine whether Mr. Baldwin or Mr. Lloyd George of Mr. Macdonald is Prime Minister of Britain, but there is one thing of the most vital concern to all of us, and that is, that whatever party and whatever leader may be in power in any dominion or in the mother country, that party and that leader shall accept the Empire as a basis of all policy, and shall be fully resolved to do nothing to impair the corporate spirit or weaken the unity of our great British League of Nations. (Great Applause)
HON. WALLACE NESBITT: Mr. President and gentlemen of the Empire Club, it is indeed a great privilege to be accorded the honor of moving a vote of thanks of this Club to Mr. Buchan.
I had already known him as brilliant. I have always conceived that his two great attributes were lucidity and terseness from his writings-the two great qualities, to my mind, of any writer, and you have had an example of it in his speech today. (Applause)
A more instructive resume of British politics and of Empire needs than we have had given us today by Mr. Buchan it would be almost impossible to conceive in the short space of time that he put at your disposal.
When I said "brilliant" was the attribute to be applied to Mr. Buchan, I meant it sincerely. England at the present time contains, to my mind, some half dozen of people who might be called supermen, and one of those is Mr. Buchan. (Applause) In almost every field he has acquired fame. His writings on the subject of the war you all know. His descriptions I think will probably stand when history comes to be written as extraordinarily accurate. They were extremely interesting during their monthly or periodical publication. But, in addition to all that, consider what he has done in other literary fields. In "Green Mantle" he has given us a glimpse of the politics of the east and the mystery of the east. In "Hunting Tower" he has discussed Scottish life, and particularly that curiously interesting people to me, the life of the boy scout, in a way that no other writer has ever come near. (Applause) In his Mid-Winter he has given us a revelation of Dr. Johnson which to my mind has revealed Dr. Johnson in a more lovable attitude even than his biographer Boswell.
I need only say with reference to his view of British politics, I have been in England during the last election-was there all the time. I was there for a considerable time this summer, and I think he has given you an extraordinarily accurate picture of conditions there and particularly, I think, his just representation of the leaders of the Labor party. If I might add one word of comment it would be only this-after meeting members of the Labor party since 1902--I would say what I said to Sir John Simon in 1911--I think their difficulty is what I might term "localism." That is to sayas Mr. Buchan has put it--they are misinformed on many subjects, although highly educated in others. I think they will get out of that, of course, but I think their great trouble is that many of them were extraordinarily tinctured with the idea of localism,--their own little local questions absorb all their attention. I quite agree that their advent in English politics has been all to the good. (Hear, hear)
Gentlemen, I shall not take up your time more but offer to Mr. Buchan on behalf of the Empire Club our sincere thanks for his extremely instructive and extraordinarily well conceived speech today. (Applause)