The Island of Sheep

by ‘Cadmus & Harmonia’, with Susan Buchan
At the Armistice in 1918 the most productive period of John Buchan’s life lay just ahead. Leaving the civil service aged 44 after war service in propaganda, he settled quickly into his peacetime stride, not just as the popular writer we know and love but as one of the most creative and energetic political activists of his generation. The foundation for Buchan’s extraordinary outlay of energy and ideas in this period lay in a little book. It appeared in late 1919 under the pseudonym ‘Cadmus and Harmonia’. Buchan told his American publisher that it had generated ‘a good deal of interest among political people’. However sales were disappointing when the book appeared early the following year in the US. There was wry amusement when a magazine called The Butcher’s Advocate asked for a review copy in the mistaken belief that it had to do with the meat business. This was The Island of Sheep.
The book uses a late-Victorian style of literary entertainment which was already well out of date by the 1920s. A house party of characters from all walks of life gathers to discuss the issues of the day. Buchan had used a similar device, which he called an apologue, a political statement dressed up as an entertainment, in The Lodge in the Wilderness, an imperialist tract which had appeared in 1907. Half the fun of it – innocent it seems in our more worldly times – is to spot the semi-portraits of famous contemporaries, many of them Buchan’s own friends and acquaintances from the war years. The Island of Sheep worries away at the problems of the post-war world, the collapse of Liberalism, the rise of working-class politics, how international relations will work under the League of Nations, and the role and definition of democracy in the modern world.
The book has no pretensions as literature. It is occasionally charming and amusing, but no more. The lack of that polished finish which generally characterises Buchan’s published writing is what I particularly like about the book. Buchan never wrote anything which reveals so directly the moral and intellectual basis of his own beliefs. He claimed that the book was written largely by Susan, his wife, and that his contribution had been ‘joining the flats’. Susan said in her own autobiography that they worked on the book together. This is almost certainly true, but that Buchan had nothing to do with the main ideas in the book does not stand up to serious scrutiny. He became deeply involved even before the end of the war in the politics of what is now called ‘the middle way’, the search for firm ground between left and right which avoids the anti-libertarian excesses of both. Repelled by the authoritarian style of the Prime Minister David Lloyd George, whom he had observed at close quarters during the war, Buchan embraced the practical possibilities of popular democracy. In The Island of Sheep he probes its foundations, subjecting its tenets to criticism from across the political spectrum as a way of elucidating its strengths. Fundamental to the conclusions of the book is the belief, which was anathema to most people of his class at the time, that the Labour Party must quickly gain experience of power. The instincts of the people should be trusted, and at the same time broadened by making higher education and culture accessible to all.
It was a radical prospectus for its times, but one with a future. The most successful political ideology in Britain between the wars, ‘Baldwinism’, was a compound of these very ideas. The Island of Sheep was one of its earliest tracts, and Buchan went on to be one of its main architects. Readers will note the very small but significant part played in the book by a character – the epitome of caring Conservatism in action – called George Stanbury Maldwin. No-one outside political circles had heard of Baldwin at the time the book appeared. For Buchan he already represented a tendency in British political life with a significant future in the post-war world.
Sadly this fascinating book is hard to find. Only the largest libraries have it, usually still hidden in the catalogue under the pseudonym of its authors. Book dealers treat it as a ‘rare’ book, priced accordingly. Buchan is largely to blame. He always refused consent for the book to be reprinted. In 1936, against the advice of his American publishers who still held unsold stocks of The Island of Sheep, he insisted on reusing the name for the last of his Hannay adventure stories. (In the US that novel appeared as The Man from the Norlands.) I suspect that this was a deliberate attempt to blot out the earlier book. It was inconvenient for there to exist in print Buchan’s earlier critique of American isolationism when he intended, as Governor-General of Canada, to close the gap between American and British views of the world.
Modern readers would never guess that an earlier and entirely different book of the same name existed. This is a rare breed well worth the trouble of tracking down.
Michael Redley, 2001