John Barnes, Historian

Sir John McEwen, 1st Baronet (1894 – 1962)

McEwen became a diplomat almost by accident and saw his time in parliament as a public duty, but one which he appears to have enjoyed. He was a highly regarded figure in Scottish political and cultural life, and after he lost his parliamentary seat, was much in demand to fill various positions in Scottish public life.

John Helias Finnie McEwen was the elder son of Robert Finnie McEwen FSA DL JP, a Scottish barrister, but possessed of estates at Marchmont and Bardrochat, and Mary Frances, the daughter of R.H.D.Dundas. His sister Katharine Isobel married Roger Lumley, the 11th Earl of Scarborough, in 1922. John was born on 21 June 1894 and was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. He was still up when the war came and immediately went to France with the 5th (Territorial) Battalion of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. Promoted to Captain in 1915, he subsequently transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1916. He was taken prisoner by the Germans after a forced landing.

After his release and demobilization, with little idea of what he wanted to do with his life, he acted on chance encouragement to sit the Foreign Office exam and, to his own surprise, was offered a place in the Diplomatic Service. His first posting was as Third Secretary in Athens, and it was there that he met and married in 1923 Bridget Mary, the elder daughter of the minister, Sir Francis Lindley. This happy union produced six sons and a daughter. James, his heir, was born in 1924. After a spell in the Foreign Office McEwen was promoted to Second Secretary in the embassy in Rome in 1925.

The death of his father at the age of sixty-one precipitated his resignation from the diplomatic service and he embarked upon the management of his Scottish inheritance and two homes, one in Berwickshire and the other in Ayrshire. Persuaded to stand for the Conservative held seat of Berwick and Haddington in place of the sitting Member, who was retiring, he found himself in a three cornered contest and lost the seat to Labour by just 326 votes. Two years later it was a very different story and he swept home as part of the National Government landslide. He held the seat in 1935, but went down to defeat in 1945.

McEwen was always something more than a politician. He delighted in history, particularly Scottish history, in literature and the arts and his own ability as a writer was first displayed in a volume of poetry published in 1920. The skill and sensitivity of his writing were never better displayed than in his memoir of a deeply-loved younger brother, killed in the war, and he published a fine history of his own battalion in 1938. But he was better noted for his translations. Exceptionally fond of France and its literature, he found a great deal of satisfaction in rendering the work of Louise de Vilmorin and Francois Mauriac into English. Amongst his translations from the French, de Vilmorin’s The last of Villavides and The Tapestry Bed, Mauriac’s That which was lost and Julien Green’s If I were You were of particular note and they were followed by Gallantry, written in collaboration with a fellow Conservative MP, Sir Arnold Wilson. Three Scottish Ballads was published in 1941, There is a valley in 1950, and his play about James IV of Scotland, The Lyon of Scotland, was broadcast by the BBC in August 1951. After his death, his edition of the Fenelon Letters was published in 1964. The weekly Parliamentary sketch that he wrote for The Tablet under the pen name Litotes was pointed, but essentially kindly.

Regarded by his fellow MPs as a man of good judgment and singularly free from self-seeking ambition, he was thought an ideal choice to succeed Emrys Evans as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the spring of 1938. As its secretary, he had publicly voiced his doubts about the wisdom of appeasing Germany while giving his support to the efforts to get on good terms with Italy. While he thought the British and Italians had a good deal in common, to maintain the same of Germany was “a fundamental misconception of the character of that great and dangerous people”. His Catholicism caused him to lean to Franco’s side in the Spanish civil war. Later in the year he was made an unpaid assistant government whip and he was widely regarded as being close to Chamberlain. Nevertheless he remained on good terms with Emrys Evans who recorded conversations after Munich that suggested that McEwen had become “defeatist” and no longer saw any purpose in accelerating rearmament. It was a mood that did not last. He became a staunch advocate of conscription, but this does not seem to have done him any harm with the party leadership since  he was promoted in 1939 to become Parliamentary Under Secretary for Scotland, a post that he held until May 1940. He was asked by the Foreign Office to serve on the Council of Aliens 1939-40.

Subsequently he was brought back to the whips’ office in 1942 and served there until 1944. In December 1944 he was elected Chairman of the 1922 Committee. He enjoyed his brief time in the chair immensely and proved an excellent chairman, always in control but willing to let a whole range of views to be deployed at a time when the party, certain of winning the war, wanted to debate the future shape of Conservatism. His term of office came to an untimely end with his removal from the Commons.

 McEwen had entered politics out of a sense of public duty and he was not too dismayed by his defeat. He continued to serve his party in Scotland and was President of the Scottish Unionist Association 1949-50, but he did not contest the 1950 election. The same qualities that he had shown in parliament now prompted many demands for his services on other public bodies, particularly in the cultural field. Invariably when the suggestion was made, it was greeted with acclaim. He became a trustee of the the National Galleries of Scotland, in 1952, Chairman of the Scottish Advisory panel to the British Council 1953-7and of the Scottish Committee of the Arts Council in 1957. In 1958 He became a Trustee of the National Library of Scotland. He was still active in these appointments at the time of his death.

From 1957 until 1961 he was President of the Saltire Society and he was a member of the Queen’s Bodyguard in Scotland. His love of France took him into the chairmanship of the Franco-Scottish Society and led to his appointment as a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. An expert on James IV, he delighted in taking his guests to see the battlefield of Flodden, where he would explain the course of the battle. But he always wore his learning lightly and his conversation had an “enchanting lightness of touch.” Loyalty was a strong suit, and he was tenacious in both ideas and affections. However, he never let his convictions obtrude in his dealings with others, and he was always in demand as a good committee man.

Friends recalled with a chuckle his eccentricities of dress, the check cap, wash leather gloves and the inevitable camelia in his buttonhole, a garb that he wore both on the grouse moor and in the salon. Friendly, modest and with easy manners, he was cherished for his romantic imagination, for his profound understanding and appreciation for the beauties of art and literature, although they noted that did not quite extend to modernism, and for his encouragement of the young. As a close friend recalled, he had “the ability to make the world feel a saner, happier and funnier place.”

In 1953 he was created a Baronet, of Marchmont in the County of Berwick and Bardrochat in the County of Ayr. Although it was known for a year or two before his death that he had been suffering from some trouble with his heart and had had a severe attack the previous autumn, his death on 19 April 1962 came suddenly. He was only 67. An obituary appeared in The Times on 21 April 1962 and a further appreciation followed. He was succeeded in the baronetcy by his eldest son James.